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7.1: Gender Identity and Body Image

Difficulty Level: At Grade Created by: CK-12
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How do you see yourself physically and psychologically?

Your identity refers to the characteristics that distinguish you as you. It is the answer to the question, “Who am I?” These characteristics include physical features, interests, personality, ethnic origin, your gender, and so on. One of your most distinguishing personal characteristics is being male or female. A child learns this distinction by age two or three and will be very unhappy if you make a mistake about it!

“I used to think boys were gross. Now, I don't mind them so much.”


A person's sex refers to being male or female. Currently, the word gender is also often used to mean male or female. However, scientists use “sex” and “gender” to mean different things. In this case, sex refers to the biological differences between men and women, or what makes them male and female, such as their genes, hormones, genital organs, secondary sexual characteristics, and some other aspects of their bodies. These biological differences constitute the sex of the person.

Men and women, however, also differ in other ways than the shape or functions of their bodies. Gender refers to the differences in their feelings, thoughts, and behavior, things that make males masculine and females feminine.

Did You Know?
The word role originally referred to a small wooden roller around which was wrapped the actor's script. The idea of a role comes from the theater where an actor enacts a role according to a script.

Biology determines sex differences between male and female bodies. Bodies are basically the same in all cultures, but gender differences are largely shaped by your social and cultural groups. There are two important parts to gender: gender identity, how you see yourself as masculine or feminine, and gender role, how society expects you to behave because of being male or female. Like two sides of a coin, they are different but closely linked.

Figure 6.1 Development of gender identity.

What Do You Think?
Can girls and boys be different in some ways yet be treated as social equals?

What you think and feel about yourself as being male or female, as well as being masculine or feminine, defines your sense of gender identity. We are not sure at this time how and when the sense of gender identity gets “fixed.” Some researchers think that gender identity is shaped by biology, perhaps by the effects of hormones before birth. Gender identity then undergoes further changes during puberty, at which point hormones again play a defining role.

Other scientists think gender identity is learned in childhood and is set by age three. From early childhood on, boys and girls are socialized, by the expectations of others, to think of themselves in certain ways. Consciously or not, parents, other adults, and your friends treat you in certain ways depending on your sex. So some researchers believe it is not biology, but social expectations that determine what it means to be masculine or feminine.

Most likely, both biological and social factors determine gender identity, as shown in Figure 6.1. In this model, males and females start with some biological differences that are then exaggerated by learning and socialization about what it means to be masculine or feminine.

What Do You Think?
Can you think of any social scripts that tell us how to behave in certain social situations? How do gender role expectations affect you in adolescence?

How does puberty influence your gender identity? Children already know that the genital organs of boys and girls are different. But before puberty, with clothes on, boys and girls don't look that different, especially if they have similar hairstyles. As you mature during puberty, the differences become more obvious as the secondary sexual characteristics develop and clearly distinguish who is male and who is female. These differences are further exaggerated by the way boys and girls dress, cut their hair, and by all the other signals they give about being male or female.

Differences in appearance represent only part of the picture Gender identity is how a person thinks of himself or herself as a boy or girl. An important part of gender identity is how people expect you to behave, how society defines your gender role.

Activity 6-1: Gender Differences


Not all little boys like trucks, and not all little girls like dolls. However, in our society, as well as in most other cultures, there seem to be some activities and interests that are often considered more “male” and others that are often considered more “female.” In this activity you try to identify those differences and discuss whether or not the differences are a result of “nature” (the way you are biologically) or “nurture” (the way you are raised to be).


  • Activity Report


Step 1 Think about the five things you are most likely to do for fun when you have a choice.

Step 2 Your teacher will give you an Activity Report that already lists some ideas. If what you like to do is on the list, circle it. If not, add what you like to do to the list.

Step 3 Compile a class list using everyone's additional choices.

Step 4 Then take a vote to see how many boys and how many girls enjoy or participate in each of the activities when they can.

Step 5 Study the answers and identify any activities that have a high percentage of boys or a high percentage of girls interested in them. Are there any activities that seem to be equally of interest to girls and boys?

Step 6 Have the boys talk about why they like their favorite activity and how and when they learned to like it. Have the girls do the same thing.

Step 7 Find out if there are any girls who would like to do the activity that the boys enjoy, but have been hesitant because “the boys do the activity.” Find out if there are any boys who have an interest in doing one of the activities that the girls enjoy, but have been reluctant because “the girls do the activity.”

