NOTE: I have a degree in sociology. I adore sinking my teeth into interesting gender discussions when they crop up. This was a question posed to me by a straight, CD gentleman. :)
From a customer e-mail:
Just a thought and question I've had for a long time. What causes girls to grow up to like lace and dresses? What causes men to grow up and play football, work on cars and be macho? Is it hormones, society or mental development? If it's hormones or mental development, there isn't anything they can do about it.
That's a great question!
The things you mentioned are almost entirely culturally defined. Hormonal / biological things are a bit more nuanced than these. (For example: there is a MASSIVE difference between enjoying gender as a performance or simply the feel of feminine clothing -- like a male cross-dresser might -- and feeling that you are a woman trapped in a man's body -- like a trans woman might. A male cross dresser still self-identifies as a MAN; a transgendered female, on the other hand, self-identifies as a WOMAN.)
Now, that being said, we are hard-wired to be social creatures. How effectively we adapt to our social environment DOES CHANGE: our brain development in our youth, how methyl tags express different chromosomal traits via epigenetics, and a whole host of things from our mental acuity to our bowel movements via changes in brain AND body chemistry as adults. (Did you know that most of the serotonin in your body is actually in your intestines? Well, now you do!)
I wanted to mention all of this because while I am about to make a pretty convincing argument for NURTURE (i.e. socialization and environmental cues) being the driving force behind all of these preferences, there is something to be said for the fact that with enough exposure to something, biology definitely does get involved. It's hardly ever JUST one or the other. To assume that sets up a false dichotomy and frames all of this in kind of an antiquated 19th or 20th century paradigm.
Here's my awesome argument! :)
Up until the early 20th century, for example, pink was considered a macho color because it closely resembled red! In the early 20th century the gender colors actually flip-flopped! It used to be blue for girls, pink for boys. (If that reversal seems odd, it shouldn't. Just think of how many traditionally masculine names -- Lynsey, Alex, Riley, Courtney, Ashley, Avery -- are now so commonly thought of as girls' names, that I bet some of you didn't even realize that these were boys' names to begin with! This sort of thing happens all the time. SOCIAL NORMS CHANGE.)
SOME girls grow up to like lace and dresses (though honestly about half don’t) because they are socialized literally from birth to be surrounded by and draped in these things. Parents dress their children in frilly pink stuff right off the bat to avoid questions about gender during a time in their children’s lives when they all look a bit like adorable grumpy little old men with teeny tiny squirmy baby toes.
Women who play “femme” in real life tend to reap very real social rewards. (If this weren't true, no one would ever buy long wigs from me because they are a massive pain in the you-know-what to maintain.) This is called “social capital.” Though it is often difficult for someone to put their finger on what those rewards may be while they are actively receiving them, it is VERY easy to detect what they were once they are gone!
Women who conform to our society's relatively rigid and narrowly-defined ideals of beauty and perform their gender in a very specific way attain the highest social gains.
If they gain some weight, lose their hair, or (GASP!) age, that capital wanes because they are unintentionally in violation of our social ideals of femininity. The multi-billion dollar beauty industries of the world would disappear overnight if these ideals were abandoned . . . but the funny thing is, men and women are both equally complicit in upholding these standards. In fact, in most Western cultures it is actually the women who are considered the primary enforcers of social norms. It's not just some weird misogynist plot. We're also doing it to ourselves -- and we're mostly doing it out of fear of missing out on the social gains that come with compliance to beauty norms: higher general likability, attention and esteem from strangers, and other subtle things that can lead to enhanced social opportunities for the prettier people among us.
In a similar vein, SOME boys grow up to like football and such (though many do not), usually because they were socialized by friends or family members who got them involved with it, either as a spectator or participant at a young age. (Side note: sports were not always so culturally ubiquitous! The modern obsession with sports and machismo only really came about after the late 19th century! Men were not always like that. In fact, men prior to the late Victorian era often considered recreational sports wasteful and even dangerous. SOCIAL NORMS CHANGE.) These are usually bonding activities that help teach a lot of very valuable skills -- such as communication, self-reliance (if an individual sport), discipline, and other social skills -- and are also rewarded with a lot of social capital later in life. Sports are so omnipresent in modern male life that one need not participate to reap the benefits. Watching or having passive conversational amounts of knowledge are often enough to get by for most men. There are often subtle social penalties for men who do NOT like these things, so it is advantageous for a man to socially engage in these activities . . . therefore, most do.
And let's not forget: some people just get into these things BECAUSE THEY ARE FUN for them!
There are always exceptions and that's a beautiful thing! Everyone's got the right to figure this stuff out on their own, so you'll always have outliers. Remember that this entire article has been generalizations about massive groups of people. It isn't meant to describe every little subgroup in fine detail.
A sad truth is that anyone who deviates from our cultural norms and standards has a tougher time adapting and navigating through life than those who do. Sometimes this is a volitional thing, and other times it is something the individual has absolutely no control over. It's not fair in the slightest . . . but unfortunately, that's life. Haters gonna hate. Listen to some T. Swift and try not to let it get you down. There are still lots of excellent cookies to be eaten and sunny days to be explored, even if mean people continue to be their mean old nasty selves.
The bottom line:
It’s all about incentives. Most people want to go with the life that’s going to be the most fun and the most gains for minimal effort, so it makes sense for them to adhere to these standards when they are able to so with minimal discomfort.
It’s the economics of social capital at work. :)