What do boys need to hear in order to become men? Edgar Wilson reflects on the things he didn’t know as a boy, but now is cautious and aware of as a man.
7) Fitting In as a Man Can Kill You
Suicide is one of the leading causes of death among American men. More than three quarters of all suicides in 2013 were men, even though women will attempt suicide nearly four times as often—meaning attempts by men are more likely to be fatal. Society will condition you to bottle up your emotions and never ask for help, until you become your own worst enemy, maybe even your own greatest threat.
You don’t have to accept this. As a man, you can ask for help, forgive yourself, reach out to your friends and recognize that everyone—male or female—has weak moments and needs emotional support. The notion that men don’t get depressed, shouldn’t talk about their feelings, or are somehow less manly if they do is wrong, and it is deadly. If you don’t break convention, then being a man is a hazard to your health. There are some traditions worth preserving; being a “strong and silent” man is not one of them.
6) Your Gender is the First Thing People Will Notice About You
Everything you do, wear, say, or try to emphasize about yourself is actually just in service to your gender. And it doesn’t matter if your gender doesn’t match your sex; people will make a snap judgement based on even the most superficial, petty details about you, and then hold their assumptions about your gender almost permanently. Everything from your name to your voice is sending a signal about your gender, and no matter what you do, you are helping people pin one or the other on you.
And everyone—everyone—has an expectation about your identity based on their assumptions regarding your gender. And no matter what you do, those instantaneous, gender-oriented assumptions are going to define and color every subsequent characteristic people perceive. How you act, or who you think you are, doesn’t matter—people have already decided that for you, and people hate being proven wrong.
5) Don’t Just Contrast Yourself with Women
There are a lot of people who will tell you that if you don’t show enough manly characteristics, you lose your credibility as a man. Lose too much, and you default to becoming a woman. Women are not simply blank canvases that lack manly features; women are people replete with dynamic, complex features and identities of their own, and being a woman does not equate to failing to be a man.
As you grow up, you will be faced with an endless parade of situations in which you are forced to choose between joining the girls, and joining the guys—but proximity will never be enough. You will be forced not just to choose one, but to reject the other: being a man has nothing to do with these false choices. You don’t have to act less ‘girly’ in order to seem manlier. You can take an active role in crafting your identity, and do not have to worry about whether you have too much in common with girls to still ‘count’ as one of the boys.
4) Your Gender and Sexuality Aren’t the Same Thing
Gender and Sexuality are kind of like Fruits and Vegetables: they may have a lot in common, but you really can’t substitute one for the other and get away with it. That lesson is lost on too many people, but that is no excuse for not learning it yourself, and ensuring that your own identity is not limited by the notion that being a man obliges you to only find certain people attractive—and vice versa.
The false dichotomy of gender and sexual preference can make anyone not adhering to popular conceptions of manliness seem like a threat, instead of a person. If you buy into it, you may well be dooming yourself to loneliness and frustration, because your identity in both cases is less a matter of choice, and more a matter of discovery. Bearing that in mind, the discoveries other people are making don’t inform where you are at in gaining self-knowledge. The gender of your friends and partners is not a commentary on your gender.
Others might not see the difference, but it is important that you do, so that you can be comfortable with yourself, and satisfied in your relationships.
3) You Need More than One Role Model
The biggest problem with viewing manhood through a strict, heteronormative tunnel is that it blinds you to potentially great role models. Especially when you grow up with a father in the home, it can be hard to recognize that there are other people you can look up to and learn from—both in terms of what to do and what not to do to be a functioning, healthy male.
You need to force yourself to see these other men, acknowledge them as being alternative examples of men, and learn as much as you can from them. You cannot possibly identify your ideal role model without having some others to compare and contrast. What about their respective behaviors, expressions of identity, make them worth emulating? What is their approach to being men? And why do you think you want to be like that?
Pay attention, learn, and draw your own conclusions.
2) Don’t Let Others Define What a “Real” Man Is
If you let others define manhood for you, you are assuming that they are right, and you are wrong in understanding what “man” means, is, and looks like. At the very least, you should be looking for evidence before deferring. Would you let someone tell you what “food” is if your instincts were screaming the opposite?
Being a man doesn’t come down to one isolated test, one characteristic, one question you must answer correctly. It is complex, evolving, and personal, and definitely is not quantifiable. You don’t have to enjoy beer and spectators sports, and you don’t have to like busty blondes; you don’t have to be a father, and if you do become one, you don’t need a son to be an effective role model and parent.
The more you download external notions of what men are, the fewer real examples of men you will be able to find—including yourself.
1) Masculinity Is a Moving Target—And YOU Can Definite It Personally
So if your gender identity isn’t just a matter of being contrary to women, fitting in with others you recognize as men, or an extension of your sexual preferences, how can you confidently claim to be a man?
Figure it out. There are no genuine experts out there with set definitions of masculinity—even the social stereotypes we have such a hard time ignoring and leaving behind are really just vague, broad ideas about gender that fall apart under even the gentlest scrutiny. If you depend too heavily on conventions to show you the way forward, you will end up hamstrung by all the contradictions in cultural notions about manliness.
If you define yourself as a man, you are already part of the conversation about just what that means, and you have the opportunity to fix that definition by example, setting it for yourself. If there were a fixed definition for what a man is, then fulfilling that definition would leave no room for development, and there is always room for development. Because ultimately, being a man means being yourself—your best self, learning as you go, and allowing yourself to grow.
Photo Credit: Pensiero/Flickr