Masks Off: Gender and the Pursuit of Belonging on Campus

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The sense of belonging is a human need.

During our college years, most of us try to figure out how to express different aspects of our identities, like our cultures, genders, and values — and how we fit in to the world that surrounds us.

In 2012, I started the University of Pennsylvania as a sheltered, timid, studious 18 year-old. My self-worth was tightly bound to my perfect grades. I never missed a class, and I did every assigned reading. But I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, and at Penn, this put me in the minority. As I looked around at my peers, I felt lost and unprepared. My prior drinking experience amounted to a tequila shot, and my experience interacting with boys was even less extensive than mine with liquor. Penn’s social scene was a new ball game that I had absolutely no idea how to play — so as I did with most things I didn’t know how to do, I stayed away. I was not like most of the freshman girls I encountered daily, and I didn’t dare to own my difference.

Fast forward to my junior year. Within this two-year period, I had changed: I’d gone out frequently — from clubs, to fraternity latenights, to BYOs — while maintaining straight A’s. I was finally proud, rather than ashamed, of my life; and everything, theoretically, had been perfect — it appeared that I had finally belonged at Penn.

And then the façade fell apart: I felt like my environment had become toxic. My mind constantly floated in a heavy, black cloud. I couldn’t breathe. I wanted to be far away from parties, boys and alcohol. To distract from my insecurities about my un-Penn-conventional, unplanned future, my mind told me I didn’t need friends that were “choosing” interviews with JP Morgan over hanging out with me. Isolating myself was easier to stomach than being rejected — it gave me more power. My negative self-thought patterns and peer comparisons ate away at me daily. I coped with my anxiety in very unhealthy ways, and fell very ill very fast. I definitely didn’t know it then, but trying to fit in, and be someone I was not, nearly killed me. Criticizing myself, and ignoring the unique talents and skills I possessed, because I didn’t want to be an investment banker or consultant — but didn’t know what I should be, contributed to my downfall. I reached my breaking point. Leaving Penn for a year was possibly the best decision I never made (Student Health did. I insisted on staying on to graduate, but little did I know, I would not have survived).

During my time away from campus, I learned that it’s unproductive to sit and judge others who we don’t get; or who don’t get us. It’s a matter of acceptance. We view the world through our experiences; and where there is a belief, value, thought or action about someone else, the reason for it usually exists within ourselves. I had judged everyone around me because I wasn’t like them. I wanted to be, but had failed — and that was scary. Until I realized I hadn’t actually failed at anything.

Reinvigorated, I returned to Penn for the Fall 2016 semester wanting to see if I could go back and correct some of my previous negative biases and assumptions about Penn’s culture. Additionally, from the Stanford case to Harvard’s ban on all-male Final Clubs, the “bad behavior” of college men was a hot topic in the news at that time. Groups of men — fraternities, athletic teams — often face stereotyping, judgment, and blame for harmful actions, including hazing rituals and sexual violence against women. But do men really want to do these things, or is it part of a larger need to belong? Just as I had come into Penn one way; and unknowingly changed drastically in the pursuit to fit in — were there specific aspects of campus culture that encouraged Penn’s men (and women) to perform their genders a certain way?

I investigated these questions as part of my senior thesis on the contextual influences on masculinity at Penn. I interviewed eleven undergraduate men, and ten undergraduate women. I tried to include a range of demographics by reaching out to members of different clubs and student organizations, from a cappella groups to athetic teams.

The men I interviewed acknowledged that they had grown up learning about the “traditional” roles and norms of men — being tall, buff, unemotional, independent, assertive, and self-supportive. Though most said they had not felt pressured to adhere to these ideas, they still followed some of them “just because they are good things to be.”

Upon coming to Penn, some of them had not expected women to be as qualified or capable as men in the “manly” subjects — but changed their minds after taking Wharton or Pre-med classes with women.

Especially in Wharton, [at first] you’d think like, “I’m not so sure she’s gonna be great, she’s a girl… she may not be that aggressive in this thing we need to be aggressive in”… but then when you start dealing with more and more of them you’re like, “Oh I was completely wrong, they’re doing a great job.” This stereotype I had in mind, it’s true some of the time, but its true of guys some of the time too, and if I apply this to women and not men, I’m disadvantaged in group projects because I’m not allowing myself to pick the best people to work with. ­– Senior man

Despite feeling that they have to be more assertive and self-assured in order to be as heard and fairly treated as “the guys” in classes and group meetings, women acknowledged that compared to the real world, “the guys at Penn are used to no-nonsense-taking, intelligent, powerful women.”

Penn’s culture, marked by competition and pre-professionalism, enhances this gender-neutral quality. There is pressure to be the best, the coolest, the most marketable, and the most accomplished. Penn students emulate a specific, “Wall Street” lifestyle, “based on money, status, and where you work… a top-down backbone.” The competition felt in the academic sphere transfers into a need to feel “successful” socially too — known as “Work Hard-Play Hard.”

The social culture is characterized by a “appreciation for drinking,” to the extent that “people have forgotten how to have fun without it.” One sophomore woman talked about how she hadn’t wanted to go out and drink as a freshman, but found herself sitting in her room with nothing to do. She also explained, “we all work hard, but ‘play hard’ means ‘I need to go black-out at a frat.’”

This predominant, play-hard, social scene is “dictated” by fraternities. Multiple respondents agreed that “men have control over the environment” because “alcohol gives frats power over the school, and over women.”

The almost exclusive ability to host large parties with alcohol, combined with exclusive membership; as well as the exclusive ”admission” process into parties, creates and maintains the social status and authority of fraternity men as a dominant “type” of man on campus. During NSO (freshman orientation), men perceive that joining a fraternity is the “cool” and appropriate thing for guys to do if they want to have a social life.

