Who Said It?
It started the day you arrived on the planet...
Without doing or saying a thing, you’ve been treated in certain ways, simply because of your sex. Maybe it was the way you were dressed, or the activities you were enrolled in by well-meaning adults. Before any of us are old enough to even know what sex we are, people around us make decisions about what our sex means. (Unconvinced? Flip through photos from when you were a baby and take note of your toys and clothes!)
But get this: “There’s a lot of talk about there being differences between boys and girls, but in reality, those differences are very small,” says Christia Spears Brown, a developmental psychologist at the University of Kentucky.
How, then, can you explain what may feel like a giant (and completely awkward) divide between you and the opposite sex right now? To fully grasp a boy’s “baffling” behavior or a girl’s “weird” reaction to it (FYI: Those words are pulled straight from our poll of teens nationwide!), it’s crucial to ask big questions about sex differences, gender roles, and the way both are being amplified as you grow and change.
Read on for answers, but be warned: They may challenge your perceptions of what it means to be male or female!
Big Question #1
Are Boys Better at Some Things—and Vice Versa?
The answer? It’s a big fat no. A study of 1.5 million kids found that sex predicts very little when it comes to nearly any trait imaginable—from personality and academic ability to athletic skill. “What’s much more important than being male or female is getting encouragement that you can do whatever you like, and then practicing it,” says Barbara Greenberg, a clinical psychologist who specializes in teen and family therapy.
So why do so many people still believe old myths about, say, boys being better at sports and girls being more emotional? Because, as Brown explains, stereotypes—those snap-judgment images and ideas a society forms about people, places, and things—are powerful. And our brains hold on to them! We’re hardwired to pay attention to cues that confirm what we already know and forget the ones that don’t. (You can thank evolution for this—turns out it was advantageous to our primal ancestors a lonnng time ago to be able to make quick assessments in the wild!)
Big Question #2
But What If a Stereotype Appears to Be True?
First things first: There’s nothing wrong with being a guy who’s into sports and action movies, or a girl who loves fashion and the color pink. But one of the most dangerous implications of a world with widespread stereotypes is that we tend to automatically follow them, instead of figuring out our true passions or exploring all of our emotions.
In other words, stereotypes and images often drive our behavior. “It’s not the other way around,” says Brown.
Case in point: You know how some people think boys are better at math? Research shows that girls and guys have equal abilities! The only difference is girls’ confidence about their performance in math, which can affect their participation in class or their test scores.
The good news is there are people who fight stereotypes (like this one about girls and math!) everywhere—if you look for them, pay attention to them, and celebrate them, these oversimplified ideas of what it means to be a boy or girl can and will shift!
Big Question #3
Guys’ and Girls’ Brains Work Differently, Right?
Some days, you may feel completely mystified by the way the opposite sex behaves (Why are his texts SO vague? or Is she really crying over a cartoon?), which could lead you to believe there are two totally different systems of decision making and emotion processing happening for girls and boys. But despite slight variations in your brains and the hormone changes that could affect your emotions right now, you’re all working with the same raw materials.
A body of research has also proven that your behavior (from the way you communicate with others to your willingness to express your emotions) is driven by outside factors—like the messages you get from your family, friends, teachers, and the media—more than it is by anything innate.
Big Question #4
What’s Up With His/Her Body Right Now?
We live in pretty futuristic times: Snapchat! Self-parking cars! Customizable everything! But when it comes to our bodies, no amount of technology can hold back the forces of nature: Once you hit puberty, girls and guys change—and, in the process, they become even more physically different.
The unfortunate side effect can be a whole lot of awkwardness as these transformations happen at different times for different people, says Dr. Chanelle A. Coble, an adolescent medicine specialist at New York University’s Langone Medical Center.
Here’s the deal: Girls typically begin to experience these physical changes between ages 8 and 13, while boys start between ages 9 and 14. With girls’ early signs of puberty being fairly obvious, those who bloom early may receive unwanted attention or expectations.
Guys who develop later, on the other hand, may feel left behind when it comes to sports or dating—or other arenas where physical traits (like muscles or height) seem to count a lot. And they struggle with body image too. “I feel as if the stereotype that boys are in love with their bodies is false,” explains Ben, a high school sophomore in New York. “I often feel insecure.”
How can you help each other out? Trust that you’ll all arrive at the same place eventually—and vow to treat each other with respect until you get there.
Because remember: Your body (or the sex you’re born into) is just one piece of what makes you interesting and unique. You’re so much more complex than that!