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The Development of Gender Identity

Angela Oswalt, MSW, edited by C. E. Zupanick, Psy.D.

This article has previously discussed the process by which adolescents develop their own unique and individual identity. One specific component of identity development is the development of a gender identity. Gender identity refers to whether people consider themselves to be primarily masculine, primarily feminine, or some combination of the two.

Although often used interchangeably, the terms "gender" and "sex" do not refer to the same thing. "Gender" refers a broad set of characteristic qualities that distinguish between masculinity and femininity and includes personal attributes, social roles, social customs, activities, and behaviors. Furthermore, the characteristic qualities associated with a particular gender vary over time, and across cultures. For instance, at one time it was not considered very feminine to play sports; however, in contemporary Western culture both men and women play sports with equal zeal. Unlike "gender,", the term "sex" is a constant across time and culture and refers to a biologic, chromosomal determination of being either male (XY) or female (XX). In simplest terms, sex is biological while gender is sociological.

During early to mid-adolescence, youths' understanding of gender is quite rigid and stereotyped. As a result, younger adolescents will typically participate in more gender-stereotyped behaviors than do older adolescents. This means that girls will gravitate toward more "girly" activities and present an ultra-feminine appearance, while guys will lean toward more "guy" activities and present an über-masculine appearance. There are a number of reasons for these gender-stereotyped behaviors.

First, teens' bodies have changed so much during puberty that their bodies now begin to resemble adult bodies. Of course, youth like some of these physical changes, but dislike others. As a result may want to enhance the physical changes they find desirable or appealing, and downplay or conceal the changes they dislike. For instance, girls may enjoy shopping for bras that accentuate their new feminine figure, but they may also begin to use a great deal of cosmetics to conceal acne blemishes. Meanwhile, guys may be quite pleased with their new facial hair and relish their new shaving ritual, but insist upon spraying themselves with heavy colognes and deodorants to mask their new powerful body odor. Thus, some gender-stereotyped behaviors result from these efforts to "play-up" or "play-down" the physical changes to their bodies.

Second, because teens are becoming more interested in dating and forming romantic relationships, they will perform stereotypic, gender-specific behaviors in an effort to be attractive to the opposite sex. In general, guys tend to be attracted to young ladies who have feminine hair styles, feminine shaped bodies, feminine facial features, and feminine scents. Therefore, teen girls begin to spend a lot of time trying to achieve a feminine appearance by fixing their hair, applying makeup to emphasize rosy lips and cheeks, choosing feminine and/or revealing clothing styles, and wearing scented lotions and sprays to make them smell nice. They do all of this in an effort to capture the guys' attention. Likewise, guys begin to spend a lot of time enhancing their masculine appearance because teen girls are generally attracted to guys who appear masculine, strong, tough, and handsome. Guys may lift weights at the gym to enlarge their muscles, learn to play a masculine sport like football or skateboarding, and choose clothing they consider rugged and handsome. They do all of this in an effort to show the girls just how strong and masculine they are. Therefore, some increase in gender-stereotyped behavior results from these efforts to attract the opposite sex.

Third, during early adolescence, friends and families will influence how teens express their gender. Thus, stereotypical behaviors are passed down from one generation to the next. When fathers, grandfathers, uncles, older brothers, and friends tell youth what it means "to be a man," or describe what men are expected to do, this shapes youths' perception of masculinity, and influences their behavior. For instance, a father may insist that his son help his mother by carrying the groceries upstairs and he may notice his sisters are not required to perform this task. This teen might conclude that it is masculine to carry or lift heavy items for women and so he may volunteer to carry his girlfriend's backpack on their way home from school. Similarly, mothers, grandmothers, aunts, older sisters, and friends will tell teen girls what is "lady-like," which will shape girls' perceptions of femininity and influence their behavior. For example, a mother may correct her daughter for laughing too loudly, stating that it is not "lady-like" to guffaw. As a result, this young teen may learn to "giggle" in a stereotypically feminine manner.

The increase in gender-stereotyped behaviors generally peaks during middle adolescence, and then begins to subside. By late adolescence youths' gender identity typically becomes more stable, but without rigidity. At this point youth feel confident and secure enough to enjoy activities that interest them; regardless of whether or not these activities are traditionally associated with their gender. For instance, a boy who has watched his grandmother peacefully enjoying needlepoint may decide he'd like to try needlepoint as a hobby. While he recognizes this is a stereotypical feminine activity, he also recognizes that his enjoyment and participation in this activity does not diminish his masculinity.

Likewise, as young men and women become more secure and confident in their gender identity they no longer feel they must always present a perfectly masculine or feminine appearance. For example, young ladies may feel totally comfortable wearing jeans, tee-shirts, sneakers, and ball caps, even though this outfit isn't particularly feminine. By late adolescence youth have usually figured out their role in society, including their gender role, and they have established a secure and comfortable individual identity that corresponds to their values, beliefs, and interests.

This flexibility that youth begin to enjoy in late adolescence is indicative of a more mature understanding of gender; one that recognizes gender is best understood along a continuum, ranging from purely masculine to purely feminine, with most people falling somewhere in between these two extreme poles. Usually when people examine themselves and others in a more holistic manner to include personal preferences, physical type, interests, activities, behaviors, style, and personality traits, they will find a mixture of masculine and feminine characteristics that compose their identity. For example, many fathers can be described as nurturing and gentle, even though these are stereotypically considered feminine characteristics. As well, many women can be described as fiercely competitive and aggressive, even though these are traditionally considered masculine characteristics. Thus, as adolescents transition into adulthood, their understanding of gender becomes much less rigid and more broadly defined. Nonetheless, the majority of youth will ultimately identify with the gender that corresponds to their biological sex. However, some youth will identify with both genders and these youth are called transgendered; meaning, they crossover both genders. Transgendered youth are discussed in the next section.