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Performing Masculinity

I was in 6th grade when it happened to me. During the course of an ordinary school day full of assignments, banter, and the manic lunacy of recess, I was introduced to the strict, punitive guidelines bestowed upon me by my affiliation with maleness. A group of friends and I found ourselves immersed in a sublime game of dodgeball; trying our best to outmaneuver each other in order to proudly call ourselves the last survivor. While this trivial raucous ensued, my best friend pointed to another kid and began ridiculing him. Confusion rolled over me as I wasn’t familiar with this boy. Soon another classmate of mine joined in and they proceeded to direct comments and insults to him until he slowly distanced himself. Clumsily I asked my friends what was going on, and they matter of factly shared statements highlighting the boy’s dress, his body movements, and that he wasn’t a guy. From that day forward, the vitriol and disdain in the voices of my classmates settled in me like a constant siren, reminding me that I had to do everything in my power not to ever be like that boy.

Throughout that same school year I was continually gifted an informal education (a critical one from an inclusivity standpoint) by both female and male classmates. The education came in the form of questions & comments; “Oh my God, look at the way he runs?,” “You swing worse than the girls,” “You can’t wear those kinds of clothes,” “Why do you laugh like a girl?,” “Are you gay or something?”

As a result of this socially accepted lesson plan, there came to exist an internal omnipresent dread, to accurately perform both the physical and emotional traits affiliated with masculinity. The message was clear; those that followed/embodied the rules of manhood gained inclusion, respect, and success with women. Those that didn’t, were failures as men.

As an adult, I was able to explore these discourses both through personal reflection, and while working with young men in therapeutic spaces. Within this work came a keen realization of how limited life was within the borders of the “man-box.” To be such a man, one had to disown parts of themselves. To relinquish the wholeness that we came into this world with.

The discomfort and unease that men like myself experience when attempting to share emotions and feelings with others, highlights the lifelong limitations that the “man-box” puts on us, as well as those in our lives. The socialization that men are indoctrinated into fails to provide them with adequate tools on how to deal with grief, loss, pain, and sadness. It teaches men to disown such emotions, instead encouraging them to choose anger as the primary tool for dealing with their struggles. The emotional illiteracy that this promotes is what leads many men to drown their pains and difficulties in alcohol, sex, violence, and work. How can we expect men to be able to process emotions effectively when doing so would be faced with ridicule and shame as they grew up?

As a culture we are slowly beginning to have expansive dialogues about the toxicity inherent in specific forms of masculinity. This hopeful exploration may lead us to re-narrate masculinity into a force of empowerment, strength, and nurturance for all those who choose to embody its traits. For there is goodness within masculinity.

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