Sex differences | Gender | Third gender | Intersex | Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome
3 dimensions of gender
Gender in our world is really split into the physical aspects of our bodies and the way we express ourselves through the way we dress and the ways we behave.
One way to imagine gender is with three dimensions:
- Physical – the way the body looks and its underlying biology
- Mental – the way we feel we are
- Expression – the outward appearance, the way we express ourselves through behaviour, clothing, haircut, etc.
Gender is supposed to be clear and well-defined by our external and internal genitalia – male or female.
There are physical aspects that are identified as male or female, including:
- body shape
- external and internal genitalia
- secondary gender characteristics (eg. male facial hair, female breasts, etc.)
Our genitalia, hormones and chromosomes are used to identify our physical gender, but even these aren’t 100% accurate. Here is where the sliding scale above can help.
Our genitalia can be large, small or different depending on all sorts of factors, both known and unknown. People born with ambiguous genitalia are termed intersex and their lives can be very difficult.
Hormones can be affected by different biological syndromes which means that despite their presence or absence, our bodies don’t react as expected. Androgen insensitivity syndrome is where, for example, testosterone doesn’t make the fetus change to male as expected.
How a person feels about their gender identity is rarely taken into consideration. The majority of people in the world identify as male or female and are perfectly happy with that.
These people are referred to as cisgender.
But this isn’t an absolute rule. It’s an assumption, an expectation. And it’s not true for everyone.
We all sit on a sliding scale of mental gender, from the stereotypes of masculinity and femininity shown in movies and popular culture, to the ways we behave around others.
Not everyone conforms to the stereotypes we often see in popular culture about how men and women look, dress and behave. Men can cry. Women can be strong.
Many of the rules about appropriate behaviour and appearance for people perceived as male and female date back to the eighteenth century and reflect the influence of dominant religions (Muslim, Jewish and Christian). The result was that social gender roles for men and women became very sharply defined, with “male” and “female” roles viewed as being complete opposites.
Historically, however, there have always been variations in gender expression, and in some societies people who didn’t fit in with dominant gender roles were accorded particular status. For example, two-spirit people often became the shamans of native American tribes.
These days, not conforming to social gender stereotypes is more permissible; females especially have more license to be tomboys and dress in ways that are not considered stereotypically feminine. People who are perceived as boys on the other hand often still face stricter social conventions about appropriate dress and behaviour, although this varies considerably by social context and group.