I once posed for photographs in high heels and women’s lingerie. I was twenty. The pictures were meant to go with an April Fool’s edition of my college newspaper, but got nixed by the university for being too racy. My friend who edited the paper and took the picture was surprised I agreed to take part.
Outwardly I suppose I can be a bit daunting. I’m not tall, but I’m stocky, arms covered in tattoos, and people usually say I look angry, whether I am or not. People have said I look like a bouncer, a skinhead, or just an asshole. I used to be in a punk band. I have a loud, deep voice. And sure, I can be a man’s man. I’ve done construction and other blue collar jobs and have never had trouble fitting in, being one of the guys. It usually helps that I can drink most people under the table.
I have always treaded a line between “macho” male and “sensitive” male. What people don’t usually see: The times where I want nothing more than to hold my wife in my arms. People have no way of knowing based on my looks that I like to stay up late reading poetry. More than anything else, good poetry makes me fall in love with words, hence my forthcoming homage to Pablo Neruda. I have four sisters and have always gotten along as well with women as I have with men, sometimes even better.
But what is gender, what is a man? More importantly, what is a man supposed to be? In a recent episode of Louis C.K.’s hilarious show, Louie, he remarked that heterosexual males are the only group that cares about being mistaken for anything other than a heterosexual male. This is one of those “funny because it’s true” things. Growing comfortable with one’s self, owning your own brand of manhood is a long journey, one that likely has no end.
In high school I was constantly harassed for being gay. I’m not gay, but I wore button-down shirts and didn’t have girlfriends. I had been actively aware of my intense attraction to women since I was six years old and kept a stash of stolen Victoria’s Secret catalogs in my closet. I even kept Sears catalogs for the women’s underwear sections.
Being called gay didn’t make me insecure or doubt my sexual orientation. Still, the harassment angered me. I was raised by ex-hippies, people who made it clear, despite the homogenous areas where we lived, that all people are of equal worth and respect. I was angry about the lack of respect, for me, for homosexuals, and for the ignorance of those harassing me. Respect for other humans doesn’t seem a lot to ask of people of any age.
Where does it start, the intolerance and the journey of one’s self image? It starts as soon as life starts. From the moment our children are brought into the world we begin modeling behaviors they will come to inherently accept as a baseline of how to exist as a human.
My four year old has often been mistaken for a girl. He has long curly hair, that in a way has become his trademark. His curls were past his shoulders (and nearly to his waist when wet) when we first cut his hair. I’m not ashamed to say I nearly cried. I don’t cry often, and crying in general makes me incredibly uncomfortable, but even thinking about my son’s haircuts chokes me up. Recently we took him to get his first professional haircut and my emotional response was repeated.
I don’t remember when my hair was long, but there are pictures of me at three with long blonde curls, and at four with a hideous bowl-cut. There is no doubt I was mistaken for a girl at least as often as my son has been. And I’m certain my parents laughed it off the way I do now.
My son is a beautiful boy. He has wild hair that I love because it represents him as a person, he has been known for his crazy mop of hair since he was first born. In a way his hair has become a physical manifestation of his personality. The idea of his long curls being gone forces me to think about the day when he chooses to have short hair, when he will be fully his own person, taking another of the steps of independence that are integral to a child’s development.
Yet, I’m not attached to the idea of him not growing up, I’m not clinging to his age. He represents a growth in my journey as a man, and I believe that is where the emotions come into play. I am a different man as a father than I was before, just as all parents are. It is a role we come to define ourselves by whether we intend to or not.
Men especially cling to bachelorhood as a defining chapter of their lives. But becoming a husband, a father, is much more defining than being single could ever be. Because ultimately it is not about the self, it is about the incorporation of others into our lives. It takes a new level of maturity in our lives to be able to do that, which is why commitment comes to men at various points in our lives.
As a father my job is to make my children love themselves, own their personalities, grow comfortable with who they are as individuals. If my kids can feel that in their lives, it will transfer to how they relate to the world around them, make them accepting of peoples’ differences, appreciative of every human’s uniqueness.
My thirteen year old step-son has long embraced his eccentricities, and has had an experience with school that mirrors much of my own experiences. Being teased for countless superficial and fabricated reasons, not least among them for being gay. The perpetuation of these patterns is, and will always be, environmental. As Nelson Mandela says,
“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
And so I am forced to examine the example of manhood that I am unwittingly portraying for my sons.
No, I won’t be showing my sons the pictures of me in drag or encouraging them to read the romantic poetry I write. So, what can I do? All I can really do is lead by example, be a man who is comfortable with himself.
I may be a quiet and reserved father, but that is part of who I am, too. It is my challenge in life to show them a man who can be those things while being strong, moral, and hardworking. To show them a man who is unafraid of showing affection, expressing love. A man who is not ashamed of sometimes being scared, not knowing the answers, or being confused about the twists and turns of life. When manhood becomes fatherhood it is just another growth process.
Being a man isn’t about being macho or being sensitive anymore than being a father is about having a child. Manhood is not quantifiable. It cannot be defined because it is too many things. Likewise a father is about more than having a child, it is about embracing that child’s life and fostering it. Why should manhood be any different? It is never too late to foster ourselves, to improve on a daily basis.
If we put in that sort of effort, just imagine the portrait we will be modeling for our children. Imagine the world generations from now when manhood has been measured not by stereotypes or definitions, but by effort and human progress. If you can imagine that, you will know what you know the first time you hold your child in your hands or kiss the love of your life: that anything truly is possible.
Image of young football player, resting courtesy of Shutterstock
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