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Recognize and question gender stereotypes to protect young women’s mental health

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Recognize and question gender stereotypes to protect young women’s mental health

Gender stereotypes create barriers that can prevent people from reaching their true potential. It can create a lot of harm and lead to mental health problems. The stereotypes are simplistic over-generalizations or preconceived ideas about gender attributes, differences and roles of individuals or groups in society. Stereotypes such as boys are strong and girls are weak, boys play with trucks and girls with dolls, start very early. Every day our girls could be encountering these messages from parents, peers, media and institutions.

In Canada, various surveys conducted nationally and provincially, indicate that more girls aged 10-17 are hospitalized for mental disorders than boys the same age. According to data released by Statistics Canada in 2017, suicide among teen girls and young women is on the rise, while male suicide in the same age group declined. Prevalence of higher rates of depression and self-harm in girls among racialized communities, aboriginal population and immigrants also suggest the vulnerabilities and multiple layers of oppression experienced by them.

Stereotypical expectations not only reflect existing differences, but also impact the way men and women define themselves and are treated by others. Globally, the negative and oppressive impact of gender stereotypes on girls can make them victims of gender-based violence, early marriages, teen pregnancies, among other things, and lead to poor physical health and mental health problems.

Here are three stereotypes that are particularly damaging to emotional well-being and suggestions on how to deal with them.

  1. Girls as emotional:

There are differences in how girls and boys express their emotions; however, the stereotype that girls are emotional can lead parents to dismiss the emotional outbursts and mood swings experienced as attention seeking.

It is important that parents and professionals listen carefully, and adequate, early attention and proper treatment is prescribed without maintaining the implicit bias that emotions are not to be taken seriously. Teach them to express themselves in healthy ways.

  1. Girls as vulnerable and weak:

When girls are perceived as vulnerable, families can end up restricting their freedom, mobility and access to various activities and skills. As they attain puberty, the notion becomes more deep-rooted and sex segregation is promoted with the aim of preserving a girl’s sexuality and protection from violence.

Communities should realize that empowering girls and providing them with the tools to support themselves, take risks and communicate their feelings effectively is important for them to be able to engage fully in society. Encourage girls to be physically active, participate in sports and and groups such as Girl Guides of  Canada to connect and develop self-esteem and strength to stand up for themselves. What they learn is what they will pass on to future generations.

  1. Girls as objects valued for their looks:

Extensive stereotyping as perpetuated by media and community about the desirable feminine look puts intense pressure on girls to look pretty. Hyper sexualization and objectification of women in TV shows, music videos, social media and advertisements encourages a passive culture of tolerance for exploitation and violence against women. When victims experience feelings of shame, self-loathing and reduced self-esteem it may result in eating disorders, anxiety, depression and self-harm.

Introduce the girls in your community to powerful female role models. Help them to explore other healthy ways of coping and encourage them to speak up when they are not comfortable. Strengthen their identities and create safe spaces.

In my work with immigrant girls referred for emotional issues, relationship problems and school-related concerns, I have had the opportunity to see firsthand, the role of gender stereotypes in shaping their beliefs, attitudes and self-concept. Pressures to conform, bullying and shaming for non-conforming can push many girls to withdraw, get frustrated and resort to poor decision-making.

There are number of complex factors that interact and contribute to mental health problems in girls and gender stereotypes put them at specific mental health risks.

We need to recognize and question these stereotypes as early as possible to help our girls achieve their true potential. Studies have shown that these generalizations are internalized by children as early as age 10. We have to teach them to value themselves and develop authentic personalities early in life. This will help them develop their personal abilities and pursue career paths in line with their interests, even if it doesn’t align with traditional expectations.

In addition to empowering girls through workshops and education on various topics, ongoing parent education workshops on gender norms and gender-based violence can be facilitated to support and promote wellness and change.

Change needs to happen at all levels and systems. But, parents, it starts from us.

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