Step 8 Discuss the following questions:

a. Why should it matter if you're a boy or a girl when you're choosing something to do for fun?

b. Do you think boys and girls get teased if they do activities that most of the other members of their sex do not do? Why?

c. Do you think it's harder for a girl to do a traditionally “boy” activity, or for a boy to do a traditionally “girl” activity?

Step 9 GIRLS: As a group, plan a “girl” activity that you can teach the boys to do.

BOYS: As a group, plan a “boy” activity that you can teach the girls to do.

Your teacher will let you know how and when you will carry out these activities.

Debate! If women can choose to stay at home to raise the kids or develop a career, men should have the same choice.

What Are Gender Roles?

How you are expected to behave in a given situation because of being male or female defines your gender role. We are taught various social “scripts” that tell us how to behave as boys or girls or as men and women.

The fact that boys generally are larger and more aggressive leads them to play different games. In the past, it led them into a different set of roles, such as becoming hunters or warriors. Girls, on the other hand, learned skills having to do with food preparation and child rearing.

What Do You Think?
Why is it that girls are now raised to be anything they want-from housewives to presidents-yet most boys are raised to develop some career? Why are men, but not women, subject to the military draft? Think about other examples of differences in roles and expectations for men and women. Are they set by “nature,” or by “culture”? Do you agree or disagree with the examples you find?

In modern, industrialized societies such as ours, many of these differences have disappeared. In virtually all types of work, including the armed forces, you can now find women as well as men. However, women and men are not always in equal numbers, doing the same jobs, or getting paid the same salary. The idea of “channeling” men and women into different directions is still very much with us. The issue of gender role has become very important in recent years. For instance, our society now has a sex-discrimination law that says that men and women cannot be denied access to jobs, areas of study in school, sports, or other life opportunities on the basis of their sex. Making sex discrimination illegal has helped women achieve success in many areas that were previously closed to them.

Aggression, Expression, and Gender

Many emotions become more intense during puberty, including sexual urges, aggression, and emotional expression.

Aggression has two separate meanings. In one sense, it means to be assertive, to be active, to be bold, to take the initiative, to persist. In another sense, it means to attack, fight, conquer, and cause pain.

Aggressive behavior in both senses of the word and in both sexes increases after puberty, but especially among boys. Think of the sports and games that adolescent boys play, and how they play them compared to children. Teenage boys will be more likely to shove and push each other about than they would have as children.

Who says so? Name three sources of information about how you are supposed to behave, besides your family, friends, or peer group. Rank them according to how much these sources influence you. Share them with your small group or class, then decide as a class who holds the most power in social leadership.

The aggressive acts of boys in a hostile or destructive sense increase sharply after puberty. Of all those arrested for serious crimes, 16% are boys under 18 years; 5% are younger than 15. Boys age 18 and younger are responsible for 40% of all car thefts, 30% of other thefts, 13% of serious assaults, 14% of rapes, and 11% of murders of different types.

Girls show increased aggression in the first sense of the word-with respect to taking initiative, being active, and persisting. But girls show much less aggression in the form of physical violence. Girls commit very few violent crimes.

What Do You Think?
Think of a situation in which you “flew off the handle.” How has an act of emotionality or aggressiveness hurt those around you unnecessarily? What could you say or do to improve the situation, or repair the damage?

Why should there be an upsurge of aggression at puberty and why should boys and girls be different in this respect? One could argue that children are aggressive, and then at puberty they get bigger and can do more harm. Being bigger and stronger may contribute to increased aggression, but it does not seem to be the whole explanation. It is as if an aggression drive, like the sexual drive, becomes “awakened.” Some people believe increased levels of testosterone cause this behavior change, but so far, studies have failed to confirm a connection in either boys or girls.

If biology is not the answer, we must consider other factors. Cultural differences also play an important role. Societies, including ours, have very different expectations as to how males and females should behave, especially with respect to aggressive behavior. These expectations begin to shape how boys and girls behave early in life.

What Do You Think?
If in the United States aggression is largely culturally linked, should we as a society try to change our parenting styles? What positive side of aggression might we want to still keep?

Studies of adolescents in different cultures show important differences in levels of aggression. For example, American youth are more likely to act aggressively than young people in Asian countries, Within the United States itself, aggressive behavior may vary in different groups within the population. Even in your own classroom, some students are more likely to be aggressive than others are. Such differences between individuals are easier to explain on the basis of socialization, learning, and family background, while biological factors may play a role in more general differences between males and females even though these too are likely to be influenced by social factors.

