We need to be careful in our use of labels, kids are fragile in their susceptibility to believing adults’ judgments so the labels or diagnoses we slap on a child can easily become internalised as part of their own self-image and identity. Labels put kids into boxes; they restrict their idea of who they are so there’s a danger of fixing kids into identities which become difficult to shake off.
Adolescence is a time when teenagers are doing a lot of self-labeling as they begin to build their adult identities, a time when they put themselves into rigid boxes in order to define themselves as ‘different from’ and ‘the same as’ others. This is a long process of exploration; the brain does not reach full maturity until age 25, and even as adults our self-identities develop and change. The last thing teenagers need is a whole load of new gender labels to choose from when building their identities, but this is what has been offered to them from the government this week in the form of a ‘Gender Survey,’ sponsored by the Department of Education and created for 13 – 15 year-olds. It was commissioned by the Children’s Commissioner, and included a question asking teens to define themselves according to this list of gender labels:
Apart from the immediate message that it is normal and necessary to define your personality in terms of ‘gender’ when building your self-identity, there’s also a hidden message here: by including biological sex terms under the heading ‘gender’ it promotes the misapprehension that sex and gender are the same thing.
Teenagers are encouraged not only to label themselves into reductive categories, but ones which are completely misleading and false. Nobody is 100% feminine or 100% masculine, we are all “gender fluid” and “non-binary” in our personalities; nobody totally conforms to all the characteristics associated with their sex. We all have different personalities and none of them are exclusive to one sex or the other.
This survey question suggests, however, that ticking only the ‘girl’ box, without adding another category, is an admission of conformity to femininity. By inclusion in this list, the meaning of the word ‘girl’ itself changes from a biological fact to a gender stereotype.
The more troubled and vulnerable teenage girls, looking at this question, will find a possible explanation for their feelings of not fitting in, or being in some way ‘wrong,’ and to equate these insecurities with their ‘gender.’ Getting the girls who are uncomfortable with femininity to define themselves as one of the other categories is the first step on the road to questioning whether they are really girls at all. If ‘girl’ now means ‘stereotypical girl’ then they are clearly not.
There are an awful lot of girls who totally reject femininity at adolescence. Particularly in today’s porn-saturated culture, who would want to develop sexually and become a woman if that’s what a woman is? We know how the sexualisation of girls and women leads to body insecurities, eating disorders and rejection of the female body amongst teens. There have always been girls who are geeky, awkward, nerdy; or autistic-spectrum girls who find complicated female social rules unfathomable; or girls who will grow up to be ‘butch’ lesbians, none of whom see themselves reflected back positively in our society.
We have never, as a culture, been very good at helping these girls. We have never taken the increase in cultural sexualisation and narrow stereotyping of women and girls seriously enough to properly tackle it as a society, despite recommendations from the UN, the American Psychological Association, the Bailey Report, and various women-led campaigns for fairer representation of women and girls.
Along comes a new gender theory and suddenly these girls have a simple answer to all their confused feelings: they have the wrong bodies for their ‘gender;’ they are really boys. The total acceptance and adoption of this theory throughout government and the media suggests that everyone’s relieved that it’s the girls who are wrong, not the culture.
Transsexualism used to be a predominantly male thing. Back in the Sixties only 10% of transsexuals were female, a figure which has risen to 40% over the decades. Today, amongst children being referred to gender clinics, girls vastly outnumber boys. Bernadette Wren, of the Tavistock and Portman gender clinic admitted in her presentation to the government transgender inquiry that there is growing alarm at the increasing number of girls who hate their bodies presenting to gender clinics across the UK. The point was not taken up, instead the government’s recommendation was to reduce the age at which teenagers can legally change their ‘gender’ from 18 to 16.
I can tell the government why there is this unprecedented surge in girls identifying themselves as boys. Tumblr and Reddit forums online are chock-full of people urging teenagers to ‘come out’ as trans if they feel in any way different to the stereotype for their own sex, or feel discomfort or distress with their own bodies. The trans communities online (and the trans support groups in real life) offer these girls the total acceptance and approval for ‘who they really are’ which they have never found in the wider culture. Suddenly they fit in. As long as they ‘identify’ as boys they always will.
These are not benign choices we’re offering to teenagers. When a girl decides she is trans, the powerful off-label hormones she takes will send her into a state of early menopause with all its associated symptoms. She may choose to wear a chest-binder with its risks of collapsed lungs, fractured ribs and back problems, and decide to follow that with a double mastectomy. Testosterone, approved for use only on adult males, will put her at risk of blood clots as thickened blood tries to push its way round a smaller cardiovascular system and narrower arteries. She will be sterilised and left with a permanently deepened, hoarser voice and increased body hair even if she later realises it was all a mistake and stops taking the hormone, as more and more young women are doing. The risk-taking teenage brain is incapable of weighing this up against the instant reward of affirmation and status.
‘Trans’ is not an identity a teenager can try on and then reject later. We need to be protecting teenage girls from the online forums which urge them to transition, just as we try to protect them from the anorexia and self-harm sites which also promote bodily harm and mutilation as a solution to adolescent anxieties. Introducing teens to the new gender labels which validate the message of these forums is the last thing a government should be doing.
We need instead to seriously ask ourselves as a society just why an unprecedented and increasing number of teenage girls don’t want to become women.