The embodiment of sex and gender

It is believed that children start to feel their sex identity and express their own gender by the age of three. However, if we consider that gender/sex identity is not something that you build from one day to the next, one question remains: how and when do we start embodying our gender/sex?

This post is also available in Dutch.

Two interconnected concepts

The definitions of sex and gender have evolved over time. Originally, sex was exclusively defined in terms of biological markers (based on reproductive organs and sexual chromosomes). On the other hand, gender was described as our self-representation as male or female based on our environment and experience. In other words: sex was biological and gender cultural.

But these superficial categories did not take into consideration the unity of oneself, nor the diversity existing in the spectrum of sex and gender identity (male, female, intersex, transexual, etc.). Having male genitalia and identifying yourself as a woman should not be perceived as “out of the box”. 

Therefore, researchers defined a unified concept of gender/sex as whole people/identities and/or aspects of women, men and people that relate to identity and/or cannot really be sourced specifically to sex or gender

Building mental representations

Infants’ interactions with their parents and caregivers are essential to start developing their own representations of the concept of gender/sex. Young children have a particularity: they see the world in one dimension instead of multiple as adults do. Take an onion, for example, and in this metaphor, imagine that each layer represents a different modality (the sense of vision, hearing, taste, olfaction, touch, etc.). As an adult, I will have to peel the layers one by one to reach the essence of the scene, whereas infants have a very unspecific and global perception which enables them to directly get to the heart of the scene. And this might explain how they can massively build up their own representations of the world and people around them. 

The expression of gender/sex through the body

Daily, we express our gender/sex identity in the way we behave, the way we move, the way we speak, and how we interact with each other. Those traits are not just physical features, they are embodied (internalized into our body) through life experience. One example could be the fact that a little girl will tend to play more with dolls than climbing trees, or a woman will more likely sit cross-legged than a man. Originally, the reason was practical as at that time women were often dressed in skirts, but then sitting cross-legged became a habit of the body, something women would do unconsciously, even when wearing trousers.

What we don’t know yet

Broadly speaking, it appears that we do not have much insight into when and how exactly the relationship with the body and the representation of self and others, but also the belonging to a family and culture, influence how infants start developing their own gender/sex identity. As a matter of fact, studying sexuality in infants often seems disturbing for the simple reason that we tend to look at it with adult eyes. Moreover, we have seen that gender/sex identity results from interactions with our closest surroundings and therefore remains culturally specific. Unfortunately, most studies on gender and infant development are based on families from North America or Europe and are primarily white and middle class. The work of Halim and colleagues is an exception providing information about ethnic minority children. 

Author: Kim Beneyton
Buddy: Martina Arenella
Editor: Marisha Manahova
Translation: Felix Klaassen
Editor translation: Jill Naaijen

Photo by Sandy Millar via Unsplash

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