Which gender has seen the most changes in fashion over the past 100 years? Why do you think that is?
Hi, my name is Sein Kipusi.
I like to read books, go hiking, garden, paint, and do gymnastics. Why do I like those things? Did I learn to like them through
socialization or was I born with these likes?
I am a woman, I am 5 feet 5 inches tall, I have short hair, I have brown eyes, I am Kenyan. I am the youngest of three siblings. These are all ways of describing myself that also shape my identity. Are these descriptions static and unchanging?
In this module, we will look at the ways in which our identities are fluid rather than static. We will consider how they are shaped by the social, historical, and ideological forces around us.
The previous module asked the question, was your identity given to you or was it created? In this module, we go further by asking, who would you be if you were never socialized by society? How do we learn to perform our identity?
In my simple biography above, I identify different categories linked to who I am. Some of these categories fit into the understanding of identity proposed by essentialism. Others fit into the social constructionist view of identity. We learned these concepts in Identity 1.
In the Identity 2 module, we will consider how identity is the product of social structures and culture. In my biography, I started my description with things I enjoy: hiking, reading, and gymnastics. I was not born with these enjoyments. Rather, the culture and social structures around me exposed me to these activities and influenced my choice of them. When I realized I enjoyed them and started to practise them regularly, they became a part of my identity.
In my biography, I also describe myself as a woman and give my height and the location of my birth. Some may say these are examples of identity markers that cannot change. But is this true? Let’s take a closer look at my gender identity.
To begin, we must separate the concepts of sex and gender. Sex is a term “used to describe the biological and anatomical differences between females and males” (Murray et al., 2014, p. 336). Gender, on the other hand, refers to the “attitudes, feelings, and behaviors that a given culture associates with a person’s biological sex” (APA, 2012). For example, being a woman comes with a set of behavioural expectations. These expectations help determine how I perform my gender in social contexts. When we don’t perform gender roles as expected, we may experience negative consequences, like not getting a job or being left out of a group.
This presentation uses a multimedia project about modern Brazilian identity to examine how we form identities and what drives us. (Source: TEDx Talks, 2016)
This video looks at how our personality is affected by the culture in which we grow up. It examines how manners are not universal but cultural. By being aware that our personality/identity has foundations in the locations and cultures in which we were raised, we can see how our personal views are heavily influenced by social contexts. (Source: Practical Psychology, 2019)
As we learn more about identity, we must also question the dynamics of power and privilege in society. Our identity is influenced by social contexts, institutions, community, media, and culture. These social structures are cemented in power, economics, and history. And they influence how people in a society see, value, and treat people who hold certain identities. The next sub-topic will explore how people can experience discrimination and prejudices based on their identities. We will also learn what stereotypes are and how they are created.
Socialization does not just play a role in how we identify and how we perform those identities. It also affects how we think about other people’s identities. Due to the power dynamics in our society, we may be socialized to believe things that are false or misleading about others and to treat them differently as a result. (Why this happens will be discussed in the Ideology module.)
Prejudice occurs when we judge or make unquestioned assumptions (usually negative) about a person, without knowing them, based on their association with a group. Discrimination can occur when we act on those assumptions and treat people differently as a result. People can be discriminated against based on gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, culture, class, caste, shade or skin colour, religion, language, (dis)ability, or body size and shape. Examples of discrimination include paying women less than men for doing the same job and screening someone at an airport due to the colour of their skin.
Stereotypes are unfounded but widely held beliefs about a particular group of people. For example, a common stereotype is that individuals who identify as Asian are good at mathematics. Another one is tall people are good at playing basketball. Stereotypes can be positive, negative, or neutral, but they are damaging because they lead to false assumptions about people. They can also create expectations for people that limit what they can do and how they can behave.
A danger of stereotypes is that the groups being stereotyped start to believe negative characterizations of them are true. This is called stereotype threat and is defined as “poor performance in the face of negative stereotypes” (Beilock, 2010, p. 102). To understand stereotype threat further, let’s examine a case study:
Asian female college students were recruited for a math test and divided into groups. Some groups were given a survey beforehand that highlighted their Asian ancestry while others had a survey that drew attention to the fact that they were women. This test was designed to test the effect of two common stereotypes. The first is that Asians are naturally good at math, and the second is that women are naturally less inclined towards the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math. The Asian women who were sensitized to their Asian identity scored higher on the test than the Asian women who were sensitized to their gender, thus confirming that stereotypes impacted performance (Beilock, 2010, p. 166).
Next, we will consider what happens when you experience discrimination and prejudice based on more than one aspect of your identity.
