Cultural Norms and Conformity

Cultural Norms and Conformity

Let’s consider the example of grooming norms to illustrate the power of cultural socialization. Imagine it is a hot summer day and you are having lunch in an outdoor café. You notice an attractive couple sitting at the table next to you. Just like many others, they are wearing shorts and tank tops, enjoying the warm weather. At some point, the man raises his arm to flag down the waiter. The café’s busy, and the waiter doesn’t notice. After a few minutes of being ignored, the woman raises her arm in an attempt to get the waiter’s attention, and you see that she does not shave under her arms and has a thick patch of black underarm hair.

Many people would feel a sense of shock; some might even lose their appetite. You might point it out to your lunch mate, and tell your friends about it later that day. However, thinking back to when the man raised his arm, you might realize that you did not have any reaction at all to his unshaved armpits. In fact, they didn’t even register. Yet underarm hair is completely natural to the adult human body—male and female. Why would the woman’s hair disgust many of us, but not the man’s? It is because we have been socialized to see underarm hair as inappropriate for women. This socialization is so effective that we actually have a physical reaction when the norm is violated. Further, this norm is specific to dominant culture in Canada and the United States. In a different social context (or place or time), underarm hair on women would appear natural, perhaps even sexy, to most people.

This leads to another key aspect of socialization—our beliefs need not be inherently true to have very real consequences. For example, it is not inherently true that underarm hair on women is disgusting. But if that is the norm in our culture, it will be true in its impact; we will still feel disgusted and this disgust will seem natural and appropriate. So despite not being inherently true, the effect and consequences of our socialization are real. Similarly, while the colors blue and pink are simply colors that occur in nature and are not naturally male or female, once we assign that meaning to them, they become real in their consequences. Any male who


has worn pink (in the wrong shade or to the wrong place) will know this firsthand; young males in particular actually risk physical harm if this norm is violated in certain spaces. (Why then, you might ask, can a girl wear blue without risking violence? To understand why, you must understand social power, which we address in Chapter 5.)

PERSPECTIVE CHECK: Of course trans and genderqueer peoples face additional social threats and even violence when they transgress social expectations. These additional risks are amplified if they are trans people of Color.

On an abstract level most people grasp the concept of socialization. However, applying it personally to our own lives is more challenging. We live in a culture that teaches us that human objectivity (or independence from socialization) is not only possible, but that it can be readily attained through simple choice. In other words, if I want to be an individual who is not influenced by the forces of socialization around me, then I can just decide that I am an individual who is not influenced by those forces; it is presumed that this decision is all that it takes to break away from the undertow of socialization. Yet this breakaway from socialization is much more challenging than it may appear. There are social, psychological, and material rewards for conformity, such as social acceptance, being treated as “normal” by family, peers, and superiors, and even opportunities for career progression.

Conversely, there are also penalties for not conforming. Take our example of the woman with the underarm hair; while she has the right to not shave under her arms, she also has to deal with the consequences of that choice. For example, she will face looks of disgust, pressure from family and friends, and questions about her sexuality and her hygiene; this choice may even be cause for censure in the workplace. That is, by not playing by the rules, she jeopardizes her status as a “normal” member of that society. And the penalties do not necessarily go away if the woman has greater social power. For instance, female celebrities who do not shave their armpits are routinely criticized, mocked, and insulted on social media for their choice. Thus the social norms of a given culture, whether we conform to them or choose to challenge them, are powerful and unavoidable. Of course this still assumes that we can readily identify aspects of our socialization we want to change. Much of our socialization is so internalized and taken for granted that we don’t even see it as a choice—we just believe that it’s natural to feel and act the way we do.

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