Aside from the “double-standard,” whereby fraternities can access alcohol whilst sororities cannot; women need to dress a particular way, drink, and most importantly, conform to the norms of the hook-up culture, which often put them in a subordinate position in relation to men.

Men are perceived as “cool” when they have sex with many girls, or at least if they appear to be doing so. Hook-up culture norms also grant men “permission” to care less about how they treat women, because they hold the power in the situation.

Men were described as trying to exercise their dominance at these parties, where they act entitled to women’s bodies and often use alcohol as an excuse to assert their masculinity. According to one woman, “at frat parties, there is less opportunity for a deeper connection and appreciation for people as ‘people’… there are guys grinding up on you… hovering like hawks watching you,” because “it’s their social role… they have a sense of entitlement, like, “I want it right now, I’m going to get it.” It was unanimously agreed that men hold the traditional, dominant position as the initiators of these social interactions.

Women sacrifice their own values and freedoms for men, but do so under the impression that they are voluntarily and actively participating in their sexuality, rather than their sexualization and submission.

However, respondents also noted that women are often contributors toward their subordination, which bolsters this male-dominant environment. Women often feel obliged to have sex with men whether or not they really want to — not necessarily because men pressure them, but rather, because they feel pressured to adhere to the expectations of having a “successful” social life; by following the rules of hook-up culture and associating with men of “status.”

So the girls I’m talking about… if they know the guys in [a certain fraternity] are going to be at Smokes [a bar on campus], they’ll go. If they’re not going to be there, they’ll be like, “Why would we go tonight?” A lot of the way they think is like who is going to be there and who is going to see them and how they are going to be perceived… it’s validating for them… I think these people are also very insecure. — Senior woman

Generally speaking, there’s an expectation that if a guy takes you to a date-night or asks you out, that you’re going to be willing to put out a lot more than what [you] might necessarily want… I think a lot of girls as freshmen will do more than they feel comfortable with because they feel a social pressure and norm that doesn’t really exist… I’m sure [my boyfriend] has slept with girls that were way too intoxicated, like I know he has — but that’s like a normal guy thing, not like anyone is calling “rape” type of thing. — Junior woman

Caring about who they are seen with is just one aspect of students’ greater concerns over how they will be perceived by peers; from physical attractiveness, to social and financial status; and the overall ability to be fully in control and successful in every aspect of their lives.

The “Penn Face,” defined as “never admitting or showing you are not okay,” means students have to present themselves as fine; not overburdened or incapable of handling the demands of Penn’s culture and the world of opportunity beyond the bubble. The “humble brag” is common — “I only slept three hours last night” — but if you’re really struggling, it is uncommon that your peers will know the extent of your problems and be compassionate enough to put aside the time to help. Coined relatively recently, the “Penn Face” has become a popular term in the face of Penn’s staggering suicide rate — over twelve students in a four-year period — which has raised discussions about mental illness in relation to Penn’s competitive culture and lack of community support.

Students often also do not present the authentic versions of themselves in a physical sense in order to fit in and boost their status on campus. For example, I was told that whether or not a man is actually a fraternity brother, White, upper class, or even heterosexual, he just has to appear to fit these ideals in order to retain a “normative” status as a man on Penn’s campus. Men I spoke to that did not meet the ideals above with regard to class or race found that joining certain groups that represent this dominant culture, such as “Whiter,” richer fraternities or sports teams, could serve as tickets to their belonging as Penn men.

I reached a surprisingly simple but important conclusion from my research, which an insightful senior also deduced during her interview:

The Penn Face is real. You have to present yourself as fine. Men have society telling them all this, so it’s harder for them… there is double pressure on men. Women are seen as more emotional by society, so it’s more socially acceptable for them to not be okay.

The sense of belonging is a human need.

Through both my study and personal experiences, I found that in order to belong at Penn, we strive to conform to its norms, whether to deal with the intense academics and hierarchical group dynamics, or to look “cool.” The “groupthink syndrome” engrained in Penn’s culture means it is easy for us to be swayed by peer pressure because everyone appears to be doing the same thing, and doing it really well. Plus, I wasn’t going to tell anyone how awful I was feeling, not only because I thought it would make me look weak, but also because my peers just seemed to have many more “legitimate” reasons to be stressed than I did.

Men face social expectations to be masculine, in addition to “Penn student” norms that reinforce the former. And they may also feel especially insecure because Penn women strive to attain the same goals too — they compete with men in the same subjects, and ultimately, for the same high-paying, professional jobs. Competition and pre-professionalism foster a campus culture that does not position masculinity at the same dominant position that it holds in larger society. As a result of their gender-role displacement, men seem to perform their dominant, heterosexual masculinity in the social sphere, involving a whole other set of expectations and rules, which can be oppressive and harmful to both women and men.

The ways we are socialized and conditioned help us adapt and survive in our environments. But they can — and often do — limit us, and not solely around our genders, but other social constructions too, like race. It can be argued that if we as a society put up these assigned rules and walls between individuals, but also within our own selves; we can take them down and allow ourselves to exist just as we are; to just…be.

It is on us to critically examine and call out these harmful and unnatural expectations, as we are privileged enough to access these ideas and instigate real change. We need to venture outside our individual bubbles and experience the many forms of being that are out there — the limitless space for us to all fit in, no masks required. We can help make that space more readily available on campus by breaking the exclusive barriers that separate us, and make each of us feel compelled to differ from who we really are in order to be the same as everyone else.

As a society, we need to tear down the walls, the constructs and false notions about what being a man — or woman — means. The more we keep instilling and assigning these roles and rules, the more harm we continue to perpetuate, as we are preventing freedom and real progress. And removing these walls helps us realize a very important fact of life: we all already belong.

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