There’s a lot of talk about gender in the media these days, and a lot of people are thinking about what it means to be a man or woman, a girl or a boy. But what does it mean to “conform” or to be “non-conforming” when we talk about gender?
Different societies come up with different norms for males and females. For instance, a lot of societies have a patriarchal background, in which context qualities such as “leadership”, and “strength” are traditionally associated with men, whereas qualities such as “submissiveness” and “weakness” are traditionally associated with women.
To varying degrees, many cultures also have different dress codes for women and men. For example, in our society, women are typically expected to be both more on display (with items like high heels and blouses cut to reveal cleavage, and make-up being the norm) and more hidden (with female nipples considered obscene, while male nipples can freely be displayed at the beach, the pool, or even in the park on a hot day).
It can be tempting to think of gender norms as somehow fixed and innate, but although women and men have some broad behavioural trends – men tending to be more aggressive, and women more nurturing, for instance – in fact, gender norms vary a lot, depending on the historical and cultural context, and can change dramatically in just a generation or two.
The rise of gender non-conformity
In Britain two hundred years ago, women who wanted to vote, to retain their property after marriage, or to work in professions such as a medicine and law would have been considered as gender non-conforming. When physical activities such as swimming and cycling first became popular among women, the clothing that they wore, enabling them to engage with the sports, were considered gender-non-conforming, as they displayed their legs and other body parts that women were then supposed to keep covered up. Nowadays, cycling, swimming, voting, and working in fields such as medicine and law are not considered gender non-conforming activities, because lots of women do them.
While men’s social roles might seem to have changed less over the years, the cultural norms for men have changed, too, largely in response to the massive social revolution caused by the incursion of women into the worlds of politics and business, and changes to the ways we run our families and societies.
To cut a long story short, what we see today as gender-conforming might be seen very differently in the future, and might also be seen differently in diverse cultural contexts.
If you are a woman or a man who enjoys behaviours and activities traditionally associated with the other sex, that’s absolutely fine. If we’ve learned anything, it should be that we must all be free to do as we like, so long as we are not hurting anyone else.
Some people experience gender dysphoria—which we will discuss in a future blog—which should not be confused with simply behaving in a way not traditionally associated with a particular sex.