How do we show belonging? Gender & Sexuality.

Gender & Sexuality

As much as the world wants to define it for us, we have our own ideas about our gender identity.  In general, gender is assigned at birth based on a baby’s sex. And, once assigned, the cultures of the world are off and running, ready to put into action every tool at their disposal – defining expectations for nearly every aspect of the child’s future life. 

In the beginning, the predominant paradigm is binary – pink cap or blue cap. The culture starts putting the pressure on – like the survival of the society depends on it. The world delights in boyish boys or girly girls. Non-conforming kids face a different path, often risking marginalization.

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Thank goodness there is more fluidity today, but the framework and traditions still run deep. Traditional roles and patterns that have worked for eons provide a good place to begin – a basic framework in which to grow until we find our own paths.

Whether we want to or not, we send messages about our gender. There is no avoiding it. It seems everyone feels quite adept at assessing the extent to which someone fits the model. We think that, once we know the gender, we can then attribute tons of cultural expectations onto that person. Shorthand. Stereotyping.

As teens and young adults, we want to become a walking beacon of coolness, the kind of coolness that announces to the world that we are ready to mate – to pair up. We know who we are attracted to and we want to present ourselves to them in a way that gets their attention. The problem is, at that age, we are in a sea of other people our age seeking relationships too. Oh, to be a peacock and stand out in a spectacular way!

We get the message loud and clear about how to be attractive – the ideal to which we should aspire. Everywhere we turn men, women and the LGBTQ community see those unreachable examples. These ideals tell us how to be wanted. How to be popular.

We find our spot along the spectrum from overtly masculine to overtly feminine. We might celebrate excess or feel more comfortable keeping our messaging quiet. It’s all good.

In this section we explore some of the cultural expectations related to gender that are ours to follow and celebrate – or not.

{Gender & Sexuality} in Appearance & Fashion

Our bodies come pre-wired to connect. They (we) are on high alert and ready to respond and build connections. But with billions of people milling around us, how do we increase the odds that we can find real connections?

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General Attire

In most cases, gender attire is highly differentiated. Although there are many exceptions, menswear is generally subdued and comfortable. Ready for action. Women’s wear is often colorful – and uncomfortable – clothes that expose or hide, shoes that limit movement.

Sometimes we find ourselves holding up a sandal, asking, “Is this a men’s or women’s sandal?” The truth is that it is hard to tell – but we feel it is important to know. Only the fashion designers know for sure – since they define it. And how crazy is it that men’s and women’s buttons are on reverse sides? How did that become a standard?

Workplace Dress Codes

You don’t find many fashion constraints in small, local companies, agencies or schools. However, in large, urban organizations, dress codes become more specific. For men, it’s suits. The higher the office the more tailored the fit, and the greater the cost. Suits convey that you are in it for the long haul – not subject to fashion whims. Straying too far from the norm can limit your opportunities.

Women have more options but face trickier expectations. The fashion industry puts constant pressure on women to be in vogue. Wearing last year’s trend is a risk. The real currency in organizations is power and power is often associated with masculinity. Dress too “girly” and you risk being seen as provocative. Dress in a more masculine way, and you risk being seen as pretending to be a man, which can get you marginalized from the women in your group.


Most cultures carefully establish guidelines around facial and body hair as visible means for expressing gender and group membership. For men, in many countries, the dominant expectation is to be clean-shaven. Even Olive Oyl sang, “I want a clean shaven man,” about Popeye. Like other cultural expressions, facial hair trends change over time. Beards are in fashion again.

Facial and body hair for women is a different story. Any excess is judged. Eyebrows must be groomed. Legs and underarms are to be clean as a whistle. In some cases, even other areas are “cleaned up.” In general, body hair is seen as evidence of being uncivilized – and unclean. A woman who doesn’t conform sends a message that challenges gender norms and she will likely be the subject of gossip and teasing.

School Dress Codes & Uniforms

About half of the schools in the U.S. have DRESS CODES basically defining what not to wear. There is built in tension for girls, facing societal pressure to communicate their sexuality while working within the constraints of school codes.

