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Teen and Parent Wellbeing

Stereotypes

By Arya Jodh

What do you think stereotypes are? 

Often we mistake them as something uncommon, something that we don’t perpetuate or have applied to us, but stereotypes are apparent in almost every aspect of our lives. It isn’t hard to imagine a world where everyone looks at you through a judgmental filter in order to sort you into different social categories because that is already a part of our reality. These are stereotypes. By textbook definition, a stereotype is “a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing.” Commonplace labels based on stereotypes, even the seemingly harmless ones like “jock”, and “nerd,” can be  problematic because of how deeply they are rooted in society, continuously spreading ignorance and false assumptions.

It is first important to reflect on your life, actions, and experiences regarding stereotypes. To do that, follow these two steps: 

Step 1) Take a moment to bring to mind any stereotypes you may have applied to people in your own life and what negative effects that may have had. Acknowledging the issue is the first step to making progress in being mindful about everyday actions and language.

Step 2) Take another moment to think about whether others have applied stereotypes to you, and how that made you feel. You could have been a victim of hate speech, or something about your identity was the target of a “joke” and you might have been told to “chill” about it. Stereotypes are present nearly everywhere in our everyday lives and can manifest as casual assumptions we’ve made about the people around us, both positive and negative, which can accumulate to fuel interpersonal conflicts, bullying or even hate crimes.

And if you have used a stereotype, you might not have done it on purpose! It could have been unintentional, based on what you learned through observing your family’s and friends’ beliefs, and the people stereotyping you might not realize their mistake either!  Regardless of intention, people can suffer very serious mental distress as a result of being stereotyped, especially children and teenagers because they are still in the process of developing their own identity all while society is telling them to label themselves. These stereotypes place people into confined boxes that they don’t necessarily fit into in order to label them as “something”. These labels may be wrong, or just don’t show the whole picture. A prominent part of society where stereotypes are used is school. Stereotypes at school are used by teachers, students, sports coaches, parents, and the list goes on. As we said before, the use of stereotypes might be unintentional or purposeful. For starters, gender and dress coding is a huge and widely held stereotype. Female presenting people in the hallways will get dress-coded for “showing too much skin” while biological males can take their shirts off during athletic practices and not get any negative consequences. Another stereotype common at schools is students being unofficially ranked at school based on race. Many of you have heard “asian nerd” or “dumb blonde”. Statements like these are so common and used flippantly. Often, it may not seem insulting in the context it is used, but if you take the time to think about if the context was different, things take a different meaning and effect. It is important to be mindful with your words and avoid stereotypes because while it is not always insulting, someone is always categorized incorrectly, and by being mindful, you can combat this. 

In addition, often we hear intentional statements being made, like “you’re good at this sport for a girl” or in other cases “you’re smart for someone who’s pretty”. These are called microaggressions. These little comments are the intentional, negative use of stereotypes. If you catch yourself using a microaggression or catch someone else, take some time to figure out why it can be wrong and how to look at the situation differently in order to not use microaggressions. Scaled up from microaggressions come prejudicial bullying. Some examples of this were crime against East Asians after the spread of COVID-19, or the hate crimes stemming from the rampant Islamophobia after 9/11. These prejudicial stereotypes are rooted in society, are harder to unlearn and are more subtle, which can make them harder to realize they are wrong. They can come from personal upbringing, school social environments, or even the widespread media. And as mentioned before, these can lead to verbal, physical, and even cyber bullying. 

People, especially kids, who grow up being bullied based on these stereotypes can struggle with their self-image and self-worth, and they create an overall negative environment to grow up in. At school, when a child is targeted by bullies who based their targets on religion or race because of stereotypes, a person can feel like a piece of their identity is worthless. This is because they are being shown by their surroundings that they are being perceived as an outcast. Mentally, especially in teens who are working to solidify their identity, this can cause social anxiety in the sense that they experience a loss of self-confidence and may end up feeling the need to unnecessarily change themselves for other people or to fit in. This can harm teens’ “self-image,” or the way that they view themselves. Especially nowadays, where more and more teens are feeling insecure about themselves, bullying from others could really damage someone. Within the past couple of years, suicide rates in teens have been rising, so it is important that teens feel comfortable in their own bodies to be who they really are. One example of this outside bullying influence is body shaming people. Social media creates a harmful stereotype saying that people need to have a “perfect body” to be pretty and things like that. This can lead to teens feeling the need to change themselves for others or to “fit in” to the stereotype, which could result in serious conditions such as eating disorders. When someone receives a negative comment based on stereotypes through social media about their physical or mental state, it is harder to deal with. This is because social media provides an outlet that can hide the instigator. Not being able to know who the other person is can leave the victim feeling helpless because they can’t stand up for themselves without taking extreme measures. 

Let’s take a look at some other stereotypes that target teens in general. There is a wide-held bias against teens that a lot of adults believe. Usually, adults place teens into a category that says that teens are inherently “up-to-no-good”. And even when an adult has known a teen for a long time and knows they are a good person, the adult trusts the stereotype more than they trust the teen themselves. On top of that, many adults have an expectation that a teen should have their future planned out and should be doing everything they can in school to get good grades, sports, extracurriculars, and the list goes on. This double standard can cause anxiety and cause the individual to feel a lot of pressure. This can lead teens to feel like they aren’t good enough for their parents or other adults, or that they will never meet their expectations. And eventually, even if teens feel comfortable enough to share their feelings, many adults tell them they are being “sensitive”, also perpetuating stereotypes about mental health. And this leads to a never-ending cycle of teens feeling like they aren’t good enough for their parents, and bottling up their feelings. This lack of trust doesn’t let communication happen, which is essential in building a healthy relationship without stereotypes. 

In all of these situations, it is important to be aware and informed. Be mindful of your language and actions to create healthy and positive environments for you and people surrounding you. Taking the time to be informed will also help you in the event you need to resolve a situation created by stereotypes. If someone calls you out for using a stereotype, don’t get defensive and try to prove yourself, just own up to it, apologize, and move on. It is essential to be mindful of how big of an impact yours, or someone else’s words could potentially have and to be mindful of others’ feelings on the receiving ends of these types of jokes and bullying situations. By taking others’ feelings into account, it is easier to not use those stereotypes. Overall, stereotypes are prominent in almost every decision in our lives today. Realizing these biases and views on society and making efforts to come together and respect each other’s differences can make a huge impact. As a community, we can work together to unroot any deeply held stereotypes or prejudices that are prominent in our world today. 

“The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they aren’t true, but they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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