“You’re going to grow to be six and a half feet tall!” said my doctor. “You have to keep eating – you should weigh thirty pounds heavier!” said my ex. “Matt, you can’t even beat a girl at arm wrestling, what’s wrong with you? Don’t be a pussy!” said my friends. Such misalignment with the traditional male earned me the “most likely to be gay” award among my friends. How much can you bench? What is your 800-meter time? I bet I can beat you at a fight. Among teenage male cliques, competition was all that counted. As an increasingly feminine, yet straight male, I simply did not make the cut. Do I care? Not at Harvard, where most folks I’m around tend to warmly accept others seeking gender identities outside of that which social norms usually mandate. But I certainly used to care.
It’s everywhere in mainstream America and around the world. Hierarchy among males is chiefly dominated by a warrior view of masculinity. While I am grateful that modern society no longer deems me evolutionarily unfit with respect to my more masculine brethren, I really don’t see why the most aggressive still reign champion throughout male teenage-hood and even into adult years. In my experience, it was always about masculinity for its own sake. Competition ruled the male social scene, and it wasn’t until I made close female friends (and a couple guys in touch with their feminine side) that I realized there’s more to life than that. In fact, the only personal conversations I’ve had in high school were with girls, unless I’ve known the guy on such a level for years. From my experience, the social alignment of the male gender and unwavering masculinity reinforces the negative potential of masculinity for its own sake, prevents men from embracing some of the positive features of femininity, and diminishes female gender characteristics to an inferior state.
We may take this lightly now as college students, but this dynamic is still very real in other circles. At least at my own high school (and of course, in nearly all media depictions of the typical suburban high school), the winners of the male social scene were almost universally the star athletes, those who won the fights, and those who were the most outwardly and dominantly promiscuous. Even without a correlation between high school popularity and likelihood of later economic success, teenagers are highly pressured to conform to the popular male standard of dominance and aggression. Those “You’re going to grow up to be big and strong” speeches from parents don’t exactly help either. And while not all of these “popular” characteristics are harmful, the often violent and insensitive dynamics in circles of teenage boys are certainly not the best route for responsible development, or at least not for the number of guys encouraged to grow into it. And in many cases, the dynamic is carried right into adulthood, as visible via such media as ads for diet soda with only “ten manly calories,” held by machine gun-toting tough guys claiming that it’s “not for women.” Oh the disgust.
Masculinity for its own sake among large groups of men has decidedly negative potential. Between genders, we see this negative impact in everything from rape culture to workplace discrimination, where men subjugate women to masculine dominance. Within the gender, we see it through interpersonal violence and obsession with size (or the truck with the most horsepower), and at smaller scales in the lack of deep interpersonal conversation or the extent to which emotions are accepted. Of course, it’s not all bad; the traditionally masculine traits of confidence and strength are beneficial in many areas, but to focus on this power-seeking form of success is toxic for developing boys. Perhaps more importantly, the association of these positive aspects of masculinity with “being a man” implicitly claims them as the norm for boys, and not for girls. Therefore, the culture of excessive manhood promotes a distorted measure of success through the projection of masculinity, which is inherently only accessible to men, or women who fight their way into male gender norms.
I’m just glad I jumped that ship a long time ago. I wonder how much further I would have developed my emotional capacity were I to have done so earlier. It’s only been about a year since I began adopting the “Girly Man” identity, and I think it’s finally sunk in as the core of my gender association. Some of my favorite ways of expressing this identity are to only wear clothes that fit the true shape of my body, and just recently even wearing eyeliner. Having grown up in a gender-normalizing world, I encourage all men to try on a pair of tights or skinny jeans or to learn to apply makeup. That touch of femininity isn’t for everyone, but every male raised with a manly image in mind could benefit from reaching outside himself. The new aura may be surprisingly comfortable, and it just might incite a guy to spend some time on the softer side, or even to start talking about his feelings for a change.