Over 50,000 U.S. schools have UNIFORM POLICIES, most showing radical differences in gender attire. Girls often have to wear skirts cut at the knee or above, which puts them in an unwinnable situation. Girls who appear immodest or flirty are judged harshly by peers and yet they have to wear uniforms where they risk exposure by simply going about their daily routines.


Hair is one of the most personal elements of appearance – and one of the most culturally defined. In general, women are encouraged to have long hair. It is considered feminine and provocative. In the U.S. there is a preponderance of magazines, posters, billboards using images of long-haired (sexy) women to sell everything from high performance vehicles to rum. The message is, “if you want to be a manly man and have access to women like me …”

Men are most often seen as short-haired in advertisements. The control of a military cut. Not fluffy. From the time we are small we are surrounded by these images and come to see them as “the way things are – or ought to be.” Normal. Although there is now more freedom of expression, stepping outside the norm in one or two ways can be seen as a ‘membership’ challenge. 

Faith Specific Attire

Attire worn by religious leaders is another story. It is in this domain that men celebrants often wear dramatic clothing – robes, headwear, adornment that identifies their status and their ceremonial roles.

Women, who are rarely in the faith hierarchies, are usually expected to show great modesty and humility. Heads and bodies covered.


In many traditions, over millennia, people have used make-up to design or amplify their features. As Desmond Morris explored in The Naked Ape, all animals have ways to show their readiness and fitness for mating. In males the displays are more likely to be physical – shows of strength and power. In females, it is more often showing signs of fertility and availability. Baboons give us a good picture of this. Ahem.

Although humans left these creatures far behind (no pun intended), we also face the challenge of finding mates. But in our societies, where we aren’t dependent on a rutting season, where we cover our genitalia, we still find ways to say, “Well, hello there.” Women accent their lips and eyes, giving their natural features a boost.

Jewelry & Accessories

Scroll through jewelry catalogs and most of what you see will be for women. A woman’s outfit can be judged as undone without the supporting earrings and necklace. A pendant that hangs too low or too high – or any items that look “cheap” are subject to ridicule. Women in the work environment face a firing line of potential critics – daily.

In general, men’s jewelry remains constant. They can wear it everyday. A watch and a ring or two – done. A man communicates status with his watch. Other men know its value.

Most of the money men spend on jewelry is to demonstrate to the women in their lives how much they are loved (and valued). The women who wear these gifts are communicating how much they are loved. So, unfortunately, men who can’t afford much can face derision from other men. Their manhood is put into question.

{Gender & Sexuality} in Music & Movement

We are musical creatures. It is like a rising tide inside us, making everything inside more fluid and connected.

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Concert Behaviors

Preteen girls squeal and scream as a group – a powerful bonding experience. They can get emotionally overwrought and faint from the excitement.

Male audiences are more likely to get the group experience by pumping their fists in the air – in unison.

In both cases these behaviors reinforce their connection to one another – a moment of transcendence (albeit the teen version). Anyone who stands in their midst and does not participate – may be seen as judging.  This won’t endear them to the group.

Rock Performers

In rock, male performers often play their guitars in a phallic position – legs spread, head banging. Female performers dress and move to emphasize their sexuality and fitness.

Their fashion choices push the limits, which often find their way into the main culture. (ie Beatles haircuts). Musicians can change the rules on what is considered gender appropriate.

Music & Gender Lines

Heavy metal, hard rock tend to be popular with boys, expressions of rage and roughness.

Songs about relationships and love dominate girls’ lists.

Body Language Around the Table

Cultures also define gender appropriate positions when we sit. Women are to sit up straight with knees together, using minimal space. Men lean back, display muted interest, legs spread – taking up maximum space. In subways, this is called manspread.

Why does this happen so consistently? It happens because there is cultural reinforcement everywhere. Can you picture a basketball player on the bench with his knees and feet together?

Cadence & Posture

How we routinely move through our days, the rhythms, our stance – are all informed by cultural expectations (stereotypes) of gender.

In the west, women have shoulders back, chests out and a walk that moves hips from side to side.  Smaller steps. Men emphasize their power with shoulders and head back and controlled steps. The phrases, “walk like a man,” and “run like a girl” come to mind. 

Should this matter? If part of a person’s unique identity is being a manly man, that person will likely double down – maybe even exaggerate – that difference. Conforming can serve two purposes – strengthening the bond with male friends and appealing to women who are seeking that attribute.

