HER WORLD Sunday, March 23, 2003, Chandigarh, India
 

Survival strategies
How women help each other to live longer

THE question is: Should women become 'more like men' if they aim to be successful? No, warns this study indirectly. It could bring sweet success in a male-dominated world but it could also carry a price tag in the shape of health hazards, says Sakuntala Narasimhan

Crossing boundaries
Weaving a chain for sanity
Anees Jung
S
OME fifteen years ago a frail woman with greying hair and bright blue eyes came to see me and gifted me a ribbon that was embroidered with names and messages of women from across the United States. It was a plea for peace. It started when women began weaving out their plea in kitchens, in living rooms, in their basements.

It is more than just child’s play!
Yogesh Snehi
A
MONG the popular myths about the male-female differentiation, an important one is regarding the link between hormonal variation and muscular development. It is generally believed that testosterone in males makes them masculine and estrogen in females makes them feminine. This has become a standard gender formulation about the psyche of both the sexes.

Why some girls do not play with dolls
Shirish Joshi
G
ENDER identity is an individual’s self-conception as being male or female, as distinguished from actual biological sex. For most people, gender identity and biological sex characteristics are the same. There are, however, circumstances in which an individual experiences little or no connection between sex and gender. Such females are called tomboys. In childhood, they prefer to dress like boys and play with toys like cars and guns and games like ball and the like.

Top









 

Survival strategies
How women help each other to live longer

The question is: Should women become 'more like men' if they aim to be successful? No, warns this study indirectly. It could bring sweet success in a male-dominated world but it could also carry a price tag in the shape of health hazards, says Sakuntala Narasimhan

Women who turn to other women for friendship lower the risk of early death
Women who turn to other women for friendship lower the risk of early death

WOMEN assembling in one another's courtyards in small towns for an afternoon session of 'papad' rolling. Women lingering at the village well for an extended chat. Neighbourhood women getting together after dinner to sing bhajans (devotional songs). Getting together for lunch with old schoolfriends ... kitty parties ... tambola (housie) sessions.

Common to all these diverse images of women's congregations is the fact that men see them as frivolous, trivial, inane, wasteful pastimes, only worthy of jokes. But now comes a study from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) that says such and other female bonding activities serve as very important stress management strategies; and that they even have quantifiable health benefits that males miss out on.

Until this study, by Dr Laura Cousino Klein and researcher Shelley Taylor, was published, scientists generally believed that stress levels trigger a rush of hormones to prepare the body to fight or flee. This study, however, indicates that women have a larger response repertoire than was hitherto understood—more than just the two black or white, flee or fight responses.

Significantly, the study indicates that women under stress manifest a different response, by turning to nurture children or by reaching out to other women for bonding and solace. The impetus to carry out the study came through an 'Aha! moment' one day at a laboratory in UCLA. The joke in the office was that when women were stressed, they turned to cleaning the lab, having coffee or bonding; whereas the men under stress just holed up somewhere on their own. When Klein commented (to Taylor) that 90 per cent of the research on stress was on males, and they followed it up with data scrutiny, the two women realised they were really on to something. And what they have found is being described as a landmark study that has "turned five decades of stress research upside down".

Woman-to-woman friendships and bonding or 'hanging out with friends' serve the purpose of "filling the emotional gaps in our marriages". Besides, says the study published in Psychological Review, when women are under stress, the hormone oxytocin is released as part of the response to stress. This encourages a woman to tend to children or seek the company of other women, and when she is so engaged, more oxytocin is released—which counters stress and has a calming effect.

According to Klein, such a calming effect does not occur in males because the hormone testosterone seems to reduce the effects of oxytocin. Men produce high levels of testosterone when under stress, while the female hormone oestrogen appears to enhance the effect of oxytocin.

Women who turn to other women in or for friendship lower the risks of early death; they also heal faster in times of bereavement or other trauma. An earlier study at Harvard Medical School—the Nurses Health Study—also found that the more friends women had, the less likely they were to develop health problems as they aged; and that women with good or more friends were likely to experience more joy in their lives. Not having close friends (or confidantes), concluded the study, could be as detrimental to health as smoking or obesity!

Seen in the light of the findings of such studies, being with friends and talking to them about oneself with ease, is a "healing experience". Taken a step further, these findings may also explain the rise in 'male' kind of ailments (like heart disease or hypertension) in women who establish themselves as achievers in so-called male bastions. This, because success in such a domain is often equated with 'becoming more like a man' in terms of behavioural responses—aggressive, work driven, emotionally controlled and so on.

The question is: Should women become 'more like men' if they aim to be successful? No, warns this study indirectly. It could bring sweet success in a male-dominated world but it could also carry a price tag in the shape of health hazards. Under modern lifestyle norms, not being on a fast track, or not rushing from one piece of work to another, is seen as 'wasting time'. And it is only in recent times that the importance of relaxation and letting go periodically has been emphasised as good management strategy.