This video looks at common stereotypes and makes the argument that stereotypes are everywhere. They may be affecting you and your performance without you realizing it. Finally, it asks the question, is there any way to avoid “stereotype threat”? (Source: CNA Insider, 2014)
Intersectionality describes the complex ways people can experience multiple forms of discrimination or prejudice based on different aspects of their identity. For example, an overweight person from a visible minority group may be body shamed for their weight and also called racial ethnic slurs. Furthermore, intersectionality recognizes that aspects of people’s identity may combine or add together to create unique forms of discrimination. In the above example, this person may face slurs that target both their race and weight, or they may be stereotyped in a particular way because of these overlapping identities.
Different groups in societies are subject to different levels of discrimination. How society views your identity can affect it and how you perceive yourself. Understanding that identities have multiple aspects and that these may affect the discrimination and stereotypes we face can help us recognize and address injustice in society.
As previously discussed in the sub-topic on Identity and Social Contexts, gender categories are created by society (and different from sex categories, which describe biological differences). We perform our gender identities, and our performance is influenced by societal expectations and stereotypes. When we perform a role, we think about who our audience is and what their expectations are. We consider what a successful performance will look like to our audience. And we are rewarded when we meet their expectations, and judged and treated negatively when we don’t.
Let’s look at a daily task: dressing ourselves. How does our gender affect the clothes we choose? What is considered fashion for men and fashion for women? Who decides what is appropriate to wear as a man or woman? These questions reveal the role media, culture, family, religion and educational institutions play in how we perform our gender and how we are rewarded for that performance.
As you can see from the video, social contexts influence how gender is performed.
Gender is also connected to social status. Let us look at some common jobs. Do you expect a nurse to be a man or a woman? Do you expect a construction worker to be a man or a woman? Nurses are associated with the role of caregiver, which has typically been considered a feminine role. Construction workers are associated with strength, which is typically considered a characteristic of masculine roles. Where did we learn these stereotypes? How have they influenced us and our career choices?
Finally, it is important to remember that social statuses influence who has power in society. Some social statuses are more powerful than others, and often these are associated with a particular gender. For example, chief executive officers (CEOs) of major companies—a very powerful position—are overwhelmingly male. In Canada, only 4% of companies that are listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange have a CEO who is a woman (Deschamps, 2019). As you will recall from the discussion of stereotypes, this can create conditions where women are not seen as leaders of companies—and don’t see themselves as potential leaders of companies. A 2019 survey showed that 62% of Canadians were “very comfortable” with a woman being the CEO at a major company (67% men; 57% women) (Deschamps, 2019).
Which gender has seen the most changes in fashion over the past 100 years? Why do you think that is?
This video looks at how roles in society are gendered, for example, women as nurses and men as doctors. It examines various scenarios where we are confronted with gender roles and how our status in society is defined by stereotypes of masculine vs. feminine. (Source: Langland, 2017)
Which gender has undergone the most changes in fashion? What are the major differences in clothes from 1915 and 2015? Let us try and imagine how the world was in 1915. Did women and men have equal political power? Did they equally participate in the workforce? How have gender roles changed as more women entered the workforce? Let’s now think about how power and privilege in society is reflected by the distinction between what is fashionable for men and women. For example, there was a time when it was considered inappropriate for women to wear trousers. Today in many cultures around the world there are still specific garments for women and men to wear, whether it is for political, historical or religious reasons. These clothes represent and signify our gender; they are part of how we perform our gender. Power and privilege are conveyed through our fashion choices because they are non-verbal symbols of our gender and ultimately our status.
Let us now turn to thinking about how our gender roles and statuses are affected by political policies and ideologies. In 1922 women in all of Canada except Quebec and Newfoundland (Newfoundland was still a separate country) won the right to vote. Quebec granted suffrage to women in 1940 and Newfoundland in 1925. Today women can campaign to be the prime minister of Canada. But do you think they experience the same challenges and opportunities as male candidates? Why or why not?
Not everyone can be divided into the gender and sex categories that are commonly used in Western society. Gender and sex are complex concepts. It is important to consider these complexities so we don’t fall into stereotypes that may cause prejudice and discrimination.
Intersex refers to people whose biological sex characteristics are neither typically male nor female. Instead, they exhibit elements of both. As is the case with all people, their sex does not determine their gender. People who are intersex may have a typically masculine or feminine gender performance.
The opposite is true as well. Even though someone is born male, it does not mean they may feel or act masculine. When we say things like “Be a man!” or “Act like a lady!” we are referencing stereotypes about gender roles that may prove damaging to people.
