MythBusting: What Does It Mean To Be A Man?


James Fell cracks the stereotypes of what does and doesn’t make a man.

Grow a beard. Drive a truck. Kill something. Eat it. Wash down with beer. Screw hot chicks.

Wait. Let’s try that again.

Care for the planet. Be kind and gentlemanly. Dress for success. Be hygienic. Be a provider. Choose your own path. Hmmm…still doesn’t feel quite right.

Let’s try this one more time. Have a penis. Be old enough to vote.

THERE! Friggin’ nailed it!

Well, if I’m looking at it only from the traditional biological description of gender I nailed it. I know that our understanding of gender is in flux, and it’s not something I’m completely up on. Last week I met a nice young boy who is anatomically female. For the sake of my own limitations of knowledge on this subject, I’m going to say that being a man means you identify as a man. *

Push in the Clutch

I drive a 5-speed, and I guess that’s manly. Shifting gears feels manly. Vroom, vroom. I think it’s time to shift gears on how we define gender roles, because they don’t make a lot of sense any longer. I’ve been thinking about what it really does mean to be a man, discussing all this alpha male crap. And the answer (again, the traditional anatomical answer) is having a penis and being old enough to vote. We need to stop thinking about things like what it means to be male or female, and instead focus on what it means to be human. Let me tell you some bullet point facts about my life to give you some perspective:

  • My wife and I have been together 25 years, and in all that time I have prepared 99.9% of the meals.
  • I do all the laundry, change the sheets on the beds, and much of the housework.
  • Although I have an MBA, she has always been in charge of everything financial. She could be funneling all our retirement funds to Scientology for all I know.
  • Over the years, we have gone back and forth on who makes more money, but since I gave up being a marketing executive to become a writer she’s definitely leapt ahead.
  • My wife has a second-degree black belt in karate, and could kick my ass.
  • I have a more flexible schedule, and therefore am usually the taxi service for our kids.

Looking at it by tasks assignment alone, many would say I’m the wife and she’s the husband. But she likes to scrapbook and I like to shoot guns. She shaves her legs and I’m a gorilla. I also kill invading spiders, take out the garbage, change the tires on vehicles by hand each spring and fall, shovel the snow, mow the lawn, lift the heavy stuff and open jars and answer the door when someone scary looking is standing on our porch late at night. This isn’t about gender. It’s about figuring out what works for us based on our strengths, weaknesses, desires and abilities. It’s about being human, and contributing to our partnership equally as we go through life together.


Don’t Man Up

The problem with telling someone to “man up” is that it implies they’re behaving like a woman and that such a thing is negative. Perhaps you should stop and think before saying things to your male friends like:

  • “Are you going to hit me with your purse?”
  • “Do you need to change your tampon first?”
  • “Stop being such a pussy.”
  • “You’re being a whiney little bitch.”
  • “Grow a pair.”

Now I’ll admit to using all of these in the past, and quite likely will slip and use one or two of them again in the future, especially if alcohol is involved. Am I saying you shouldn’t trash talk your buddies? Hell, no. You trash talk the shit out of those guys because they’re not going to jump off that cliff into that freezing cold water with you talking some smack about them first.

But perhaps consider words and phrases like “wimp” and “suck it up” and “chicken shit” instead. I’m not trying to be the thought police here or getting overly politically correct on word usage. I wrote an entire series of stories about how my daughter’s pet bearded dragon is a reptard, so I’m far from blameless when it comes to offensive, marginalizing language. Anyway, my point is that there is value in demolishing some of these old gender stereotypes. One of the best men I know is a kind and gentle soul who has spent his entire career dedicated towards helping those less fortunate. He doesn’t trash talk anyone, and I’m pretty sure he’s never thrown a punch in his life. He is a good, no, a great human being.

I qualified for the Boston Marathon, which is something very few men can do. And yet, I know many women who can run a marathon faster than I can. I’m strong, and yet I know plenty of women who can lift heavier than I can. My personal best with chin-ups is 21, and I’ve met women who can do more. I know women who can fix a car at the side of the road, and I’d be calling for a tow truck. There are countless women on this planet who are better at me than everything I like to think I’m good at. They’re better writers, better athletes, better cooks, and none of that matters. There are lots of men better at those things than I am as well. I’m just trying to use the skills and passions I have to be the best human I can be. Getting to pee standing up is a bonus.

Bob Dylan Was Right

A lot of what I wrote about yesterday was dispelling the myths surrounding manhood, and this is part two.

Yes, there are certain things that, statistically speaking, we are better at than women, and vice versa. But in developed societies the doors are finally opening to allow women to perform roles that have traditionally been reserved for men.

Realistically, there is very little a man can do that a woman can’t, and vice versa. If I threw myself into scrapbooking I bet I could get good at it. The old gender roles are getting blurrier, so don’t pine for what’s past. If you want to scrapbook, friggin’ scrapbook! If you want to lift heavy shit, do that too. Do what feels right for you, all while endeavoring to be a better human. I don’t hold doors open for women; I hold them open for people, regardless of gender. I give my seat up to those who need it more than I do. If you want to be aggressive in the bedroom, and that’s what she loves you to do, then go for it. But don’t feel less a person if what works for you is the opposite.

The whole alpha male construct is too wrapped up in antiquated concepts of masculinity. It implies that you’re supposed to be “manly,” whatever that is. Sure, you can trek off into the wilderness and hunt and live in a cave if that makes you feel good. If it makes you feel tough. A woman can do that too. You can do whatever you like that isn’t harmful to others and gives a positive boost to your psyche. You can also reject the traditional roles if they don’t jive with who you feel you really are. Years ago I saw a guy in a locker room who had pierced his belly button. It was just starting to become popular with women, and I thought it was sexy on the opposite sex, but when I saw it on a guy I said to myself, Seriously, dude. What the hell? But as years past and I matured, I realized that he did it simply because he wanted to. End of story. The majority of people who pierce that body part are female, but not all. Yes, there are male dominated things, and there are female dominated things. But the crossover in both directions is increasing. The lines are blurring. The times are changing.

So start swimming. Or you’ll sink like a stone.

In other words, don’t worry about what it means to be a man. Concern yourself about what it means to be human.

This article originally appeared on Six Pack Abs.

Photo credit: Stephen Corso/flickr

*Editor’s note: This section has been updated to clarify the author’s intent. Our apologies for any confusion or offense.  

About James Fell

James S. Fell blogs at He is an internationally syndicated fitness columnist for the Chicago Tribune and author of Lose it Right: A Brutally Honest 3-Stage Program to Help You Get Fit and Lose Weight Without Losing Your Mind, published by Random House Canada. He also interviews celebrities about their fitness stories for the Los Angeles Times, and is head fitness columnist for

Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.


  1. Spot on with this write-up, I actually feel this amazing site needs a lot more attention.
    I’ll probably be returning to read through more, thanks for the info!

  2. This is a great Article. I’ve been searching for what it means to be a woman, being a transgendered man and thinking many of these things about both genders. if people could just be people and accept that more.

  3. anonguy says:

    “Let’s try this one more time. Have a penis. Be old enough to vote.

    THERE! Friggin’ nailed it!”

    Not only are you wrong but you are smug about it.
    F- and see me after class.

  4. Good article, it’s always refreshing to find people pushing the roles society expects them to have. Re the biology bit, though, it’s not penis = man/vagina = woman. It’s I’m a man = man/I’m a woman = woman. Gender is in the mind, not the body.

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