A New Study Shows How Gender Stereotypes Hurt Kids Around the World

A new study provides a global body of evidence showing that rigid gender stereotypes imposed on children during adolescence can foster lifelong risks of mental and physical health problems. This is the latest development in a rapidly growing body of scholarship investigating the importance of having straightforward and honest conversations with children as they go through puberty and develop their identity.

James Carnes / Creative Commons

The Global Early Adolescent Study, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health and conducted by researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the World Health Organization, identified themes in gender identity development across countries and income levels. Their findings show that sexism is at the root of some key risks facing girls—and boys—around the world. While rigid gender expectations put girls at risk of child marriage, pregnancy and violence, they also increase the likelihood that boys will suffer from substance abuse and a heightened risk of suicide.

For feminists, this study may come as no surprise. Young people are constantly bombarded with the expected roles and expectations for two supposedly finite genders through hyper-sexualized images and binary-enforcing media representation—and the dangers of this rampant imagery have long been established, as are activist networks of girls fighting back to reclaim their representation. Past research reveals that saturating adolescents with hyper-sexualized images, such as those prolific in product advertisements and mainstream pornography, pushes teens to understand their bodies as objects existing for pleasure. This learned self-objectification can lead to increased rates of eating disorders, depression and sexual dysfunction, as well as relationship anxiety and lower levels of self-esteem.

Comprehensive early education that centers gender identity and health expressions of sexuality can be a pivotal force in combating these dangerous gender norms and expectations—but too often, the kind of education offered to young adults comes too late if it’s offered at all. “Adolescent health risks are shaped by behaviors rooted in gender roles that can be well-established in kids by the time they are 10 or 11 years old,” Kristin Mmari, associate professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and lead researcher for qualitative research on the GEAS, told CNN. “Yet we see billions of dollars around the world invested in adolescent health programs that don’t kick in until they are 15, and by then, it’s probably too late to make a big difference.”

Unfortunately, in the U.S. and around the world, comprehensive sex education is in short supply. Only 23 states and the District of Columbia require sex education curricula in schools; only 13 require them to touch on LGBT identities, and four of them do so exclusively to push negative stereotypes on students. In other states, a lack of regulation or mandated abstinence-only programs leave students in the dark—not just about sex, but about health relationships and gender roles. A small number of schools have voluntarily chosen to offer classes that touch on gender, but in other districts sex-segregated classrooms fly in the face of the law and reinforce dangerous and outdated norms.

Nicole Cushman, executive director of Answer at Rutgers and advisor to AMAZE, echoed those sentiment in an email to Ms. “This study demonstrates how traditional and often harmful gender roles take root early in life,” she said. “High-quality sex education has the potential to intervene in this trajectory if it begins at a young age. For sex education to be truly transformative, it must be inclusive of all young people—regardless of gender identity or expression—and it must provide an opportunity for learners to critique the gender roles they observe around them.”

This patchwork of policies and practices leave young people without resources that help them shape their adult lives, and studies like the GEAS provide useful evidence for advocates like Cushman to push for more. It is long past time for sex education to go beyond condoms, birth videos and scare tactics. Students must be encouraged to cultivate their own understandings of gender and sex so that they can live authentically—including being able to safely express, and explore, their gender identities and sexualities.

Taliah Mancini is an editorial intern at Ms.

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