{Gender & Sexuality} in Storytelling & Language

Humans are blessed with an evolutionary advantage; we can transmit deep concepts and complex information to one another. Lessons learned over generations are passed down.

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Characters in Books

Many of our gender expectations are learned and reinforced by the characters in stories. This gendered behavior is often subtext – but powerful just the same.

In children’s books, even with female protagonists, girls still aspire to traditional gendered roles – ballerina, princess and fashion designer. Boys aspire to be scientists, farmers, chefs & zookeepers.

Parental characters are also highly gendered, with mothers primarily shown as the more active parent, caring and tending the children and fathers shown as less involved, often silly.

When children read these books, they are learning about cultural expectations – community ground rules. What gets ridiculed in these stories? Who gets isolated? Who wins?

Heroes & Heroines

For most of recorded history, heroes have been men. Taking the risks. Slaying the dragons. Being the protectors. That model is changing – gradually. Superheroes still tend to have enormous chests and muscles – and unearthly strengths.

Even toddler picture books remain highly gendered and sexist. And female protagonists are extremely rare.

Who are the role models for girls? Often it’s those who find love. Cinderella.

Conversations in Social Groups

Gender-specific social situations reinforce cultural expectations. When men and women split up (even if briefly) the conversations change. Belonging requires some level of participation. If you hang back too much, the group may start to feel you are judging – and you could be marginalized.

Stereotypically, men gather around the grill with beers talking about …..? Women, gathering where? Talking about what?

These gendered groupings can be powerful bonding experiences.

Language Used to Describe

Sometimes the difference is simple – like pretty, handsome, tough, sweet, lanky.

The sting comes when people are criticized about features perceived to be important to their gender. There are numerous terms for men who are perceived as weak or cowardly – the biggest perceived gender lapses. And women who are seen as not demure or not chaste endure a litany of slurs.

When any of these get attached to a person, it is hard to shake. The judgment precedes them – and can marginalize them from their gender group. This is society having its way.


Although good literary fiction is enjoyed by all, there are some genres that lean toward one gender or another. These differences seem to reinforce stereotypes.

Although not in any way universal, men often lean toward war and detective stories, science fiction and sports and women are more likely (way more likely) to enjoy romance, art, drama and self help manuals.

So, if a man really enjoys romance novels, he will likely only be able to discuss it with his women friends. Which – by the way – might be a considered ploy to differentiate and find love.

{Gender & Sexuality} in Theater & Ritual

Acting is not pretending. We act our age. We act like a manager – or a waiter – or a diva. We actively choose how we behave in our lives.

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Etiquette & Social Protocol

Where did the curtseys and bows begin? When did women’s averted gaze and men’s proud stance become the norm? Perhaps it’s the military traditions that have defined men’s disciplined posture and carriage. Perhaps the disabling attire women wore – tight girdles, large hoop skirts, teetering shoes and mile-high wigs – drove the need for help. Or the driving factors could be physical size and the carrying and nurturing of babies.

Whatever the genesis, our cultures make it clear what kind of behavior is expected from men and women.

Flirting or Social Roles

Men are often expected to be the initiator in relationships – asking women to dance or to wed. They risk rejection. Women are expected to wait and decide, possibly sending signals in advance to avoid uncomfortable situations.  They are constrained from openly pursuing relationships. And turning down a young man is not a pleasant task either.

Women who are more assertive, who feel comfortable initiating flirty relationships can be seen as a threat to the status quo – so other women may find ways to damage them socially. Rumors abound.

Awards & Ceremonies

Cultures love to reward behaviors that meet their expectations. Their heroes bring those expectations to life.

Boys often win kudos for strength, speed, athletic prowess or bravery – attributes associated with hunting or battle. Girls win praise for being pretty – or indications of youth, fertility and even domesticity. Yes, we’ve come that far.

Obliging the culture – giving it what it thinks it needs from you – is a strategy some follow with the belief that the world will feel sated and then let you veer in a different direction.

Controlling Emotions

Cultural expectations are quite clear related to the display of emotions. Girls who don’t demonstrate the right amount of softness or deference – and boys who don’t demonstrate enough control over their emotions – are often teased or shamed.