Like aggression, emotional expression increases significantly during puberty. Adolescent boys and girls often experience mood swings. They seem happy one moment and then sad the next. They get enthusiastic over a project, only to lose interest the next day. They may “fly off the handle” and bang doors but then simmer down as if nothing had happened. Of course, not all adolescents behave this way all of the time.

It's Never Too Late At some time in our lives, most of us have done things in anger that we regret. Take the time to write a letter or call someone to whom you owe an apology, even if you are apologizing for something that took place a long time ago. That person will feel better and so will you.

Emotional expression is also a function of gender roles and culture how boys and girls are taught to behave. In this country, boys seem to have no trouble losing their temper, but they are not “supposed” to cry if they feel sad. Girls may be more likely to cry when sad, angry, or frustrated rather than lose their temper.

Again, researchers are unable to pinpoint why emotional expression differs between the sexes and what causes an upsurge in expression during puberty. Issues about gender roles and gender behavior make up only one part of the scientific exploration of nature (biology) versus nurture (how you are raised).

Activity 6-2: Behavior Differences


Not all little boys run around and tackle their friends. Not all little girls sit quietly and smile. These descriptions are stereotypes, and they may be very different from the way that boys and girls around you behave. However, in every society there seem to be some behaviors that we tend to identify more with one sex or the other. In this activity you identify those behaviors and talk about why you think they seem to be linked more to one sex than the other in this culture.


  • Activity Report


Step 1 Your Activity Report has a list of questions about behaviors. Think about how you would answer these questions about yourself. Write a brief description of your own behavior. You don't need to answer all the questions, but use them as a guide to describe the way that you are. For example, you might say, “I am shy around groups but talk a lot to my friends. I listen carefully and . . .”

Step 2 Your teacher will place you in a same-sex group. Look at the questions again with your group and see if you can make any generalizations about the way members of your sex behave in these situations by comparing your descriptions. Remember that individuals may behave very differently than the majority. For example, your group might decide that “Most girls like to be with their friends. They pay attention to how their friends are feeling,” even though one girl in the group feels and behaves differently. Then talk about how you see members of the opposite sex behaving in response to these same questions.

Step 3 As a group, write a paragraph, or make a list, of ways that boys behave differently than girls. Then write a second paragraph or list about ways that girls behave differently than boys.

Step 4 Compare the group answers. Do girls say that they behave the same way that boys think that they behave? Do boys say that they behave the same way that girls think that they behave? Do both groups see a difference in the ways that boys and girls behave?

Step 5 As a class, discuss the following questions:

a. What do you think causes the differences in behavior?

b. Do you think these differences are “built-in” or taught?

c. Are some behaviors viewed as “negative” and others as “positive”?

d. If a boy behaved in ways that fit the description of girl behavior, would this be a problem? What if girls behaved in a way that described “boy” behavior? Is one type of behavior right and the other wrong, or are they just different?

e. Would boys and girls in your parents' generation have answered the questions for this activity and the previous activity about interests the same way that your class did? Are boys' and girls' interests and behaviors more alike or more different than they used to be? What changes have there been?

f. What sorts of laws or rules should we have in schools and at work so that people are treated fairly and equally, regardless of sex and gender?

Step 6 Your teacher will divide you into small mixed-sex groups.

Step 7 Your task will be to develop a set of behaviors that you think ALL people should follow, regardless of their sex. It might involve some of the characteristics you've described for males and some that you've described for females.

Step 8 Compare and combine your group lists to come up with a final class list called, Ways That Human Beings Should Behave.

What are some ways teenagers can control aggressiveness? If aggressive behavior is directed at you, what are some ways you can deal with it?

What Do You Think?
Sometimes when boys act aggressively, it is excused with the expression, “Boys will be boys,” Based on what you are learning, how do you feel about this statement?

You and Your Body

Our bodies change constantly. These changes are so slow that we hardly notice them. When we grow fast in childhood, we seem to adjust naturally. But during puberty, when our bodies change rapidly, we feel more self-conscious.

So many changes in such a short period of time require adjustment, or adaptation. Do you remember the last time you put on a new shirt or blouse? Maybe you liked it right away and could not wait to show it to your friends. Or maybe you felt less sure about how it looked and whether or not your friends would like it.

If you decide a shirt is not right for you, you can always exchange it or give it away. Unlike a shirt, you cannot undo the changes brought about by puberty. Therefore, you have to get used to these changes and accept them. Through adaptation, our feelings and our thoughts change to fit the changes taking place in our bodies.

What Do You Think?
  • What makes change stressful? How does anticipated change (going to high school) differ from unanticipated change (getting sick)?
  • How do biological changes (puberty, aging) differ from social changes (moving and making new friends, getting fired, financial stress)?

