How do we Become Who we are?
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The person we are is a complicated mixture of how we look, behave and think. As people we are constantly changing, influenced by our surroundings. It is my belief that most people in modern society believe that the person they have become is a direct consequence of the decisions that they have made during their life. What most people don?t realise is that a great deal of decisions which have affected the course of their life were made before they were even born. In most cases, these decisions will have been made by their parents. Where you live, what you are called, who you spend your time with as a young child, what social class you belong to and even which teams you are likely to support, are all things over which you have no control.
Would you have made all the same choices as the ones which were made for you? It is unlikely that you would have, and so it becomes clear that who we are is not just a result of the decisions we have made by ourselves during our life. The choices we do make ourselves could perhaps be considered as fine tuning of the life we have been born into, as by the time we are old enough to make life affecting decisions by ourselves, it could be argued that the boundaries of who we can become are significantly smaller.
A big part of who we are is our physical self. The physical body is separated into different sexes which are biologically defined. Society however, recognises genders, the number and definitions of which vary throughout different cultures. Western society recognises two socially constructed genders, male and female. There are obvious physical differences between these two genders over which we have no control, facial hair and breasts are good examples. However, the definitions of behaviour for these two genders are a creation of society and are based on how society expects men and women to act.
Anne Fausto Sterling is a biologist who wrote a book entitled Myths of Gender(1985). She studied gender and biology in great depth, in all cases finding little or no connection between biology and human behaviour. This supports the theory that men and women act the way they do because of social causes rather than biological ones. In order to conform and fit into western society, you must fit into the socially constructed definition of one of these genders. This removes a big element of freedom in terms of who we want to be, directing us from the day we are born towards a predetermined template for our particular gender.
Our childhood is a massive factor of how we become who we are. Children under five years old have no notion of gender. They will wear what they are dressed in and will not distinguish between toys regarded by society as masculine or feminine. Hence the process of gendering is undertaken by the parents, although everyone who comes into contact with the child will contribute to the gendering through their behaviour and language whilst interacting with them. Thanks to the socially constructed concept that colours can be masculine or feminine, the importance of colour is enormous just after a baby is born and for the early stages of childhood. The gendering process begins straight after birth with parents in western society commonly dressing their new baby in blue for a boy or pink for a girl. This concept of assigning genders to colours is so important because it will affect how people act towards the child, and thus contribute to the person that child will become.
By the age of five, our gender identity is fixed. By this point we are aware of what gender we are, what this means and what is expected by the people around us. We have also learnt how to perform socially accepted gender characteristics. Hence children are now able to define which toys are deemed suitable for their gender, and will generally steer well clear from those which aren?t so as not to appear abnormal, or be called by the opposite gender. This is the period of time when boys and girls of the same age tend not to get along, each sex possibly confused by the different attributes displayed by the other.
From here onwards we are heavily influenced by surroundings that we are now more aware of and have an ever increasing understanding of. We become aware of the need to conform in order to fit in and be accepted within a specific social group and within society as a whole. We also begin to make decisions about who we are and who we want to be, significantly affected by who the people around us are and who they want us to be. Idolised stars worshipped in the media can be big influences for susceptible youngsters, wanting to emulate them. Older children also provide powerful role models, be they good or bad. At this early stage of development and certainly through the beginning stages of school, individuality, defined as behaviour which deviates from the social normal, is viewed very negatively.
In his book titled ?The Limits of Masculinity?, Andrew Tolson states that in addition to early family experiences there are three major sites for boys and men where gender is formed and structured: the peer group, the school and then the workplace where the male identity is reinforced. Schools play a particularly big role in the early formation of an individuals personality and gender identity. Children who do not conform at school, such as a boy who doesn?t like sports or a girl who prefers toys regarded as masculine, can find themselves being discriminated against by other pupils who consider their behaviour to be abnormal. This can result in exclusion from social circles and can even lead to verbal or physical abuse. Hence there is a great pressure placed on children within schools to behave a certain way and to like certain things.
