Doing Gender: Going Against Social Norms
On too many occasions, individuals of society become followers of their groups, conforming to the expected norms of the social structure that surrounds them. There tends to be a standard way of doing things which people generally do not question. Durkheim himself spoke of external pressures on the individual. We can either accept these pressures or resist these social expectations enforced on us. In a more specific context, we can either do gender in a way that follows the norms of the social structure or do gender in our own unique way. Doing gender is by choice and it means that we are acting either “feminine” or “masculine” by the way we present ourselves to certain groups of people. Nevertheless, doing gender differs from society to society. In certain cultures it is accepted to show your femininity by wearing a lot of makeup and showing off your most prominent features; however, in some cultures this is not seen as the ideal way of presenting yourself as a woman.
When contrasting the Muslim Arab culture to American culture (in terms of social norms) , one can come to the conclusion that each have different values, which leads to very different social standards that their societies are held by. As a Muslim American Arab, these sometimes contradicting cultures have led to many situations where I have gone against the social expectations of either culture. I have dealt with situations where doing gender in a certain ways, through the context of one culture, is accepted. Yet, the other culture looks upon this act with great confusion. In my perspective, I have experienced times where I have done gender in a way that challenged the gender expectations of American culture, yet conformed to Muslim Arab society.
In following with the rules of Islam, since I was a young girl, I have always tried to comply with the rule of not talking to boys in any way that would be provocative. I have been a modest young girl who dressed in long sleeves, and I have never exposed myself in a way in which my body was revealing. Sophomore year, I started wearing the hijab (headscarf) in order to keep with the social gender norms of Islamic Arab culture. However, in doing so, I was in direct conflict with American culture. Soon after I started wearing the hijab, my friends and people around be began to notice my interactions with boys and the way I acted. They realized that I do not hang out around guys, “flirt”, or dress in an “attractive way”. Many questioned my odd practices as it contradicted the way many Americans do gender. In American culture, many high school girls “do gender” by putting on a lot of makeup, showing off their hair, wearing low rise jeans, and instinctively try to attract boys. When people noticed my own way of doing gender, some assumed I did not like boys, and was attracted to females. Of course, it is because of the differences in culture that I acted in a way that challenged the ways of doing gender. In Islamic Arab culture, a woman is supposed to generally be modest in the way she dresses, cover her hair (as it is believed to be a very attractive feature of the women), she should not look a man directly in the eye, and lessen the amount of makeup she wears (since that makes her more appealing to a man’s eye).
Of course, I was upset by the rumors and the talk that was obviously not true. I wanted to fit in while I also staying true to my Islamic Arab tradition. I felt misunderstood, and yet I understood that my Islamic Arab culture is something that seemed strange to them simply because they don’t understand it. I eventually integrated myself, and compromised some of my Arab culture for a more American outlook on doing gender. Of course, this does not mean I completely sacrificed the Islamic rules for completely Americanized social expectations. I was able to be feminine, eventually learning to still wear my scarf, but with a more modern style, incorporating earrings into my daily wardrobe. Yet, I was still modest although, there were times when I had to break Islamic Arab norms and look straight in the eyes of men for interviews, as a way to ensure my confidence. The process of balancing the social norms of both cultures is something that shows the powerful entity of the social structure which can’t be changed. However, it is not impossible to either accept or challenge it individually. You can mold pieces of each of the cultural norms to fit your individual purposes.
Social Science 101
The Looking Glass Self: Roles and Perception
A young child sits quietly near a river staring into the silent shimmering water at an image, the reflection of her own face. She sees her mother in the translucent water, and reminisces of a friend telling her that she thinks that this young child acts like her mother. So, the young child grows up trying to live up to the image in which she thinks people want to see her as, her mother. Society is continually modernizing; however our dependency on others is constantly increasing. Charles Horton Cooley would have agreed that people depend on each other in order to form a self – identity. He focused most of his research on the “looking glass self” theory, and its effects on the way individuals function and interact in society.
Cooley used the image of a mirror as a metaphor for the way that an individual’s “self- concepts” are influenced by their interpretation of how they are perceived by others. This “social self”, in which people’s self-identities are formed by the way people react to them, leads to people adapting themselves to certain roles in society. Cooley designates three principle elements of the looking glass self which define each of us as individuals: “the imagination of our appearance to the other person; the imagination of his [sic] judgment of that appearance; and some sort of self-feeling, such as pride or mortification.” An interesting and rather ironic point Cooley makes is that the “‘I’ is social because when it is used it is always addressed to an audience” and therefore “I” is used in helping us take roles within our society. In his first major work, Human Nature and the Social Order, Cooley declares that human action must be understood in terms of the subjective meanings people place into situations. Generally speaking, the purpose of the “looking glass self” was to explain that peoples roles in a certain society comes from the ideology, “I am what I think you think I am”.
As a middle school girl, I was a complicated creature; however my thoughts would always come back to one main topic. Does she think I am annoying? Am I prettier than her? Does the teacher not like me? I was so engulfed in other people’s thoughts, that I had very little time to think about my own. Yet, as Cooley states, my thoughts were developed around how I though other people thought about me. I had always followed my parent’s example of dressing modestly, and speaking eloquently. Nevertheless, as I become more intertwined in the cultures and views of different societies, the way I was evolving was particularly dependent on the way that others saw me, therefore I changed based on the way I thought people saw me. The looking-glass theory had defined me because it is “a culturally and historically specific product” of the “social location”. In middle school, I knew many people who had told me that I am too “blunt” and that I need to keep things to myself more often. Of course, I was insulted because I saw nothing wrong with myself. Ironically enough, I changed my habits and have become a very reserved individual. It is not that I am not pleased with myself, or that I hate the way I am. I am a human being, and as a human, I thrive on social interactions; social forces have a tremendous influence on me as an individual.
At every moment, we are all developing a sense of ourselves, who “I” am, through constant interactions with other students, teachers, and even through stares of strangers. We are constantly modifying ourselves through our actions and thoughts to become more socially acceptable beings. As a young teenager, I was especially in this frame of thought. I was socially different from many other students at my school, coming from a very different cultural background. It was more fitting for me to sit quietly in a corner than interact with others because I was not used to such a difference in cultural norms. However, even the slightest interactions such as a harsh glare would make me think of how I could improve myself to be welcomed into this society. I have developed a new sense of self from these sorts of symbolic interactions. The self, as Jennifer Dunn states in the Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology, “emerges in interaction, and becomes meaningful only in contrast to that which is not of self (society).” The social self is simply not about reflecting, noticing others beliefs of you, but moreover, it is the ways in which “humans selectively and actively interpret and appropriate these reflections.”