Men and women aren't that different really. A few reproductive organs, internal and external. Some hormones. And there seem to be some differences in the way we think as a result. But fundamentally, we're not that different. Most of what we think of as the differences are artificial, a result of socialization. We're socialized from birth into rigid sex roles, caricatures of masculinity or femininity. Just try dressing a baby in a way that offers strangers no hints as to its gender and watch how uncomfortable those strangers become. No pink or blue? No pictures of flowers or sports equipment? No ballerinas? No bulldozers? Without a stereotype to guide them, they squirm. So, stereotypes it is. We tell girls how pretty they are and boys how strong they are. We discourage girls from getting their pretty dresses dirty. Not very practical, those pretty dresses.
We have rigid sex roles for girls and boys, for women and men. Everyone is assigned his or her role. Each role has some good traits...and some really bad ones. The roles are mostly based on slight actual differences between men and women that have been exaggerated. The results are stereotypes. They're harmful to both men and women.
Women, on average, are slightly smaller than men. This has turned into an absolute obsession with body size. Women are expected to spend their entire adult lives underweight. There is a $40 Billion a year weight loss industry, and nearly all of the consumers of these diet foods, drugs, programs, surgeries, etc. are women. Greet a woman with "oh, you've lost weight!" and chances are, she'll take it as a compliment and start talking about the diet she's been on. It's simply assumed that it must have been meant as a compliment, and that you want to hear about it. Even if you're talking to an anorexic you haven't seen in months and you're shocked at her appearance and expressing great concern (and wondering if maybe you should be taking her to the nearest hospital, she looks so bad), she'll assume you're complimenting her.
Men are hairier than women; aside from facial hair, their body hair is usually thicker. But this has turned into the weird idea that women aren't even supposed to have hair on parts of their bodies, that they're deviants if they don't remove it (see Shaving is Stupid). To further accentuate their hairless legs (hairless, that is, after they remove the hair), women are supposed to wear pantyhose, hot in the summer and cold in the winter, and one of the biggest rip-offs ever. A piece of clothing practically guaranteed to last no longer than two or three wearings, at best. A fool and her money are soon parted. Yet millions of women have been brainwashed into believing they must wear these flimsy, overpriced and uncomfortable garments.
A lot of our idea of what femininity is has to do with "prettiness," both in how women and girls look and how they smell. Is prettiness just the same as attractiveness? Men can be attractive, but we usually don't say they're pretty. "Prettiness" implies femininity. This has also led to some pretty weird obsessions and dysfunctional ideas.
Women spend $45 Billion a year on cosmetics in the US. Considering women still only earn 76% of what men earn, on average, it's just adding insult to injury for the cosmetics industry to convince women to feel they need to spend this much money on products men don't feel a need to buy. And how much time do women spend putting makeup on? Many women will not go out in public without makeup. They've been brainwashed to believe that their own faces are unacceptable. It's sad. So they spend how many hours a year putting on makeup? What could they accomplish if they devoted that time to more meaningful pursuits?
Most consumers of cosmetic surgery are women. Over 8.5 million people a year have cosmetic surgery in the US. 88% of them are women. Breast implants (which increased sevenfold from 1992 to 2002!), liposuction, rhinoplasty, facelifts...women are taught that their bodies are unacceptable. "Pretty" becomes defined more and more narrowly. This homogenization of beauty, telling women that only one body shape, only one face shape is beautiful, does untold psychological damage. Millions of women spend their entire lives feeling inadequate or even ugly because they don't meet some arbitrary standard, when in reality they're actually attractive, but their self esteem is quite damaged.
Of course, many men have bought into the idea that there's only one way for a woman to look and be attractive. Just scan the personal ads. How many ads specify that a woman must be thin or petite or trim? Sometimes they even list acceptable weight ranges, usually extremely low weights. Their specifications make it unlikely that they will find anyone up to their "standards." They don't realize that they've been brainwashed by Hollywood, and even Hollywood standards have gotten narrower and narrower. Literally. Marilyn Monroe would be considered fat today. An actress has to be a size 2 to be considered attractive now.
