The story of how an 8-pound dog changed T.J. Sullivan’s concept of masculinity.
I own a Chihuahua.
She wasn’t forced on me. I didn’t inherit her from my dying grandmother or buy her for my daughter. I went to the shelter with my partner one evening seeking something in the 50-pound range, and we came home with … an 8-pounder.
A yappy, snappy little white Chihuahua. I named her “Pickle.”
She gave me the look. There was no other choice.
My partner Scott texted his friends, squarely blaming me for our evolution into a gay stereotype. My 78-year-old neighbor, Earl, had a blast teasing me that week as I walked the new dog past his driveway.
“You sure you can handle that thing?” he said on Thursday. “Looks like a killer,” I heard Friday. “I thought they banned pit bulls in this city!” he cackled Saturday. I felt like the sixth-grader made to wear a pink shirt to middle school.
My past dogs had been acceptable by man standards: a Boxer, a Beagle, a Golden Retriever, even one of those Australian breeds that launches feet in the air for a Frisbee. The Chihuahua was a departure and a clear blemish on my man credentials.
Although I was quickly and thoroughly falling in love with the newly adopted rascal, I found myself self-conscious and defensive. I’d tell people how she bullied my other dog. I talked about her badass snaggletooth. It was a dog, not a cat! My friends just laughed at me. I owned a Chihuahua.
It didn’t take long to realize I was being a complete idiot.
I consider myself progressive, feminist, and enlightened—but my new life as a Chihuahua owner was revealing a deep gap in my values and self-esteem. A quick reflection on a lifetime of purchases clearly indicated a lifetime of perpetuating male stereotypes, compensating for insecurities and, perhaps, a fair share of internalized homophobia.
Once, while shopping for a camera, I asked if a particular Canon model was a good choice. “I guess so, if you’re a chick,” the salesman replied. I spent $200 more on the Nikon he suggested. Who knew that Canons were chick cameras?
I had spent more than 40 years stupidly avoiding any purchase—books, shoes, luggage, even postage stamps—that failed to pass the masculinity test. Although I loved my Subaru Outback, I traded it in for a Jeep. No one teased me about driving a “mom wagon” in my Jeep, after all. “No” to Lady Gaga, fancy socks and frozen margaritas. “Yes” to Maroon 5, black socks, and bourbon.
Because Maroon 5 is a masculine choice?
As the days passed, Pickle was freeing my mind and lightening my load. Self-awareness was turning around my tastes. I was becoming less self-conscious and less defensive. Even Earl became a Pickle fan on our evening walks.
Entire magazines are devoted to encouraging readers to fit the image of the modern man. Whether it’s the right messenger bag or beard-grooming tool, we are sold products that confirm our masculinity when the secret to real confidence is the occasional step into risky territory.
Perhaps it’s the luxury of the aging rooster that I no longer have a need to project masculinity to land the hens. Perhaps every man reaches a place in his life where he’s strutted the feathers enough. Maybe after four decades, I’m relaxing and realizing that manhood comes from the inside.
I’m still choosing bourbon over cosmopolitans, but I worry less about the bartender’s judgment. I still wince at the fancy socks that now live in my drawer and typically grab for the dark ones. Still, I’m less afraid to look or feel a little less manly in my purchases and choices. It’s added some fun in my life. It’s made me less uptight.
My neighbors probably still snicker at the 220-pound guy with the Chihuahua, but Pickle and I think we’re a pretty awesome pair.
Photo courtesy of author.