Having feelings is not the problem. It is about matching your display with the gender with which you identify. Too much or too little can bring pressure and marginalization.

Rituals & Ceremonies

Marriage. When it comes to love and commitment, old traditions live on. Think about the message in the Western tradition of asking the father of the bride-to-be for permission to propose. Fathers are the keepers, protectors and judges of who is worthy. The mother? Hmmmm. What does it say that the bride-to-be does not need the permission of the groom-to-be’s mother? Or father?  Of course people know this is just ceremonial, but there are aspects of this nostalgic action that reinforce old gender roles.

The proposal process still requires the “big ask” accompanied by an engagement ring, which serves as an indicator of the man’s financial status. Even couples who have informally committed to one another still want to formalize the proposal – to memorialize the event – to tell and retell the story.

Weddings also are highly choreographed, reinforcing cultural expectations of the marriage, even for non-conforming couples. Groomsmen and bridesmaids continue to be popular. Stag parties and bridal showers are almost universally celebrated.

Valor & Expectation

For millennia, men have been involved in the external world – hunting, defense and providing for the family. The risk may be high. Individual ambition and power are rewarded.

At the same time, women have been tied to the home world providing nurturing and care, tending the more intimate needs of the family. Women have needed to keep the family healthy and happy and that often requires putting their own ambitions aside. What is rewarded in women tends to be selfless, continuous care.

Of course the world is changing, but these expectations remain in our DNA. Women can still feel guilty for being ambitious and men can feel guilty for not being ambitious.

Family Trends

Mothers and fathers tend to coach and engage their sons toward the more masculine activities and chores, like playing sports or learning the basics of car maintenance – while encouraging their daughters toward more feminine activities like shopping, make-up and child care. These are hopelessly stereotypical – but I use them to illuminate. These roles are so deeply embedded that they are almost invisible to us.

Unless we don’t conform. Then we chafe under the expectations.

Coming of Age Rituals

Cultures from around the world celebrate a child’s coming of age.

In indigenous cultures, boys and girls go through challenges and experiences that bond them with the adults of their sex.  

Today, coming of age rituals are often associated with the family’s faith – and therefore conform to the religion’s definitions of gender. In some parts of the world, particularly in indigenous cultures, the ceremonies can be extreme – serving as harrowing transitions into adulthood. 

The World “Acts”

Babies are treated differently from the minute their sex is identified. People act differently, lower or raise their voices, hold them differently. The culture is preparing them for their assigned gender role.

We teach young boys how a boy is supposed to act – what he is supposed to do. And we teach young girls how to act like a girl. The world is alert to deviations. These role models can be hard to shake, even when a culture tries to introduce new expectations.  

We all can act. We all can learn and follow the protocol. Having predefined ways of handling situations can be good. It can bring order. But do we want to? Why should we? What’s at stake is belonging.


We all need time with members of our own sex. It begins early in families when the women and girls gather in one room and the men and boys move off to another spot. These warm and supportive gatherings help us see what being an adult really looks like. We feel their support for us.These connections can be strong and warm and fun – spanning generations. Young boys and girls get a deep sense of how the world works. The senior group helps – or at least tries to help. But, for those children who don’t conform to the norm, these gatherings can be fraught with anxiety. How much and how long should I play along with what the group wants? What will happen to me if I break with their expectations?

{Gender & Sexuality} in Visual Arts

We absorb images as fast as the eye can see, sometimes zipping right past consciousness. Just too much to process too quickly. We may get an impression. A feeling.

Read more.

Graphics & Symbols

ZAP! POW! High energy, bold colors, angular images are often used to promote boys’ toys and games as well as adult tools.

Flowers, rainbows, cute animals and muted colors sell girls’ toys.

Color-coded Genders

In many cultures, the importance of gender is magnified from birth. Baby boys are put in blue in the hospital, girls in pink, ensuring that even passers-by can tell. It is that important.

And it continues. Toy aisles for girls knock you over with pink dolls, pink roller blades and even pink shovels. The boys’ aisles – no pink – but lots of dark colors – black, brown, army green – and camouflage.

Because girls see so much pink in their lives, they often decide it is their favorite color. Everything they see tells them they are more feminine the more they wear pink. It’s a reinforcing loop.

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