Pictured above is my typical breakfast: Greens, fruit, and oats. Alright, I also walk every day before work, get medical check-ups when called for, floss my teeth 3 times a day and do everything else the experts advise will best preserve my health as I grow older. I would guess that you too make some effort to feel your best, knowing how precious and fragile good health can be.
Well, here’s a newsflash: We can take all the right “actions” to stay well, but did you know that what we believe to be true about ourselves may be just as important if not more so?
The danger of self-stereotyping:
Let’s face it: If a Martian landed on Earth and relied on TV, film, or print media, to learn about humans, he/she would get the impression that women can’t do math, Republicans are bigoted, Democrats are communist, Italians eat spaghetti and play the mandolin all day, overweight people are jolly, and older adults are senile, useless, out of touch, and incompetent. The list goes on, no matter what societal category you examine. Research shows that the result of overgeneralizations, especially in the form of negative stereotyping, is not just limited to discrimination towards individual members of that group, but there is also a likelihood that negative stereotypes can also become internalized, and seep into the individual’s own self-concept. This “self-stereotyping” (or believing in others’ stereotypical presumptions about you) can affect your self-esteem, your outlook on life, and even your physical health.
So where do stereotypes come from? How do they start? Most likely they start in childhood, when children are exposed to stereotypical beliefs held by parents, teachers-even peers. They are also probably reinforced by media from childhood to adulthood.
When I served as the Research Director for AIDA (American Italian Defense Association), I conducted a large survey research study to see how Americans formed their concepts about people of Italian heritage. The stereotypes included an image of Italians as cartoonish, over-gesticulating buffoons, mobsters, overweight housewives whose lives center around tomato sauce, males, who of course must be hot Latin Lovers, and the not-so-bright Jersey Shore -like TV portrayals of slicked back hair, gold neck chains and dummied down English. Participants indicated that they ‘learned” these concepts from media (TV, mafia movies, etc.), and just presumed most of them to be true.
Ageist self-stereotyping, which can influence older adults on a conscious or unconscious level, has been shown to pose a threat to physical health, memory, cardiovascular health—and it may even shorten lives. That’s good enough reason for me to resist buying into the nonsense of stereotypes—whether it be about others or about myself. I don’t purchase “over-the-hill” greeting cards. I don’t watch TV shows that portray older people as feeble, mentally unstable, or idiotic. I go against the flow when it comes to how I dress or wear my hair, or what kind of music the boxed-in stereotype proponents say I should listen to or what kind of goals I should pursue. The first step is to be aware that most stereotypes are FALSE. We are all unique individuals, and the only one who has the right to define who you are is YOU. Have the courage to go against the flow and respectfully and civilly speak up when you hear someone categorizing you or others. Often people are not aware that they are being insulting when they presume certain things about you and just bringing it to their attention can start to turn things around. Most important, what you think of yourself is what really matters. Focus on all the positive things about you and don’t hand over your valuable energy to the negative influences around you.
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Allen, P.M., Hooker, K., & Meja, S. T (2015) Personality, Self-Pereptions and Daily Variability in Perceived Usefulness Among Older Adults. Psychology and Aging v30 n3 p534-543.
Herndon, K.K; Norsworthy, C.F.; & Kor-Sins, R. (2020). Democrat or Republican? Using Political Stereotypes as a Bias Discussion Exercise Journal of Leadership education. Vol 19(2).
Levy, B.R. (2003). Mind Matters: Cognitive and Physical Effects of Aging Self-Stereotypes Journal of Gerontology: PSYCHOLOGICAL SCIENCES Vol. 58B, No. 4, P203–P211
Rivera, L.M, & Paredez, S.M (2014) Stereotypes Can “Get Under the Skin”: Testing a Self- Stereotyping and Psychological Resource Model of Overweight and Obesity J Soc Issues. 2014 June 1; 70(2): 226–240. doi:10.1111/josi.12057.
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