Girls often stop exercising in their teenage years because they don't want to get sweaty. They're afraid of "smelling bad" around boys. Of smelling like a human being? If one showers regularly, sweat doesn't smell bad. It's mostly water (bacteria eat the sweat, oil on the skin, and dead skin cells. It's the waste from the bacteria that smells bad. If one washes regularly, there won't be as much oil and dead skin for the bacteria to eat, nor as many bacteria to eat them). But the girls have been brainwashed by the advertising industry that smelling like a human being is a bad thing, to be avoided at all costs. So they spend money on products to put on every part of their body to make them smell like anything but a human being, and then make sure they don't sweat, not realizing that a lot of the boys they're so afraid of offending with their "bad smell" would really love to have a girl to go on a bike ride with or play tennis with or go running with, but they sadly can't find many girls who enjoy these activities who don't already have boyfriends.
Men have greater upper body strength, on average, than women. This has turned into a rigid obsession with strength in general. Men are afraid to show any sign of weakness, as that would be unmanly. A man who adheres to traditional rigid sex roles will not stop to ask for directions if he is lost; that would be a sign of weakness. That would be unmanly. The same man is also unlikely to admit he needs any kind of help in any other situation, even to go to the doctor when he is sick. Is it a sign of weakness to admit you're sick? I guess to some people it is. Men have a shorter life expectancy than women (74.1 vs. 79.5 years), in large part because they neglect their health. It's twisted logic that lets men think they're stronger than women when they'll die sooner.
The traditional family structure, in which the mother raises the children nearly all the time, and the father spends only a few minutes a day with the kids, is harmful to everyone involved. The mother is exhausted and overwhelmed, and she often has no chance to converse with adults other than her husband. The father doesn't even know his children, nor do they know him. They are strangers to each other, and the children grow up feeling that fathers are irrelevant. In some cases the father tries to spend more time with his children, but the mother becomes strangely possessive and won't allow it, even though she's exhausted or they could be spending time with the children together. In other cases, whenever she leaves the children with their father to go out on her own, she says he's babysitting. No, it's only babysitting if you're watching someone else's kids. If they're your own kids, it's not babysitting.
Since women have traditionally been the only parents to really raise their children, nurturing has usually been thought of as a feminine characteristic. Indeed, any show of emotions at all has been associated with the feminine; boys are taught to "take it like a man" -- to not show emotion. But it seems the underlying message is that they are not supposed to feel any emotions. Men who adhere to traditional sex roles seem to be emotionally stunted.
For both men and women, becoming parents is often something done more as a coming of age rite than a carefully thought out choice. Girls and boys both just assume that they will grow up, get married, and have children. People don't stop to ask themselves "would I make a good parent? Do I actually like children? Am I comfortable around children?" and the most important question of all, "do I actually want children?" You're not doing a child any favors by bringing him into the world just so he can have a parent who doesn't like kids. You're not doing a child any favors by having a kid when you didn't want her.
Individuals who decide to remain child-free should be treated with respect, not treated as selfish and immature. I think it's immature to have a kid solely because you want one. Think about the child's needs before you make such a huge commitment. It's an 18-year commitment. Don't tell people who don't want to have children "oh, you'll change your mind." It's insulting. And society's definition of "family" needs to change. People seem to think it's not a family unless there are children. My husband and I have been married for thirteen years. We are a family.
My favorite people are people who are comfortable enough with themselves to reject traditional sex roles, to just be people. They have some characteristics which are thought of as feminine, some which are thought of as masculine. I think our society would be much healthier and happier if everyone would choose the healthy characteristics and not worry about masculine and feminine. We shouldn't be so rigid. We should let people develop into who they want to be. Encourage everyone to exercise and develop healthy eating habits, and to look after one's health. Discourage people from obsessing on physical appearance. Encourage everyone to develop emotionally and to be able to express his or her feelings. Encourage both sexes to be both strong and nurturing. Then people wouldn't be so filled with insecurities. They'd be much healthier, physically and mentally, and our whole society would benefit.