The process of adaptation is not always easy. Nor is it something you have to do only once. Our bodies keep changing, and we have to keep adapting to these changes year after year for the rest of our lives. One of the hardest times is early in puberty when the development of secondary sexual characteristics begins, and you feel self-conscious about how you look. Although most young people manage to get used to their changing bodies without much difficulty, adaptation to the changes of puberty, especially when they make a person feel different, is a challenge for everyone.

All adolescents have feelings about being different, different from what they were as children or different from one another. Many young people feel a strong need to be like one another and to be accepted by their peers, those alike in age or grade level. Accepting differences within oneself and among others can be a real challenge.

In this section we will discuss some of the reasons it may be hard to feel different and to feel change happening-the fear of the unknown and the fear of being different.

Changes Happen Around You, Too Look around you-at your classroom, your school, your friends, and your environment outside. Give some examples of change happening around you.

Activity 6-3: Who Me-Worry?


Puberty is a time of many changes. You may be excited about some and scared about others. You may wonder what will happen next, if you are developing normally, or if you will change at all. Both boys and girls have concerns about changes during puberty. This is your chance to see if the things that worry you worry others, too.


  • Activity Report


Step 1 Think about the ways you are changing or the ways others are changing around you. Think about all the changes described so far in Unit 1. On your Activity Report, list six things you think worry both boys and girls about puberty, six things you think worry only girls about puberty, and six things that might worry only boys at puberty.

Step 2 When you have finished this, your teacher will put you in a larger group. Compare your answers and add ideas from other students to your list. As a group, come up with more ideas until everyone has at least 12 ideas in each section on his or her paper.

Step 3 Choose one person from your group to be a spokesperson. Each group will take turns sharing an idea from each category, If someone mentions an idea that you do not have, write it down. When all groups have shared all their ideas, see if the class together can add a few more.

Step 4 In your own mind, select three items that worry you the most.

Step 5 As a class, determine the three most common worries for boys and girls, the three most common worries that affect just girls, and the three that worry just boys the most. Discuss these as a class and offer each other suggestions on how to cope with these changes or worries.

Step 6 On the back of your Activity Report, write a paragraph about what worries you the most, and how you might cope with this worry.

“I pick up a copy of Seventeen and browse through it. The models are all perfect. I wish some of them bad zits or oily hair. I go to the mirror and examine my face. It is not one of my better days. I look tired and my hair is limp.”

-Tiger Eyes

Judy Blume

Fear of the Unknown

Concerns about changes in puberty come from several sources. First is the fear of the unknown. The familiar is comfortable and safe. Do you remember the last time you gave up an old pair of shoes? They may have been beaten up and out of shape, looked terrible, and were smelly, but they were yours-almost as much a part of your body as your feet. The new shoes looked terrific but did not quite fit your feet the same way; they were not yet part of you. So it is with the changes in your body.

Since we can never fully predict the future, we tend to fear the unknown. Change means going from the known to the unknown. Therefore, change always causes some stress, or feelings of anxiety. It is the way you feel when something exciting or frightening is about to happen. Stress is not always bad. It makes us alert and energetic and makes life more exciting. We sometimes seek out stressful situations such as roller coaster rides.

The changes of puberty involve some degree of stress for everyone. But whether you view this experience as pleasant or unpleasant depends on your attitudes toward these changes. The best thing you can do is to learn about the changes taking place so that you know what to expect.

Fear of Being Different

Another source of anxiety about change is the fear of being different. Though young people realize everyone goes through puberty, not everyone begins to show these changes at the same time or in the same ways. Especially for those who show these changes earlier or later than others, there is a feeling of being different. Like change and fear of the unknown, being different tends to be stressful. It raises questions in the person's mind: “Why is this happening (or not happening) to me?” “Am I normal?” “What will my friends and others think of me?”

Adolescents therefore tend to associate being “normal” with being like others. If they are not like others, they fear something is wrong or that they are abnormal.

“Sometimes I lay awake at night while Lisa slept in the bed beside mine. Then I'd wonder, what's wrong with me? Why aren't I good at anything? Why can't I bit a home run? Why can't I think of anything to say to Larry Steiner? When will I get myself into a bra?”

-Annie's Promise

Sonia Levitin

Some differences among young people are likely to persist or continue into adulthood. One boy, who is taller than another at age 13, may still be taller at age 18. But in other cases, when dealing with early maturers and late maturers, it is difficult to predict what they are going to look like in adulthood. For example, consider your height. Look at Figure 6.2.

