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Growing up, I was encouraged on many occasions to think outside the box. Yet I was never told explicitly what the box is. Is it a cardboard box? Is it plastic? Steel? I can’t think outside of the box if I have no clue what the box is! Okay, so maybe the box isn’t a real thing that we can see or hold. Maybe the box is a metaphor.

I’m a little bit older now, and I’m starting to think I know what this box is. The box is a social construct built by society and all of its many layers. The box is held up by every little message we’re bombarded by as we grow up. It tells us what to look like, what to say, what to do, and perhaps most powerfully, how to feel. In some cases, it tells us not to feel at all.

Razor commercials. Be hairless. Acne medication. Have perfect skin.Deodorant and body spray. Smell good and you will be swarmed by men, women, or whomever you desire. Yeah, okay.
These ads, designed by strangers, tell us exactly what we want to be like. And gosh darn it, we totally gobble it up. Our boxes get stuffed full of ideas, goals, and fears. Sometimes we succeed in incorporating these ideas into our beings. But what happens when we fail to do that? What happens when we can’t fit into the box?

Recently I’ve been fortunate enough to be working with teenagers in public high schools all over Cape Cod. We organize the students as a club for Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP), and work on projects to improve their community and society at large. We do this by identifying what problematic social norms exist in their day-to-day lives, analyzing the issues, and implementing solutions to change those “problem norms.”

So what do teenagers think of the box?

Well, we happen to have an exercise we use with teenagers called The Gender Box. During this activity, we have our high school participants describe to us what it means to be a proper man or woman, through their eyes or how they have been taught growing up. The influencing factors in their answers range from TV advertisements, movies, music, TV, their family members, and even pornography. Despite the fact that these expectations are often incredibly unrealistic, younger people frequently still strive to meet them.

Young men are told to be macho, manly, tough, and stoic. Don’t be weak, feminine, sensitive, or emotional.

Young women are told to be classically attractive, smart (but not too smart), submissive, and skinny. Don’t be unattractive, stupid, aggressive, or overweight.

When young individuals don’t meet these societal expectations, or when they fall outside of the box, they are frequently shamed or ostracized for their differences. Other times, they can develop severely debilitating health issues, such as depression, eating disorders, and even suicidal contemplation.

By identifying what our boxes are, we can aim to break them down. The world is incredibly diverse. As such, we should collectively work to identify societal norms that are meant to shame us, and subsequently dismantle them. Otherwise, we will continue to riddle our souls and minds with anxiety about what we should be, instead of just being who we are.

Okay, I kind of figured it out. Thinking outside of the box means to respect yourself and others, as well as the differences that make us all unique.
-IH Teen Counselor