Pereira observed both boys and girls regulating their behavior in potentially harmful ways in order to adhere to gender norms. For instance, even girls who enjoyed sports often avoided physical activity at school because they assumed it wouldn’t be a feminine thing to do, they worried they might look unattractive while running, or they were mocked by their male peers for not being good enough. The girls also put themselves on diets because they believed desirable women have to be skinny.
“All of the girls were within very healthy weights, but they were all restricting their intake of food in some way. So what we’re really talking about here is 14-year-old girls, whose bodies are changing and developing, depriving themselves at every meal,” Pereira said. “In the extreme, that can lead to things like eating disorders. But even for the women who don’t reach the extreme, it can be very unhealthy for them.”
Meanwhile, the male participants in the study all faced intense pressure to demonstrate the extent of their manliness, which led to what Pereira calls “everyday low-level violence”: slapping and hitting each other, as well as inflicting pain on other boys’ genitals. They were encouraged to physically fight each other if they were ever mocked or offended. They felt like they had to drink unhealthy amounts of alcohol because that’s what a man would do. And they were under certain mental health strains, too; struggling with anxiety about proving themselves and suppressing their feelings, all while lacking a strong emotional support system.
From The Myth of Mars and Venus, by Deborah Cameron:
What is happening to [boys and girls between the fifth and sixth grade] is that they are beginning to participate in an emerging ‘heterosexual market.’ Although they are still pre-adolescent, and in most cases not yet interested in sex as such, their interest in the trappings of adult heterosexuality is driven by what Eckert points out is an overriding social imperative among children: the need to demonstrate maturity by moving away from the ‘babyish’ behavior of the past…
Thought both sexes are engaged in this project, it changes the girls’ lives more profoundly. Boys cultivate a more adult masculinity through the same activities that were important to them before- for instance, sporting activities that show off their physical strength and athletic skill. For girls, on the other hand, cultivating a more adult femininity means replacing the activities and accomplishments of childhood with a different set of preoccupations. In particular, they abandon physical play: instead of using their bodies to do things, they start to focus on grooming and adorning them. They watch boys’ games from the sidelines, or as Tannen notes, ‘simply sit together and talk.’