How I Made Space for the Softboi in Me: A Meditation on Toxic Masculinity

By: Vanessa Newman for GLOSSRAGS

I really appreciated that within the podcast masculinity was reframed to be more gender inclusive, not only as a socially constructed idea of manhood. I identify as masculine of center — a term used within the queer community to describe one’s gender identity or presentation — but also a woman, so I think my understanding of masculinity has been a bit of a different journey compared to a man, while still very relatable to everything that was being discussed.

To clarify what my definition of masculine of center is — and I’m sure this isn’t the case for everyone but, I present as “masculine.” I have short hair — even though barbers often get mad confused because I always want men’s haircuts while opting to keep my natural lines and my shape up “feminine.” For some reason they can never comprehend that, which is kind of funny when you think about it as masculinity as this rigid of a concept that men can’t even soften haircuts, let alone their own feelings, you know?

I buy clothes out the “men’s” section, probably stand, sit, or in some instances, take up space like a man (I don’t know if this is how I move through the world for sure, but I’m sure I’ve unconsciously adopted some more masculine mechanisms), and because I present as masculine, society often reads me as masculine and then expects me to act a certain way and therefore, my experience with the world is centered in my masculinity — which is why I personally identify as masculine of center.

Coming into my masculinity has been a struggle for sure. I think at heart I was always a tomboy, even as a child, but once I came out in high school and — stereotypically — joined the basketball team, my masculinity definitely started gaining more definition. I even still think a lot about how before I had my first job and the capital to buy my own clothes, the first women that I dated were more masculine presenting. But as soon as I started shopping in the men’s section myself, I started also dating femme women. To this day, part of me wonders if that was the internalized homophobia that still plagues that LGBTQ community, as if two masculine women romantically together is “too gay.” you know? As I’ve come into myself, I’ve realized I definitely still have an attraction to masculine energy, which has been an interesting journey to come to terms with and embrace.

I was around 16 when I started dressing a lot more masculine because I had my first job and could buy my own clothes. I remember the way girls interacted with me started changing. I feel like people started expecting me to be more of an asshole and a player. I remember it was a lot easier to flirt with girls too, like my sexuality was being taken more seriously because it was visible. I’ve come to realize that that’s a byproduct of “femme invisibility,” which creates an unfair dynamic for femme queer women who feel as if they can’t be forward about their attraction because their presentation isn’t perceived as “validating enough” to others, but I digress.

At the same time, when I was 16, I was dumped for calling a girlfriend a bitch but upon apologizing, she revealed that the real reason she didn’t want to date me anymore was because I was “too nice” to her. I remember shortly after that, I had three of my friends, who were all queer, older and more masculine and more experienced with dating than I was, sit me down and tell me that I was never going to get girls if I was nice, that I had to toughen up and act more distant. The most disturbing thing about that was when I followed through on those actions in high school, I did get more attention from more “popular” girls, which I think internally crushed me a bit, because I knew this person who was now more desirable, wasn’t actually me, and that I was performing in ways that weren’t honoring my true self. But at the time when I was in high school, I didn’t know how to just be me and be okay with it when everyone else was telling me how to be someone else.

It took me a few years to eventually meet my first serious partner, who I give so much credit and appreciation for doing the emotional labor to hold a lot of space for my internalized toxic masculinity, while lovingly calling me in, not out, on it every time and wouldn’t settle until I softened myself and began treating them with more love and respect. I think that’s the greatest learning that I’ve taken forward with me into all my relationships — friends, family, lovers, etc.

I really try to treat everyone with a tenderness and compassion. I try to make space for emotions to feel with people, even when my instinct may be to shut down and keep my feelings to myself. I make sure to return the emotional, physical, and mental labor that I think femmes are often expected to do without reciprocation from their male or masculine counterpart.

I really embrace the term “softboi”, which, when I first came about it in an article was seen as a dangerous term, but I’ve come to reclaim and redefine for myself, because to me it’s like a word that makes space for softer masculinity to exist.

Although I don’t expect for all masculinity to look “soft”, I do think that all masculinity should look healthy, which at the end of the day I believe comes down to an understanding of one’s own and emotional needs and an ability to communicate them to others with words, as well as, respect the emotional needs and wants of others, without perceiving them as threats to one’s own masculinity.

I’m not saying that it’s easy — it’s hard enough to unlearn toxic masculinity in my community as a woman, so I couldn’t even imagine the process as a man, but I know that it’s necessary. So, I think by exposing more men, in particular, to these conversations and, even more importantly, to content in which we see softer forms of masculinity socially accepted — film, music videos, music lyrics, podcasts, art, etc. I think content is what has been and is going to continue to lead the charge to change things. Because if masculinity is a social construct, then it’s society — it’s pop culture, it’s policy, it’s advertising, etc. — that’s got to change. And I’d like to think, I have to think, that bettering society and changing norms starts with bettering, challenging, and changing oneself, as an individual. Over the last almost eight years of being out and coming into my masculinity, that’s what I’ve done, and continue to do, and I only hope to have positive effect on unlearning toxic masculinity in my own QTPoC (Queer, Trans, People of Color) communities.

About the Author

Vanessa Newman is a brand strategist, entrepreneur, writer, event producer, and DJ living and working in Brooklyn, NY.