Worldwide study shows we tell girls they are not as strong as boys and that their body is their most important asset.
From the United States to the Democratic Republic of Congo, girls around the world are taught that they are weak, vulnerable and that their bodies and physical appearance are their most important asset, according to It Begins at Ten: How Gender Expectations Shape Early Adolescence Around the World, a new report by the Global Early Adolescent Study (GEAS). GEAS is an ongoing collaboration between John Hopkins University and the World Health Organization.
“We found children at a very early age—from the most conservative to the most liberal societies—quickly internalize this myth that girls are vulnerable and boys are strong and independent,” said Robert Blum, director of the Global Early Adolescent Study based at Johns Hopkins University. “And this message is being constantly reinforced at almost every turn, by siblings, classmates, teachers, parents, guardians, relatives, clergy and coaches.”
For example, the researchers found boys in both New Delhi and Shanghai talked about being encouraged to spend time outside of the home in unsupervised exploration of their environment, while girls said they were advised to stay home and do chores. Shaming and beatings for those who sought to cross the divide was reported by girls and boys in both cities.
In every city but one, (Edinburgh, Scotland) both boys and girls were certain that it was boys who must take the initiative in starting a relationship, and that girls’ role was to look pretty to attract their attention. This focus on physical appearance and body was consistent across all cultures, even if it expressed itself in different ways.
“In New Delhi, the girls talked about their bodies as a big risk that needs to be covered up, while in Baltimore girls told us their primary asset was their bodies and that they need to look appealing—but not too appealing,” Kristin Mmari, DrPH, associate professor and lead researcher for the qualitative research at GEAS said.
Boys were also portrayed as “predators” in all cultures. Girls were instructed to avoid spending time with boys. These rules are enforced, through societal pressure, shaming and even physical coercion.
Under the guise of protecting them, girls find their freedom greatly curtailed. Every society has rules on how girls should behave in order to protect them from “predatory males.” “Don’t sit like that.” “Don’t dress that way.” “Cover your hair.”They were often not allowed to play outside or take trips on their own. This reinforces the narrative that girls are vulnerable while boys are strong and “independent” and denies girls the opportunity to explore the world around them.
The full study is available on the Internet.