The UCLA study extends the same logic, from the single dimension of time to the two-dimensional reckoning, sharing and caring, which are cited as archetypal 'female' tendencies. Perhaps it is time for men to consider being 'more like women', in the sense of reaching out, bonding, and nurturing, as part of a regimen for better health. And as Klein says, "there's no doubt that friends are helping us to live longer!"
Top

 

Crossing boundaries
Weaving a chain for sanity
Anees Jung

SOME fifteen years ago a frail woman with greying hair and bright blue eyes came to see me and gifted me a ribbon that was embroidered with names and messages of women from across the United States. It was a plea for peace. It started when women began weaving out their plea in kitchens, in living rooms, in their basements. Twentyfive thousand one yard segments, joined together in a ribbon, l5 miles long, was carried by women, children and the old in wheel-chairs and circled around the Pentagon in Washington on a Sunday preceding the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Why the ribbon I asked Justine Merritt who nursed and articulated the idea that spread like a wild fire. "The ribbon like the threat emerged in my mind as a gentle reminder to my nation that we women love the earth. The Pentagon was a symbol of my nation's violence as well as my own. Women placed their bodies and their ribbons between the symbol and the violence."

Reflecting on the terrifying reality of a nuclear world, Justine decided to claim her grief by prayerfully embroidering onto a piece of muslin the names of family members and friends, those most precious to her, whose lives could be lost in a nuclear holocaust. She sent out flyers to women she knew suggesting to them to create their own symbols to thread a way through fear to hope. The ribbon grew. Women from many religious, philosophical, ethnic, cultural , economic and political traditions joined the effort creating their own symbols, using their own media and techniques from applique, quilting and needlework to crayons, paints and glue. The point, as Justine told me, was not merely to sew but make a statement. It touched something deep in the heart of grassroots America. The ribbon experience enabled women to accept their fear of a nuclear holocaust and move past it to an affirmation that there is hope. It enabled women to honour their diversity, celebrate their unity and creatively affirm their deepest fears and highest hopes for a call to peace.

In Delhi, Justine watched Indian women, went around neighbourhoods photographing their clotheslines, envisioning that each may be inspired to donate a sari she treasured that will be held by them from India Gate and move in a pattern of peace to different corners of the city. For any effort to endure it must be a work of heart. And that heart must have courage, an undying faith and the strength of belief in oneself and the other

Remembering Justine, who must be an old woman of eighty now, I renew her pledge to Indian women. Will they transfer their creative energy on ribbons that express their idea of faith and god? How do they feel when these gods are vandalised and in their names battles fought, riots stirred their men and children raped, butchered and killed? Perhaps, Indian women will come out and withhold the sanctity of a faith that they have, for centuries, nurtured and guarded, and protest through their silent energy the desecration of god and his best creation, the humankind. Perhaps the ribbon of their many coloured saris could make a chain around points of worship where men reign in the name of their gods? When Justine left my home she took away part of a door panel embroidered by the women of Kutch. The other half remains with me as a reminder of a dream and a mission that at this point in our ravaged lives must gain a voice, even if it is tiny, even if it faces the threat of being muffled in a wilderness....
Top


 

It is more than just child’s play!
Yogesh Snehi

Girls, in contrast, play on themes related to family and domestic life
Girls, in contrast, play on themes related to family and domestic life

AMONG the popular myths about the male-female differentiation, an important one is regarding the link between hormonal variation and muscular development. It is generally believed that testosterone in males makes them masculine and estrogen in females makes them feminine. This has become a standard gender formulation about the psyche of both the sexes. The fact, however, is that these hormones play a major role in development of sex-organs and muscle growth, rather than masculinity or femininity and muscular distribution is more or less same in both the species.

Such differentiation makes an interesting segregation between the games boys and girls play. Play is a culturally universal activity through which children explore themselves and their environment, test out and practice different social roles, and learn to interact with other children and adults. Early in life, children identify themselves as a boy or a girl, and this basic self-categorisation lays the foundation for their developing beliefs about with whom, what, how, and where they will play. Gender differentiation on the basis of physiology affects the type of games played by both the species.

Boys tend to play more with transportation toys and weapons
Boys tend to play more with transportation toys and weapons

These sex-specific stereotypes are universal and, interestingly, the history of Olympics is potted with these stereotypes. Women were traditionally prohibited from participating in the ancient Olympics. They could not even enter the playing areas. Married women were barred from the ancient Olympics but prostitutes or virgins were allowed to be spectators. Women were originally the prizes in men's ancient Olympic chariot races. Interestingly, the founder of modern games, Pierre de Coubertin, declared himself against women's participation and expressed the opinion that if they could not play in every sport on equal terms with men, they should not be allowed to take part at all. There were just six women competitors in their first-ever participation in modern Olympics of 1900. There were no women members of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) from 1896 until 1981.

Societal expectation and values can create powerful pressures for females and males to behave appropriately according gender and cultural norms. In India, there is a marked segregation between what boys and girls play. Boys tend to play more with transportation toys, weapons and building materials. They are often noisy in their play, shouting out the "swoosh" of the sword or the "crash" of the car. As they grow older, boys engage in a much larger group competitive play, such as sports. Girls, in contrast, play on themes related to family and domestic life. They can often be observed playing with dolls, household objects, dresses and clothes and related materials for creative expression.

