Let’s begin with a hypothetical.
Picture a man in your life. A father, an uncle, a brother. A boyfriend, a husband. A co-worker. A friend.
Sketch them in your mind with memories and fill in the lines with their personality and mannerisms. Pull yourself into the image you’ve crafted, and think the way that they do.
Now, as the man you’ve chosen, answer the following question: how do you respond to pain?
As we continue to grow as a society, we’ve turned our thoughts increasingly inward, and we as a people have begun to reflect on what it actually means to be human. Gender roles have become one of the most talked-about social topics in modern life, and we’ve really begun to think about, in depth, the definition of those ideas. What does it mean to be “masculine”? What does it mean to be “feminine”? Does a person have to subscribe to one or the other? Can they identify with both? Can they not identify with either?
Masculinity is a concept that simultaneously seems both concrete and shapeless. Speaking traditionally, to be a “man” means to be strong above all else. It means to provide for those in your tribe, to ignore outside distractions, to be dominant and victorious in all things. For a “man”, there can be no weakness; to be weak is to lose, regardless of whether or not the opposing force is a physical presence.
To be a “man”, pain cannot be felt. Exhaustion cannot be felt. Fear and anxiety and remorse and regret cannot be felt, wistful dreams of escape from the crushing reality of life’s problems cannot exist.
If a person experiences any of the above, they cannot be a “man”.
And in the eyes of society, if a man is not a “man”, what is he?
The more that I’ve talked to friends, co-workers, and family members, the more I’ve come to understand that we as men live under a set of rigid expectations, not only to behave in certain ways, but to not behave in certain ways. It’s a dichotomy enforced by longstanding tradition and impossible standards; “men” must be strong and can never show “weakness”.
And this core concept has created generation after generation of independence and emotional repression.
The issue of toxic masculinity is pervasive, and has bled through the fabric of our culture all the way down to our youth. Boys learn, from a very young age, not to like certain things. Not to behave in certain ways. Play sports, don’t play with dolls. Wear black and red, not pink and lavender.
Boys are told to “man up”, to “take it like a man”. These idioms cause more harm than people understand. To teach someone to act and think against their nature, isn’t teaching them. It’s molding them into something else entirely.
Our culture preoccupies itself with teaching young men how to be strong. It forgets to teach them how to love.
That isn’t to say that men as a whole are incapable of love — but our preconceptions of “masculinity” directly conflict with what love is. To love is to be vulnerable. It requires us to open ourselves up to the possibility of pain. To feel pain is to feel weakness, and weakness is the antithesis of “masculinity”. How can we feel love if we can’t feel pain?
Many men I’ve spoken to tell me of a gap or disconnect between themselves and the people that they love, be they friends, relatives, or romantic partners. The true expression of love, wholesome expressions of love, have been deemed unacceptable by the standards we hold men to. The act of showing someone genuine and honest appreciation has been twisted into something undesirable.
By teaching men to conform to traditional standards of masculinity, we actively teach them not to love.
Our culture is built upon expectations and standards that can never be met, let alone exceeded.
There is nothing innately wrong with strength or wanting to be strong, but there is an innate issue with suppressing everything that makes someone human. We are emotional beings. No matter how hard we try, we can’t destroy or bury our feelings. The more we tell ourselves that we’re “fine”, the worse things tend to get. Injuries, stress, and mental health issues don’t always just go away.
Men are trained not to cry, not to fear. To be “masculine” means to never be weak, which directly contradicts what it is to be human.
At what point do we stop asking men to be “men”, and start asking them to be human?