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Gendered Societal Expectations of Appearance and Their Effects Upon the Individual Essay

It has long been generally accepted that we as humans are influenced greatly by the things that surround our everyday lives. These things can include friends, family, co-workers, the media and even society as a whole. The society in which people live can play a huge role in how they view themselves and how they view others. Over the years researchers have come up with many theories as to how and why society has such a large influence on people. Now-a-days there are appearance prescriptions for everything in our society.

It is not good to be too fat, but it is not good to be too skinny either. The way a person looks, dresses and acts is a large factor in how other people will think about, talk about and respond to them. These societal prescriptions also differentiate between other factors such as gender, race, level of education and more. Interestingly most of these prescriptions for appearance in society today are relatively unspoken until someone violates them.

This paper will attempt to shed some light on the complex societal prescriptions regarding personal appearance and body imaging; more specifically it will delve into how those prescriptions are gendered within society and how people respond both positively and negatively to those prescriptions. As previously stated appearance prescriptions are very strong in our society especially when it comes to societal expectations regarding gender.

These gendered expectations cause people to do all types of things for the sole purpose of fitting in to societal norms. Some women exercise religiously to maintain a good looking body, other women go tanning regularly because they think it is embarrassing, or even unacceptable, to be pale; there are also many men who do the same things for the same reasons. While looking good is not a bad thing sometimes these societal prescriptions, or expectations, can cause people to go too far.

When people are not satisfied with themselves and their appearance they can become desperate and have feelings of inadequacy about their physical appearance. These feelings of inadequacy can lead to depression or making destructive decisions which can include but are not limited to over-eating or even eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia. There have been numerous studies done on the relationships between societal pressures to be thin and body dissatisfaction among both men and women.

One such study, from the University of Texas at Austin that studied the effects of social pressure to be thin on women said that “These same pernicious messages (that one is not thin enough) are thought to foster negative affect, because appearance is a central evaluative dimension for women in Western culture” (Stice, 2003). This study tested what sources most influence societal expectations of appearance and the different ways those expectations can negatively affect women (Stice, 2003).

It concluded that some of the biggest social pressures to be thin come from the mass media, family members and peers (Stice, 2003). It also concluded that the negative effects of these social pressures can go in two different directions, this is not to say that women negatively affected cannot fall victim to both types of effects (Stice, 2003). A synopsis of this study could say that societal expectations to be thin often create body dissatisfaction within women (Stice, 2003).

This body dissatisfaction, which can often lead to depression, frequently leads to either restrictive dieting or binge eating. Restrictive dieting, while not bad in itself, can lead to unhealthy eating habits such as eating disorders, laxative abuse or other methods of losing weight that can be extremely harmful to the person practicing them, and binge eating “because it is commonly believed that eating provides comfort and distraction from negative emotions” (Stice, 2003).

A similar experiment, coming from the University of Toronto, studied the relationship between body image and depression among adolescents regarding adiposity (Chaiton, 2009). This study suggests “that body dissatisfaction may mediate the relationship between overweight and depression” (Chaiton, 2009). It goes on to suggest that the relationship found between obesity and depression is differentiated by gender because of the difference in societal expectations placed on women and men (Chaiton, 2009).

The study concluded that females experience body dissatisfaction almost solely when they believe they are overweight, whereas both males who believe that they are under or overweight experience body dissatisfaction which can in all cases lead to some level of depression (Chaiton, 2009). As the aforementioned study showed societal expectations concerning appearance can, and often do, affect men just as much as they do women (Chaiton, 2009). Our society pushes men to be big, muscular and manly. To certain degree the more muscular a man is the more attractive he generally is within society.

A study from an international journal regarding social behavior and personality concluded that the attractiveness of a man is more important in determining social desirability than the age of the man in question (Perlini, 2001). Comparatively the results of these two studies add up to say that the attractiveness of a man is one of the main factors in determining societal desirability and one of the biggest factors in being attractive is being muscular or strong. This puts a lot of pressure on males to be concerned with how they look in comparison to society’s expectations of how they should look.

There are numerous different theories as to why societal expectations differ between genders, but none that can definitively explain why prescriptions concerning appearance are the way they are (i. e. women should be skinny and men should be muscular). Some theorists take a biological approach saying that something within the genetic makeup of human beings causes men to be larger and more muscular and likewise causes women to be smaller and skinnier; therefore it is innate within human beings to prefer women to be skinnier and men to be more muscular.

Other theories use a combination of nature, a biological approach, and nurture, an approach that says how and where people are raised effects how they view the world, to explain why there is such a gendered difference in societal expectations. While still others use strictly nurture based theories to explain these differences. An experiment from Colby College testing the awareness of preschoolers to societal expectations of gender showed that by the age of five or six humans can easily differentiate between what society expects differently of men than of women (Raag, 1998).

Granted this study tested the societal expectations of gender based on toys (tools and dishes) and how the children themselves reacted to the toys as well as how the children thought others (parents, babysitters, friends, etc. ) would react to them playing with the aforementioned toys (Raag, 1998). On the whole the children were able to identify that the tools were for boys to play with and the dishes were for girls; the children also, with no hesitation, said that boys playing with dishes or girls playing with tools would often be responded to negatively by parents or babysitters or the like.

That means that while this study cannot shed light on the societal expectations of strength versus thinness it does give some credence to the nurture side of the theories mentioned earlier (Raag, 1998). In summation the societal expectations of appearance can have both positive and negative effects upon people. Society pushes for women to be thin, but not too thin and for men to be muscular, but not too muscular. Society pushing people to be in shape is not a bad thing; studies have shown that being physically fit is not only good for people physically, but also mentally.

When people feel attractive it boosts their confidence and self-esteem which has been proven to increase mental health. It just happens to be that some of the anxiety or stress put upon people to look good to others can cause them to do harmful things to themselves and others. For instance constant pressure from the media and other outside influences to be skinny and tan has led countless females to have eating disorders and go artificial tanning all the time, neither of which are conducive to being physically healthy.

Those same influences have led to countless males developing eating disorders as well to lose weight or even start using all types of drugs, that harm themselves and can harm, or cause them to harm, others, such as anabolic steroids or pro-hormonal supplements simply to gain muscle mass at unnatural and unhealthy rates. The best thing anyone can do to help society as a whole to resist unhealthy expectations regarding appearance is to spread awareness. It may sounds overplayed but awareness about a problem and the education necessary to fix or even just alleviate that problem is always to first step to solving that problem.

At the end of every abovementioned study the researchers conducting the study talked about the significance, or importance of that study, and every single researcher included somewhere in that section that raising awareness about the issue at hand was one of the most significant aspects to their respective studies. This is because being aware and educated about a problem is one of the most important and fundamental ways to confront a problem; especially one of this magnitude. This problem will never be solved if society as a whole does not become aware of, and change, how it effects people’s everyday lives regarding physical appearance.


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