Teenagers are new to gender roles and norms, and to the urgency of post-pubertal sexuality. It’s a profoundly difficult and complex business and it can become a dominant preoccupation. I thought of little else but girls, at this age; my 16-year-old daughter won’t leave the house until her make-up is perfect.
Self-presentation – conforming to the group’s look, proclaiming their interests and values – is a deeply important aspect of group identity with profound implications over the degree to which you will be accepted. Our 6th formers, who do not wear uniforms, spend anxious hours making sure they don’t “look weird”, or even say anything weird. Lower school girls automatically roll up their uniform kilts, as they leave their houses in the morning, because anything longer than a mini-skirt is Social Death!
In western youth culture, fashion is distinctly gendered, and women’s fashion tends to be sexualised. Every season, a new body part must be exposed, or accentuated with make-up. At the moment, it is midriffs; a while ago it was bare legs and a hint of buttock peeping out of very short shorts. Cleavage makes perennial comebacks.
Modern online culture exposes even pre-pubescent children to gender and sexuality. Its memes and marketing are highly gendered and thus polarising. Its world-weary humour and furious outcries, even its pornography: all reinforce stereotypes and expectations. Children are encouraged to “take sides” before they have any real sense of what is going on, or have become properly aware, and comfortable with who they are in either gender or sexual terms. If they find the choice difficult, they are encouraged to see themselves as having a problem, or at least as being different.
Some teenagers are still finding it difficult to fit in. They might be too shy to carry off the fashion; they might be late developers; they might be bored by football or conversations about boys; they might be inept at picking up social cues and signals; they might not be attracted to members of the opposite sex; they might be plagued by strange thoughts. Yet they still long for inclusion and acceptance. This can lead to a profound sense of alienation and distress and, without the recognition of peers, deep crises of identity.
However, help is at hand. If they don’t find it easy to conform to the gender norms of their social group, young people are now encouraged to see their problems as stemming from the fact that they are the “wrong” gender, as if gender was a free-floating spiritual truth, independent of, and more real than, the body and its DNA and hormones and just happening to settle in a male or female body at random. And the internet offers support. By connecting billions of people across continents, even small minorities can find enough allies to create an online ersatz community. The “wrongly gendered” has become a thing.