By Zoe Christodoulides
THE TEENAGED world is a strange one. There’s peer pressure to deal with, hormones raging, and a whole load of social and cultural stereotypes that aren’t always easy, or even sensible, to adhere to. Understanding a teenage mind-set is never easy.
One Nicosia teacher recently decided to embark on a project with her students to really try and comprehend what it feels like to be a young man or woman living in Cyprus today.
The aim was more than just finding out whether they are happy or not, as she set out to dig a little deeper, probing into how gender expectations in 2013 affect them in their daily lives and shape their behaviour.
The Highgate School English and literature teacher, Alexandra Papadopoulos, began the assignment as a reflection of her concerns about how teens today are affected by all the media imagery projected on a daily basis. More specifically, it was the recent hoo-hah surrounding the provocative Miley Cyrus ‘Wrecking Ball’ video that got her thinking. The video sees the teenage pop icon swinging around naked on top of a wrecking ball and provocatively licking a sledgehammer. Noticing the controversy in the media, Alexandra thought about what effect something like this may have on a young mind.
Such queries tend to be a common phenomenon among parents today, points out child psychologist and family councillor, Doros Michaelides.
“I have noticed that a great number of parents are increasingly becoming very sensitive about their child’s sexuality and how they will live up to the expectations that have been set out for them,” he explains.
It is these expectations that Alexandra was intent on probing.
“As a teacher and mother of two, I feel worried about what these images are doing to young women,” Alexandra explains. “How is the media affecting how children want to act? What do all the things they see around them make them feel? What about those pageants that we see on TV when young girls strut around in tiny bikinis?”
She didn’t just factor young women into the equation.
“I think boys have a lot to deal with too. They are expected to be protective, aggressive, physically strong and make lots of money that equals success. I find it all really worrying. What are we telling young people to be?”
Alexandra set about asking her teenage students about gender expectations by giving each of them the task of writing an article in response to how they feel about growing up today.
One young man named Kyriakos expressed concerns that the kids around him use dress as a way of ‘looking cool’ or ‘fitting in’. And it’s the provocative clothing that seems to have hit a hard note with this teenager.
“A lot of younger men and women wear a lot of different clothes. By different I mean see-through tops, short skirts etc. They tend to show too much skin,” he writes in his piece. “If you were to go for a walk during the afternoon or even the evening, you would see what I mean. Girls and boys meet up just to chill out and have a chat. I look at them and ask myself, ‘Why do they dress like that?’ What I personally believe is that they dress this way because they think it’s cool. To them, they don’t see anything wrong.”
Inevitably affected by the media and culture around them, kids obviously can’t turn a blind eye to all the highly sexualised images of pop stars, singers and actors that they in turn often idealise.
“When children grow up, the first thing they want is to be liked by other kids,” says Michaelides. “It’s not so much what adults think of them but more about their peer group. And they look to stars they deem to be successful as something they can copy.”
But to Alexandra’s surprise, most of the kids in question actually express the feeling that gender stereotypes are not really a cause for major concern.
“It has all been very interesting. I was actually expecting them to feel more oppressed than they do,” the teacher points out. “They are all aware of gender expectations and clearly know what most of them are, but at the same time, they seem to insist on their own personal power and individual choices. They feel they have what it takes to stand strong in the face of what is expected of them.”
Johnny’s response is indicative of this. “I think being a male in Cyprus, people do expect certain things from me. For instance, pretty much all of the guys have strong deep voices and an aggressive nature that I do not have. This stereotype does fail me on certain levels because I am not like that.”
But Johnny is convinced that he isn’t one to cave in to these expectations. “The thing is when I sat down to write this article, I was completely lost for ideas because I believe that a lot of these filters don’t actually count. I think that when you’re in your early teens like I am you just find a way to get along with people no matter what size, shape or form you are.”
Maro’s response as a young girl is similar to Johnny’s, starting her article by stipulating that some youngsters may get dragged into smoking or drugs in order to fit in with the crowd. But she is adamant that she won’t get sucked into any of it.
“Personally, none of this actually has ever happened to me. These are stereotypes that are assumed by a majority of people living in Cyprus, myself included. Yet, stereotyping has not affected me in any way,” she wrote.
What’s noteworthy is that her sporting talent makes her feel a great sense of empowerment as a female, allowing her to carve a niche for herself as a girl who excels at an activity historically associated with male strength and stamina.
“I am an equestrian, originally a mostly male sport. Ironically though, my boy cousin participates in gymnastics, which seems to be more of a girly sport. Maybe I’m not affected by gender discrimination because I’m a tomboy or could be because I’m not small or weak. If anything, I stand tall and strong like the great Amazons from the ancient tales.”
But it can’t be ignored that the children’s determination about being powerful and not susceptible to gender stereotypes, could be a result of their young age and the innocence that often goes with it. After all, it’s only once adulthood strikes that they will begin to see what being a ‘man’ and being a ‘woman’ means in the workplace, in a household or in a marriage.
One young man named Charentz stipulates that he mostly agrees with what the male gender is expected to be like, but claims that these definitions do not affect him at all.
“For some other people it might affect them, but for me it does not. I would not expect many things from a male gender, but I expect them to like and play football, to like rap, like and play video games and to be sporty.” One could argue that without probably being aware of it, Charentz views of what a boy should like have no doubt been influenced by his surroundings, what he has seen on TV, or what has heard is cool from other boys.
But this doesn’t mean that a sense of individuality is obsolete, even in a world saturated with stereotypes. And Michaelides stipulates that it’s usually the family that play the biggest part in making sure that the right values are instilled.
“It’s the parents that give a child the feeling that they can be themselves and be accepted for who they are,” says the psychologist.
He goes on to insist that this is not something that should begin during adolescence, but at a very early age.
“You need to make sure there is healthy communication with your child from moment they start walking and talking,” the psychologist adds. “We have to help them not feel a sense of rejection and to not punish themselves by turning to unrealistic expectations.”