New Survey May Say More About Gender Expression than Youth Mental Health

by | March 3, 2012
filed under Can-Con, Feminism

crying boyLast week Global Montreal posted a news article about a survey conducted by Queen’s University in partnership with the Public Health Agency of Canada and Health Canada. A total of 26,000 youth between the ages of 11 and 15 were surveyed. The main gist of the results is that girls are more likely to have emotional problems and mental health concerns than boys. However, the method of information gathering and the types of questions asked may actually tell us more about gender expression than mental health. To illustrate my concerns I have analyzed two survey conclusions below.

1. “While boys are more likely than girls to report behavioural problems such as cutting classes or skipping school, talking back to teachers and getting into fights, girls are more likely to report emotional problems – feeling low, feeling nervous or helpless, feeling left out of things or feeling lonely” (Global Montreal, 2012).

I provide social support to homeless and street-involved youth. In my experience, the vast majority of male youth DO experience feelings of depression, nervousness, loneliness or alienation but DON’T feel comfortable expressing these feelings. Instead, they act them out in more masculine and socially-approved ways – getting into fights, bullying or withdrawing. Remember, boys are raised to be MEN and told that real men don’t cry or show signs of weakness.

Since this is a study based on self-reporting it is difficult to evaluate the results, since expression is mediated and often restricted by gendered expectations.  Girls are encouraged to talk about their feelings whereas boys are taunted and called names if they do. And guess what, this trend clearly carries over into adulthood since the study also reported that youth found “it easier to talk to their mothers than their fathers about things that really bother them” (Global Montreal, 2012).

2. “More girls than boys believe their body is too fat. By Grade 10, 39 per cent of girls think they’re too fat – a greater percentage than those who are actually overweight or obese” (Global Montreal, 2012).

The above statement suggests that the survey asked the youth if they feel like their body is too fat. If so, this line of questioning is problematic because it does not take into account men’s body image concerns.

Last year I attended a lecture on men’s body image and the drive for muscularity presented by Dr. Don McCreary. What surprised me was learning that men would rather be fat than “skinny”. Studies on men’s body image show that men with average body sizes want to gain 33 pounds of muscle but they’ll accept fat because it makes their bodies bigger overall. For men, bigger is better because it represents power. Dr. McCreary said that this concern went unnoticed for so long because body image surveys asked the WRONG questions!

Previously, surveys assumed that men’s body image issues would parallel women’s. So with that in mind, it’s really not shocking that more girls think they are too fat. And I think it goes without saying that the societal pressure on girls to be skinny is extreme – but that’s a discussion for another day.

If you are interested in more information on masculinity, I strongly suggest the documentary Tough Guise by Jackson Katz. The documentary examines the cultural construction of masculinity with a focus on popular culture. Watch clips from the documentary on YouTube:

(photo by Miika Silferberg via Wikimedia Commons)

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