Figure 6.2 Growth curve for boys.

“Each of us must confront our fears, must come face to face with them. How we handle our fears will determine where we go with the rest of our lives. To experience adventure or be limited by the fear of it.”

-Tiger Eyes

Judy Blume

What do you observe? The growth curve shifts between the ages of 11 and 12. “Early maturers” push ahead of “late maturers.” But by age 18, the late developers have caught up. So those who are taller between the ages of 12 and 18 will not necessarily end up taller than others. Some early developers may feel that they are taller, only to watch others gradually catch up in height and become taller.

Did You Know?
The hormones of puberty bring about a gradual cessation of growth. Earlier sexual maturation of girls is one reason boys are 10% taller than girls are-boys have longer to grow before puberty takes hold. Early maturers tend to have stockier builds, while late maturers of both sexes tend to be thinner and long-legged.

Consequences of Being “Off-Schedule”

Many of the differences in growth rates during puberty are taken in stride. Moreover, their differences usually even out by the time the adolescent becomes an adult. In purely biological terms being “early” or “late” makes no difference-it is all part of the normal process of development. Nevertheless, there are a number of possible effects that follow from being an “early” or “late” developer. These effects are both psychological and social. They have to do with how you feel about yourself and how others perceive you. Here are some examples:

What Do You Think?
What are some strategies for dealing with life's stresses? How do you handle being different? How can you help someone else? How can you develop confidence in your own strengths and interests-especially if they are not like everyone else's?
  • Girls as a group generally mature earlier than boys. This can create some awkwardness in social situations such as dances, where the girls often seem more mature and look bigger.
  • Individual adolescents who develop faster or slower than their peers often have a harder time with the changes. Not only do they look different from friends of the same sex, but they also become unsure about which peer group they belong to-the one they fit with chronologically (how old they are) or the one they fit with developmentally (how mature they are).
  • Early-maturing girls may feel “rushed” into puberty before they are psychologically ready. Since their peers have not yet entered puberty, early maturers may find their friendships shift for a while, until their friends catch up. They often “drop” old friends but come back to them later when growth and maturity have evened out. Early maturing girls also may be somewhat less popular with other girls, while attracting more attention from older boys.
  • Early-maturing girls weigh more and may end up slightly shorter than late maturers, Because of cultural emphasis on thinness, these girls may have a poorer body image and are more likely to resort to unnecessary dieting.
  • Late-maturing girls tend to be taller.
  • Early-maturing boys, by contrast, develop stronger bodies earlier, which gives them an advantage in sports until the later-maturing boys catch up. This may make them more popular with their peers. Adults often expect more of children who look older than their age. These expectations can be unfair sometimes, but advantageous at other times.
  • Early-maturing boys and girls also share some potential disadvantages if they engage in “adult” behaviors (such as smoking, drinking, and sexual intercourse). Early maturing exposes them to high risks even earlier than their peers (people their own age). They may also show poorer emotional health than late maturers. Girls are generally more negatively affected by these higher risks than boys are.
  • Late maturers may avoid some of these pitfalls. Not distracted by the changes of early puberty, they may be more attentive to their schoolwork. There may be concerns, however, that they are “lagging” behind. This is tougher on boys who are interested in competitive athletics.
What Do You Think?
  • Who has the harder adjustment when “off-schedule”-girls or boys?
  • What advantages do you feel you have at this age that you may not have at any other point in your life?
  • Why do you choose the friends you do?
  • Why is it important to be with people who are like you? Why is it important to be with people who are different from you?

By late adolescence, these behavioral differences between early or late maturers have largely disappeared. Moreover, bear in mind that while these differences apply to groups in general, they do not apply to every individual within a group. Thus, you may be an early or late maturer and have some or none of the experiences and feelings described above.

How much do you feel that the fact that you are a girl or a boy influences the way that you think, the way that you feel, the way that you behave, the things that you do, the opportunities that you are given, and the way that others think about you? In your opinion, how much of this is because you were born a boy or a girl, and how much is because of the culture around you?

Review Questions

  1. What is the difference between “gender” and “sex” when describing males and females?
  2. What is the difference between gender identity and gender role?
  3. To what should we attribute the gender differences in aggression and emotional expression? Explain.
  4. How does the term adaptation apply to puberty and adolescence?
  5. What are three consequences of being “off-schedule” for early maturers? Late maturers?
  6. What are three sources of stress for adolescents?

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Date Created:
Feb 23, 2012
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Jan 30, 2016
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