Masculinity can be hard to nail down. So, let's start with what masculinity is NOT. Masculinity is not how big your truck nuts are, how much facial hair you can grow, how many women have been in your bed, how much you can bench or how much alcohol you can consume. Now I know what you are saying, "What?! But Nicole, I just spent $60 on a brand new Woolrich plaid shirt and finally completed a decade long subscription to Maxim!" Well, hold on to your XY chromosomes, because masculinity is much deeper than what we can ever portray on the outside.
Masculinity in Men
With society's constant pressure for a boy to "be a man" and the ever increasing barrage of targeted marketing that reinforces this as a norm, boys and men have it rough. A good friend of mine sat down with me to open up about what he and many of his friends experienced as young American boys growing up in America. Here's what he had to say.
He admitted that when he was young, he felt a strong need to dress a certain way, drive a certain type of vehicle, have a certain attitude and even force his voice to sound deeper. He felt as if he needed to represent masculinity at all times. In the South, this meant being attracted to certain hobbies, sports and music.
At this young age, he felt vulnerable to judgement if he stepped out of the societal view of masculinity. Kids that were the sporty/athletic type were more accepted as men than the boys who weren't. He admitted there was a higher masculine value placed on strength and abilities rather than intellectual and cultural interests.
He said he learned by watching other males, that men walked away or disengaged from emotional situations. He felt that communication or expression of deep emotions was seen as being weak, or in other words, feminine. As a young man going off to college with these preconceived notions of what it means to be a man, many social norms were reinforced amongst fraternities and college parties.
My friend has learned many lessons in looking back on his life. It wasn't until he made deeper and more meaningful relationships with women that he realized the behaviors of the older men he had observed as a boy weren't necessarily the best examples.
He learned to "be a man" through being himself. Being himself consisted of thinking for himself and accepting emotions rather than fighting to hold them in. He allowed himself to be vulnerable with others by sharing hopes, emotions and dreams which previously would have been suppressed in favor of what society dictated.
Masculinity in Women
When I was a little girl I was the epitome of a Tomboy. Growing up with four brothers definitely had an influence on my psyche, but I genuinely loved surfing, motocross and skateboarding. I learned at a young age that if I wanted to be taken seriously in competition and in the workplace, I needed to be able to hang with the boys. To me, that meant being able to have the same capabilities and skills.
I was proud of being able to be on par with the guys in Fire Explorer Academy. Shoot, I was even made to be Battalion Chief where I was in charge of 32 other explorers (mostly boys). However, things weren't all fun and games in the boys' club. There was a point in academy where I remember many of the boys in my battalion in particular. Long story short, there were rules, he broke one, someone reported it and I had to give him orders to do pushups.
They laughed that this boy was taking orders from a "tiny little girl." They laughed at him for not being able to do but 5 pushups at a time. They laughed at him for being weak and at the time I resented him. I resented him because he and I were seen as being on same level to the other boys. It did not matter that I was a Battalion Chief, it did not matter that I could do more pushups than him. My gender was seen as weak by default and this boy was considered feminine based off of some arbitrary measurement of physical strength.
That sent the message to me that no matter how physically strong I was or how capable in a masculine sense I was, I would never be on level with men. I would always be seen as a feminine petite girl.
In contrary to the above experience, I remember a situation in my Senior year in high school where a boy came up to me as I was about to throw my skateboard down to skate home and asked me if I was a lesbian. I became confused and asked him what he meant. He told me that he knew I skateboarded and rode dirtbikes and asserted that I MUST be gay. In my head I thought, "Ok, this boy is either super sexist against women who do alternative sports, or he is ignorant." So I said, "I didn't realize a woman had to be a lesbian to participate in alternative sports. And no, I am definitely not a lesbian."
At this point, it was pretty much a damned if I do, damned if I don't scenario when it came to hanging with the boys.
In a sense, my microcosmic childhood experience is a reflection of today's society. What am I talking about? I'm talking about being true to one's self. At a certain point in my young life I looked in the mirror and saw the over zealous masculinity in me. Not the part that liked extreme sports or hanging out with boys. The part of me that blasted Slayer at stop lights so I didn't have to listen to cat calls.
It was then I realized a part of why I was drawn to masculinity. I was afraid. I was a very petite girl in a fairly rough part of California and I felt like I needed some armor. I grew up learning that my femininity was a liability that needed to be protected by my own masculinity.
Men, Women & Our Same Insecurities
Men have gotten to be far too concerned with their masculine outer facades and too neglectful of the inner virtues of what it means to be a man. Yes, it is a choice, but when you are target marketed to by thousands of products on a daily basis it is hard not to let some of that have influence over you.
From not being tall, handsome or muscular enough to having traditionally feminine interests, there have to be many of you out there who do not fit society's bill of what masculinity looks like. How do you compensate? And what about the girls and women out there? We have the exact same insecurities about not feeling beautiful, in shape enough, or whatever new issue commercialism tells us we are supposed to hate about ourselves.
I recently asked a group of people what masculinity meant to them. The responses I received included; independent, secure, attractive, caring, positive, intelligent, fixer and problem solver. Of these responses, I fail to see a single one that would not be able to be used to describe a woman. Likewise, I asked my male friends to describe what femininity meant to them. Their responses included; nurturing, thoughtful, caretaker, emotional, intelligent, attractive and loving. Again, I fail to see why these descriptions could not be used to describe a man.
So, what does that tell us about masculinity?
In the words of my favorite singer, Stromae, perhaps we are "Tous les Mêmes" or "All the same." Each gender struggles with their own insecurities stemming from lifetimes of societal influence. At the end of each day though, we all have the same choice. Do we choose to be our authentic selves? Or do we choose to wear the mask society has created for us?