A real man doesn’t or is or shouldn’t and can but must never or has but not always, sometimes.
Headlines matter and their influence goes well beyond getting the click. When I taught poetry in high schools throughout Tucson, Arizona I’d often rearrange the titles of poems before handing them out in class. As a result, the readings took on new and unexpected meanings. Some were brilliant and/or hilarious, but the greatest part was how the exercise opened up deep discussions about everything from department store commercials to US politics. In one unforgettable class we talked about this Dove commercial and the difficulties of standing up against something named Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act (USA PATRIOT Act) even if the content of such an act was absurd.
Of course we talked about poetry and even newspaper headlines but it was one brave student (an openly gay young man) who brought up how titles are like labels and how many men and women – whether they know it or not, he added – feel pressure from and often guide their behaviors because of such labels. I’ll never forget when he said: “Some men act bad because they think acting bad is good, does that make sense?”
As the lesson unfolded a young woman in the back brought her copy of Cosmopolitan to my desk and gave me permission to hold it up in front of the class. When I did there was an eruption of laughter. One student said “there’s no way a normal human being could look that good” and so we talked about beauty, how it’s defined, how looking at magazines like this can, again, whether we know it or not, impact how we see ourselves in the mirror each morning. Still, it was the distance and the context that allowed the students to see something familiar in a way so foreign it was funny. How many young men and women laugh or otherwise see the ridiculousness of their favorite magazine covers?
As if on cue a young man who played on the football team walked smoothly to the front of the class. Students oohed and awed and he milked it all before revealing his copy of Men’s Health:
“I mean, I’ve been dedicated and working out hard for years and I’ll never look like this dude. But what am I supposed to do? They have good articles in there that I use. I can’t just order copies without the pictures.”
His question was a good one. What was he supposed to do? Like him I’d also read Men’s Health for years and sometimes still do. Even if he avoided the magazine and received his health information from other sources he’d turn on the TV and see something like this:
I stuttered through something about “awareness” but I felt my palms sweat and for the first time since the class began I looked up to see how much time was left in the period. Damn, I thought. He’s right. We can’t possibly shield ourselves from the onslaught of such titles and labels. Many people, (myself included) still catch themselves using such phrases as part of everyday speech because they’re sticky cliches, easy to use, understood by others.
When the class ended I flashed back to when all I wanted was to have trapezius muscles like Bill Goldberg, the days when I thought of Tom Platz during my leg workouts or Rickson Gracie when I drilled grappling techniques. I still find in-the-moment inspiration by comparing myself to the unattainable, but what happens, as is too often the case, when our youth become bombarded by the unattainable far before they’ve learned how to be aware of it? To keep the awareness spirit alive, here are a few things I’ve come across over the years that still filter through me:
I’ll close with the brilliant words Gavin McInnes uttered when on this HuffPost Live show:
“You’re not a man until you’ve had your heart broken, you’ve broken a heart, you’ve beaten someone up and you’ve had the crap beaten out of you. Without those four things you’re not a man. I’m sorry.”
–Photo (image only): EntirelySubjective/Flickr