It is also possible to identify as both masculine and feminine. Two-spirit is an Indigenous term that describes the sexuality, gender and/or spiritual identity of people who identify as having both a masculine and feminine spirit.
Transgender people have a gender identity or gender expression that differs from the sex they were assigned at birth. Some transgender people who desire medical assistance to transition from one sex to another identify as transsexual. Non-binary gender refers to when a person does not identify as either male or female.
Gender is socially constructed. Therefore, gender identities can vary between cultures and communities, as can the associated attitudes, behaviours, and activities that are learned through the socialization process.
For an example, watch this video about a community in South Sulawesi, Indonesia, where there are five genders (Source: National Geographic, 2008). By providing many options for gender expression, and recognizing five genders, the community finds balance and peace.
Learn more about the history and definition of two-spirit. (Source: Re:searching for LGBTQ2S+ Health, 2020)
Race is also a socially constructed category. It groups people together based on physical or social qualities. It affects how we see ourselves, how we see others, and how we perceive others as seeing us. In previous sub-topics, we learned how gender is connected to status and power, and can lead to inequality. The same is true of race. We can ask ourselves some questions to highlight these connections. Why are certain characteristics associated with certain races? Who benefits and who is damaged by stereotypes associated with race?
Race as a concept only really developed during the late 18th century. While Ancient Egyptians, Jews, Greeks, and Romans recognized and placed importance on differences between groups of people, they did not use the concept of race. For example, in ancient Greece and Rome, people distinguished themselves from others based on the perception of cultural differences, not physical differences. Race was invented to explain and rationalize slavery and colonialism. Political and social factors, more than biology, determined what categories were used to group people into races. This categorization was not neutral. It was done to allow one group of people to dominate and enslave others.
Given these origins, it is not surprising that race continues to contribute to inequality. People categorized as white hold power and positions of privilege. Non-white people face barriers and systemic disadvantages. Furthermore, we are socialized to accept dangerous and untrue stereotypes about race that contribute to discrimination and prejudice. Prejudice and discrimination based on race is called racism.
An example of how powerful stereotypes about race can be, watch this video to learn about the famous “doll study”where small children are asked simple questions about dark-skinned and light-skinned dolls (Source: Fanpage.it, 2016). Their answers reveal how race can damage a child’s self-identity.
For another example, watch this video on skin bleaching in Asia that demonstrates how racial stereotypes have created a desire to look more white (Source: CNA Insider, 2020).
It is important to remember that racial categories are socially created and not static. Within racial groups, there may be different racial identities based on tribe, ethnicity, culture, and background. People may face multiple forms of discrimination ( intersectionality) based on intersecting racial identities. Furthermore, racial categories might shift as conditions in society change.
We can now ask ourselves questions to think about how racial identity is expressed.
1) How do you perform race? Is that possible?
2) Can you be one race but act like a different race?
3) If we think of racial identity as a performance, who are we performing for? Does your performance change based on your audience? Can the way you racially identify change?
4) How would you describe your race to a person who was born blind?
In this video Jenée Desmond-Harris explains how the ideology of race is complex and socially constructed for political and economic agendas. (Source: Desmond-Harris, 2014)
Race is a complex topic that can demonstrate how intersectionality works. Let’s think about the famous brand of skin-bleaching creams called Fair & Lovely. These creams claim to lighten skin complexion and are sold around the world, but they are mainly marketed to Black and Asian communities. The name itself indicates that to be fair-skinned is to look lovely. It implies that dark skin is not lovely and therefore not desirable. And of course, these creams are marketed mainly to women. Women face pressure in most societies to conform to male ideals of beauty and be an object of male desire. The name Fair & Lovely associates the feminine ideal with whiteness, negating the beauty and value of women of colour
What does it mean to be Indigenous? To answer this important question, we need to consider the historical context and the struggles faced by Indigenous peoples around the world.
Let’s start by bringing in the voice of an Indigenous person of Canada to see how they identify themselves:
I am a member of the Kwakwaka’wakw located between Comox and Port Hardy on Vancouver Island and adjacent mainland of British Columbia. I am an initiated member of the Hamatsa Society and am in line to become a hereditary chief. I am a status Indian. I switched to using ‘Indian’ for historical accuracy as that was the legal term used by the federal government, and continues to be used in the title of the federal policy that oversees almost every aspect of the life of a status Indian. (Indigenous Corporate Training Inc., 2018)
Please click this link for more information on this quotation (Source: Indigenous Corporate Training Inc., 2018).
