A group of tween boys attended a recent workshop focusing on gender stereotypes
In new SheKnows Media poll, 76% of men admitted using phrases like "man up" and "be a man"
The poll also found signs men and women are rethinking what masculinity means today
There’s been plenty of talk lately about how dangerous stereotypes can be when it comes to the empowerment of our girls and young women.
For instance, the #LikeAGirl campaign, which took a hammer to the notion that doing anything “like a girl” should be viewed as an insult, has become an international sensation.
Less discussed, though, is the reality that our boys face damaging stereotypes too.
That was the motivation behind a recent workshop held by SheKnows Media, a leading women’s lifestyle media company.
A group of New York City tween boys ranging in age from 8 to 10 got together as part of the company’s Hatch program, which focuses on teaching digital literacy and citizenship to the next generation.
The boys were shown dozens of advertisements perpetuating hypermasculine stereotypes, such as images of men all muscled up and not wearing shirts. In one ad for a big truck, the boys heard the tag line “Can a truck change how people feel about a guy?”
Another advertisement, this one for a clothing company, showed a man from the waist down along with the caption “Wear the pants.”
“That’s a man wearing the pants so that shows that men are in charge,” said one of the boys, who’s 9.
What was clear was that this group of boys knew what the advertisers were trying to get them to think, but they weren’t exactly buying it.
“I play with girl toys and boy toys. I don’t really care which one is meant for boys or for girls. I just play with them. They’re toys,” said another boy, also 9.
“Man up” might mean toughen up and be unemotional, said another boy, who added that his image of what a man should be is completely different.
“If I were to describe the perfect man, the words would be smart, not judgy, and kind,” said the 10-year-old.
These boys certainly can’t speak for all tween boys, but their comments reflect what appears to be growing attention surrounding the use of gender stereotypes for boys as well as girls.
Seventy-six percent of men who took part in a recent online survey by SheKnows Media admitted using phrases like “man up” and “be a man” toward boys. Of the more than 1200 men and women surveyed from across the country, 73% said boys are most often described as “aggressive,” 69% said “strong” and 53% said “athletic.”
When the men were asked about stereotypes during their teen years, 72% said they became aware of physical attractiveness and 50% said they grew more conscious about weight.
The awareness starts even earlier, according to a recent analysis of existing research on kids and body image by Common Sense Media, a child advocacy group. It found that over a third of boys ages 6 to 8 think their ideal weight should be thinner than their current body weight.
“These are problems that are often thought of as problems for girls, but boys are just as impacted and they’re exposed to unrealistic body images,” said Ellen Pack, vice president of marketing for Common Sense Media, which is partnering with SheKnows Media to help parents understand the impact that media and technology are having on children.
“The proportion of undressed males in advertising has been steadily on the rise since the 1980s,” said Pack. “The same kinds of inappropriate messages that we’re giving to our girls, we’re giving to our boys too – that they don’t measure up, that they’re not adequate.”
At the same time, there does appear to be more open-mindedness on what being masculine means to men and boys today, based on the poll’s findings.
Of the men surveyed by SheKnows, 78% said it was OK for boys to cry, 65% thought it was fine for boys to wear pink, and 55% of men said boys should be able to play dress-up.
“You should be able to do your own things and do what you want,” said one of the boys, who is 8.
The takeaway for parents is that they, more than anyone or anything else, influence the stereotypes their boys will encounter and what impact those stereotypes will ultimately have on them.
“We found the single most significant driver of their perception of what’s OK for boys was their parents,” said Samantha Skey, chief marketing officer for SheKnows Media.
“It wasn’t pop culture or Adam Levine or Usher. It was their parents,” she said. “If their parents think they’re strong and appropriately masculine, then they are. Period.”
Pack, of Common Sense Media, says parents should be talking about the issue to their boys when they are young, even as young as 5, and should call out stereotypes when they see them.
“Don’t just turn your eyes. Use it as an opportunity to engage in a conversation with your kids and challenge assumptions,” Pack said. “When you are seeing things on TV that you think are unrealistic, point it out.”
I, for one, wish we could wipe out “be a man” and “man up” from all of our vocabularies.
But, actually, why do we need to remove the language? We just need to change what it means.
The tweens involved in the Hatch workshop offer some real-life evidence that that may be already happening.
“When you go your own way, it feels good because you feel free and you can do what you want to do, and you don’t have to do what other people say,” one of the boys said.