Social Stereotypes Domain

As with all members of society, students and counselors alike internalize societal prejudices and stereotypes related to gender, social class, ethnicity, sexual orientation, health, and other aspects of social location. Stereotypes of femininity have an adverse effect on girls' body image (Murnen & Smolak, 2009; Piran & Teall, 2012). Girls learn to view their own bodies as objects to be looked at rather than as sites of freedom, function, competence, and joy (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997; Piran, 2009; Piran & Teall, 2012). Moreover, as they get to the early pubertal stage and beyond, girls aim to embody the idealized image of “perfect” femininity and concurrently experience their own natural appearance as deficient (Piran, 2009). In addition to being thin (yet voluptuous), among other physical characteristics, the “ideal” female is also demure, passionless, and desireless while being a sexualized object (Tolman, 2002) and competing with other girls for boys' attention (Brown, 2003). Girls who are judged to deviate from this ideal often experience social exclusion and negative social labeling (e.g., butch, bitch, slut, nerd; Piran, 2009; Piran & Teall, 2012). This social pressure on girls to live in their body as a deficient site needing ongoing repair to achieve perfection has a powerful adverse effect on girls' body image. Boys similarly experience the pressure of stereotypes, for example, to look muscular, sometimes leading them to use steroids (Ricciardelli, McCabe, Mussap, & Holt, 2009).

Familiarity with restrictive gender molds of femininity and masculinity can help counselors in their work with children, supporting them in developing a critical look at stereotyped gender roles, reframing their understanding, and encouraging them to live in their bodies in a way not constrained by these stereotypes. Here is an example from Piran and Teall's (2012) research interviews with girls. In line with the feminine stereotype of the natural female body as deficient, the 12-year-old girl claims that “pretty girls don't sweat”:

It's weird to think about girls sweating. I try to avoid it. . . I think it's more like boys are having so much fun because they don't care what they look like . . . If I didn't sweat I will be playing sports like every day.

[Interviewer: Is there another way to think about sweat?]

Everybody does that. It's normal.

[Interviewer: Is there a way to think about sweat as a strength?]

That I am trying so hard. I am trying super hard. I am playing really well.

(Piran, 2009, p. 92)

 
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