This description highlights how identifying as an Indigenous person brings additional layers, complexities, and considerations.
First, it is important to note that there is a difference between how external agencies identify Indigenous peoples and how they identify themselves. The complexities of Indigenous identity are deeply rooted in colonialism. For example, Indigenous Peoples in Canada are identified legally as “status Indian” even though they do not live in or come from India. Initially, the criteria used to define who was Indigenous were quite expansive. However, the federal government realized, over time, that narrowing the definition would reduce the number of people who met the criteria. This helped their goal of assimilation.
When an Indigenous person describes their own identity, they may consider adding whether or not they have status, which nation, band, clan, or tribal council or treaty office they belong to, and whether or not they live in their home community or in an urban centre.
Watch this video on the Indian Act to learn more about how Indigenous history and identity was affected by social contexts (Source: The Agenda with Steve Paikin, 2018). It features an interview with Bob Joseph, the founder of Indigenous Corporate Training.
Read this interview with Winnipeg artist Kent Monkman to learn more about his painting called “The Scream” (Source: TVO Current Affairs, 2017). This illustration shows how Indigenous children were removed from their communities by the Canadian government and the churches. The children were taken to residential schools.
This video by CBC asks 18 Indigenous leaders and change-makers what it means to be Indigenous and how they experience their Indigenous identity. (Source: CBC News, 2017)
Learn more about Kent Monkman here. (Source: Morgan-Feir, 2017)
Identities are fluid rather than static. They are shaped by the social, historical, and ideological forces around us. However, as individuals, we also play an important role in the process of constructing and shaping our own identities. This means we can still define ourselves and work to change discrimination and prejudice based on identity, even as we are socialized into existing power structures and categories of gender, race, and sexuality.
“The process of adapting or adjusting to the culture of a group or nation, or the state of being so adapted” (“Assimilation,” n.d.).
A perspective that assumes that aspects of our identities are innate. We are born with them, and they remain fundamentally unchanged throughout our lives.
“The attitudes, feelings, and behaviors that a given culture associates with a person’s biological sex” (APA, 2012).
Related to ideology, which is a defined set of beliefs and ideas shared by a group of people.
A term used to refer to people whose biological sex characteristics do not fit into the typical definitions of male or female.
A “preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience” (“Prejudice,” n.d.).
Categorizing people based on identified or perceived characteristics such as the colour of skin. Race must be understood in the context of history, politics, and geography. It is not a biological category, and it is often used to group people, assign them social roles, and associate them with a specific social status.
Prejudice and discrimination based on race.
“(in Canada) A government-supported boarding school for children from Inuit and other Indigenous communities” (“Residential school,” n.d.).
A term “used to describe the biological and anatomical differences between male and female” (Murray et al., 2014, p. 336).
A perspective that argues that our identities are the product of society and culture, and are always changing.
The arrangement of social institutions into relatively stable patterns of social relations. The way a society is organized.
The effect of negative stereotypes on an individual’s performance or behaviour.
An Indigenous term that describes the sexuality, gender and/or spiritual identity of people who identify as having both a masculine and feminine spirit (Re:searching for LGBTQ2S+ Health, 2020).
“The Employment Equity Act defines visible minorities as ‘persons, other than Aboriginal peoples, who are non-Caucasian in race or non-white in colour.’ The visible minority population [in Canada] consists mainly of the following groups: South Asian, Chinese, Black, Filipino, Latin American, Arab, Southeast Asian, West Asian, Korean and Japanese” (Statistics Canada, 2020).
Watch these videos to learn more about Indigenous communities from different nations and countries.
We live in a global world where being born in one country, going to school in another country, and finding a job in a different country has become the norm. As a global community we interact, work and live with people from all over the world. When we think about how we identify, we must also factor in that our identities are constantly changing and evolving as we experience different cultures, environments and countries. The intersectionality of our identities is complex, and people experience the same social situations differently depending on their identities.
As we close this module on identity and social contexts, below are some questions to critically think and self-reflect. We live in a global world where our identities are constantly being questioned and molded as we adapt to different environments and cultures. The below questions will help you analyze why identity is important and how it has shaped your experiences.
Identity and Social Contexts in Global Citizenship: From Social Analysis to Social Action (2021) by Centennial College, Sein Kipusi is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share-Alike License (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) unless otherwise stated.
This module contains material from “Understanding Identity,” by Selom Chapman-Nyaho and Alia Somani, in Global Citizenship: From Social Analysis to Social Action © 2015 by Centennial College.
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