During this time there are other major influences which all play a part in making us who we are. The influence of family is particular prevalent to the young and continues throughout childhood and even into adulthood, with the desire to please and evoke pride causing us to conform to the person our family want us to be. The media is also hugely influential as it provides an effective ?blueprint? of what society considers to be normal, and in turn what society expects from us and how we ourselves can expect to be treated by society if we behave in a certain way. As said by Macionis and Plummer in their book Sociology: a Global Introduction, ?men generally played the brilliant detectives,???women, by contrast, continued to be cast as the less capable characters, often prized primarily for their sexual attractiveness?.
Religion is another major influence on who we become, where women are often regarded as inferior their male counterparts. Different religions have different codes of behaviour to which you must conform if you want to enjoy the supposed benefits of that particular faith. Something else to consider with religion is that most people are followers of their faith from birth, something else imparted on them by their parents and peers before they where old enough to have made the choice themselves. Hence, the person they will be for the rest of their lives has been dramatically influenced by something that they have no control over.
Throughout our youth we learn the normative codes of behaviour which apply to us in our given surroundings. We learn to perform our gender for the benefit of others and we learn of the restrictions of our gender. We also learn of gender stereotypes and their importance. Some common stereotypes being ?men can?t multitask? and ?women can?t read maps?. We then play up to these stereotypes as part of our gender performance, another aspect of our personality which is imported from society. We play up to these stereotypes for the benefit of those around us. For example, men generally like it when women need help with things such as D.I.Y., heavy lifting or wiring a plug. This is the males chance to come to the aid of the ?damsel in distress?.
Hence women may well play up to or exaggerate these stereotypes to please males. The same is true in reverse, where it is the males turn to play up to a stereotype for the benefit of the female, and thus the female?s turn to rescue the male. Because such stereotypes are so well defined within society, humour can often be derived from these incidences with a predictable one liner such as ?have you got the map the right way round??. This raises an obvious question. Are women actually bad at reading maps? Or is it that they?ve spent their entire lives being told that they were bad at it and simply believed it? Or are they actually perfectly good at reading maps but are simply living up to expectations and stereotyping? And if they are in fact, perfectly good at reading maps, why is there such a well defined stereotype that says otherwise? Thus, society has once again influenced how we think and develop, through the use of socially constructed stereotypes and normative codes of behaviour.
As we become aware of the gender identities of those around us we begin to judge them and society as a whole. At this point it becomes clear that we ourselves are being judged by society. Hence we begin to compare ourselves to socially constructed ideal types, within our own environment, and within society as a whole. The relevance of our appearance increases dramatically as we become aware of how attractive we are to the opposite sex. The ?myth? of beauty becomes very important as we strive towards being the ideal height and weight in an effort to increase our appeal to the opposite sex and be regarded as beautiful. The importance of beauty to the individual varies enormously but it is safe to say that females and particularly younger girls are the most heavily affected groups when it comes to wanting to be regarded as beautiful by society. Naomi Wolf first used the term ?beauty myth?. She argued that women are taught by society to relate their happiness, importance and achievements in life to their physical appearance (Backman and Adams, 1991). How far we chose to go in our quest for societies current concept of beauty has an obvious effect on who we are and what we want from life.
And so back to the original question, how do we become who we are? The answer is that there is no answer. Everybody becomes who they are as a result of an individual concoction of surroundings and circumstance. Although many people are influenced by the same source such as school, work and family, these sources are different for everybody and the elements of these sources which have an effect on you, also varies from person to person.
Anne Fausto Sterling – The Myths of Gender : Biological theories about men and women (1985) Andrew Tolson – The Limits of Masculinity (1977) Macionis and Plummer : Sociology, A Global Introduction (2002) 2nd edition Carl Backman and Murray Adams – Self Perceived Physical Attractiveness, self asteem, race and gender – Sociological focus vol. 24 (1991)