When your society has taught you to doubt your masculinity, discovering that other cultures accept you for who you are can be liberating.
The cards were stacked against me when it came to abiding by my culture’s norms for masculinity. I was born in southern Indiana, where there was a little bit of football and a whole lot of basketball. I wasn’t interested in either sport until adolescence—an interest that developed only under intense social pressure—by which point my general disdain for sports had already made me a social pariah. Of course, that disapproval might also have had something to do with the fact that I preferred playing house over playing cops-and-robbers; I simply didn’t like violence.
I entered junior high—and the gym-class locker room—as the scrawniest and least pubescent kid in class, which led to ridicule and abuse that stuck with me for years. In my teens and twenties, I was less interested in dressing to impress the ladies, and more interested in putting together the most creative and original look I could. (It turns out I wasn’t interested in ladies, anyway.) I was always an artist, never a rough-houser; always gentle, never tough. In short, I couldn’t fit the American standard for masculinity to save my life.
But by my mid-twenties, the internet had exploded. Suddenly, my world was so much bigger; the wisdom of the world was at my fingertips. And I learned that there were many models for masculinity. I discovered that Americans only think of themselves as big sports fans; compared to Englishmen, who talk about their favorite football club like Americans talk about the weather, our fervor seems lackluster at best. The Swedes have worked towards making children’s playtime as gender-neutral as possible; they believe that children are capable of deciding how they want to play, and that gender roles are irrelevant to play. Finnish culture is famous for its reserve, and yet the Finns happily strip down to nothing and hop into a sauna filled with strangers. In Turkey and Morocco, the men are a little more modest in their public baths; nonetheless, they find the baths the perfect place to socialize and conduct business.
All the anxieties that American men attach to body image in general and social nudity in particular just aren’t there. My attention to fashion (which, to be honest, has waned in recent years) would have made me right at home in, say, Italy or South Korea.
As I looked past my narrow American lens to the rest of the world, I found a means by which I could critique my culture’s norms. Our way wasn’t the only way. There were lessons we could learn from others. And I wasn’t the only one reconsidering the way we did things. Every day, we continue to confront the problems of violence and sexism within our sports culture. Fathers are growing more tolerant of their children’s experimentation with gender roles. American men on the whole are a little more daring, a little more fashion-conscious than they used to be. We American men are still stuck on our issues surrounding body image and nudity, but I think we’ll get around to that issue eventually.
This flexing of cultural boundaries can only help us. We all have something to learn from each other. And our sons and grandsons will be the better for it.
Photo: Getty Images