How does culture influence personal identity?

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Culture influences personal identity in every conceivable way. Although it was previously customary to distinguish between cultural and natural traits, over the last half century, it has been recognized that even biological characteristics are strongly influenced by culture. These influences begin before a baby is born, as what the mother consumes during pregnancy is culturally influenced. Culture also influences childbirth and sex assignment. A baby’s sex is usually determined at birth, but even this can be changed according to cultural preferences. Biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling, among others, has addressed the past tendency for physicians to alter the bodies of infants born as “hermaphrodites” with both male and female characteristics.

As children grow up, they are socialized into believing that the culture of their parents or other adults who raise them is normal. Culture-based socialization begins with infant care and feeding. While breastfeeding was preferred during most of human history, in the 1950s, bottle-feeding with formula became widespread in the United States. Food is an area where cultural preferences are strongly marked and extend into ethnic and national identity. When a baby is separated from their birth parents and raised by people who have markedly different cultures, they usually grow up seeing that culture as their own. Yet when children are aware of this displacement, they may develop even stronger attachments to their cultural heritage that they gained through their birth parents.

The idea of what seems normal is also culture-based. While some families encourage their children to see other culture’s customs and traditions as equally correct and valued, in other circumstances, children are raised with narrow, ethnocentric perspectives that denigrate other ways of life. Belief systems such as religion are one area in which people are often strongly socialized to adhere to specific ideas of correctness.

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