Sex difference can be found in where children play. In general, girls are more often found closer to home or indoors, except when they are sent on a specific work, such as fetching firewood or water. In contrast, boys tend to play farther away from home, outdoors, away from direct adult supervision. In the school yard, where many children of a similar age and skill level gather, boys and girls often segregate themselves into separate play areas. Boys tend to take over a larger (up to 10 times more), more central space, leaving girls to play along the periphery.

This differentiation is certainly not normal. Studies have shown the early socialisation through peers, parents and teachers plays an important part in shaping the play patterns of children. When parents give girls dollhouses to encourage them to arrange the tiny furniture and figures, they support fine motor development and aesthetic values. Similarly, encouraging boys to play with building blocks and mechanical toys may foster their greater skill at visual-spatial and logical-mathematical tasks and, thereby, contribute to emerging gender differences in these areas.

Societal expectations and values can create powerful pressures for females and males to behave appropriately according to gender and cultural norms. Children's preferences about toys and activities are also influenced by the media and advertising. It promotes their preferences for gender-stereotyped toys and activities. Boys-tomboy-guns and racecars. Girls-sissy-dolls and tea sets. Additionally, video games and Internet also influence them. Many video games are highly sexist and limiting in the styles of thinking and acting, particularly in the way that they steer boys towards fantasy violence.

The culminating effect of this segregation is the emerging gendered physiology of girls: sleek and slender.

In fact, lack of sports activity naturally makes them inactive and feeble. It also affects the latent psychology of girls. In future, they would prefer a career that suits their physical structure. It should be emphasised that participation in sports benefits women just as it does men, helping them to develop leadership skills, boosting self-esteem and grades, and promoting physical fitness and health.

Top


Home

Why some girls do not play with dolls
Shirish Joshi

GENDER identity is an individual’s self-conception as being male or female, as distinguished from actual biological sex. For most people, gender identity and biological sex characteristics are the same. There are, however, circumstances in which an individual experiences little or no connection between sex and gender. Such females are called tomboys. In childhood, they prefer to dress like boys and play with toys like cars and guns and games like ball and the like.

Gender identity is not fixed at birth. Physiological and social factors contribute to the early establishment of a basic identity. This is modified and expanded by social factors with the passage of time, as the child grows. Sex-role identity, based on gender, is probably the most important category of self-awareness and usually appears by the age of three. The concept "I am a boy" or "I am a girl", is generally established by the time the child reaches the age of three and is extremely difficult to modify thereafter.

An individual’s concept of his or her gender identity develops by means of parental example, social reinforcement, and language. Parents teach sex-appropriate behaviour to their children from an early age, and this behaviour is reinforced as the child grows older and enters a wider social world.

As the child learns to speak, it also learns very early the distinction between "he" and "she" and understands which pertains to him or her. Differences in childhood gender-role behaviour, including toys, playmates and activity preferences, develop as a consequence of numerous influences. For instance, parents, teachers and friends provide more positive reinforcement for gender-specific play than for play that is not so.

The level of mother’s education, the presence of older brothers or sisters in the home, the presence of an uncle, in the home, and parent’s belief in traditional roles of men and women play an important role in establishing gender identity when the child grows up.

However, according to a new study carried out by Dr Melissa Hines, Ph.D., of City University in London and her colleagues, "The tendency for a girl to behave like a boy depends specifically, upon the amount of testosterone — the male hormone — the female baby is exposed to while in the womb.

Testosterone is produced in the testicles and ovaries and, to a much smaller degree, in the adrenal glands. It is responsible for determining the biological differences between the sexes. Men have eight to ten times more testosterone than women do. Levels drop naturally as both sexes age. The amount in the blood varies from person to person.

The researchers measured pregnant women’s levels of testosterone, then evaluated the behavior of their children at age 3˝. The greater the maternal testosterone level, the more likely girls were to engage in boy-like behavior, such as wanting to play with cars and guns and climb trees and playing with toys generally preferred by boys.

The study, part of a major "nature versus nurture" investigation, looked into how children are affected by their genes and environment. Women with low testosterone levels while expecting the baby tended to have girls who displayed typically "girl-like" behaviour — playing with dolls, dressing up and using their mothers’ make-up. Girls who were very, very feminine tended to have mothers who were low in testosterone.

Dr Celina Cohen, of Utrecht University in the Netherlands, and her colleagues think that the brains of girls with twin brothers are slightly more masculine, which again supports the idea that these girls are exposed to higher levels of testosterone in the womb. They tested 67 girls with twin brothers and 54 girls with non-identical twin sisters.

However, the difference is small and Dr Cohen plans further tests to confirm it. She hopes to find out if these girls have other typically masculine traits in areas such as verbal fluency, spatial reasoning and even throwing balls.
Top