What does it mean to be a man? How could one truly define such a lofty role? According to society, our labels to define some of the various roles of a man are “Be like a man,” “Be tough,” or “Men don’t cry.” Yet, do men suffer? Are they ever in pain? Do we even consider the emotional weight, the men in our lives, may be bearing?
We expect them to carry the weight of the world, and “take it like a man.” So, I ask, who is helping them shoulder this enormous responsibility? Tools of emotional health and strength are not necessarily being made a focus to aid our men, potentially helping them succeed in life.
This, in my opinion, is the drive behind much of the ill behaviors and attitudes held by men, today. We expect them to be the perfect man, take care of the house, the family, and do it all “like a man.” Yet, how often do we check in and make sure, that our men are strong enough to do it.
In my own travels, through the current social world, my gender identity and sexuality have been a major focus. Over the years, as I have tried, to comprehend who am I, not just as gay, but as a man, I look back, and can see from the beginning the path I was destined to take.
I may not have thought, or understood, that I was “gay” but I can vividly remember, my young self and the emotional responses I had to various experiences. I remember, I’m only in 2nd grade. I’m 6 years old, skinny, mousy brown hair, blue eyes. I’m in school. We are not engaged as a group. We are maybe watching something on the TV. The room isn’t dark and most of the kids are playing.
I had these yellow shorts on, a bright yellow, like a dandelion. They were my favorite, they made me feel confident in my 6-year-old self. There is also a large stuffed lion. It had a reddish mane, a golden body with white on the bottom of the paws. I remember, we all loved the lion. It was something to the class and we would fight over it. In this moment, I had the lion and I was relaxing on it, feeling proud I had ownership. We all wanted the lion.
I, also, remember another feeling. I couldn’t understand why the boys weren’t playing with me, in the way they would give the girls attention. It was an innocent moment for a naive 6-year-old. Adopting society’s definitions with which I will be pressured to conform to later in life, wasn’t something I can even remember. Yet, had I reacted to those emotions, it would have been perceived differently. Something would have been wrong with me, I wasn’t acting like a boy.
When, I grew older, beginning at age 10, I would be reminded of my lack of manliness. “Faggot,” “Fag,” and “Queer,” were ritual words that rattled in my brain daily, coming from other children, who like me, were expected to support the same gender roles.
Lucky for me, I had a lot of support in my personal world. The traditional labels of manliness also weren’t a major focus. I was really allowed to be myself, even if I couldn’t necessarily say who I was. I had parents, they weren’t together, and my dad lived far away, but even having a male role model, it didn’t exactly influence my overall person and how I would define myself today.
This, I would say, is a rarity of an experience for the general male youth. James Mahalik, and Michael Addis, authors of “Men, masculinity, and the contexts of help seeking,” support this opinion throughout their paper. I feel this can be seen most clearly in the following text:
“An alternative to the sex-differences approach is to understand men’s help seeking as a product of masculine gender-role socialization. Role socialization paradigms begin with the assumption that men and women learn gendered attitudes and behaviors from cultural values, norms, and ideologies about what it means to be men and women. For example, many of the tasks associated with seeking help from a health professional, such as relying on others, admitting a need for help, or recognizing and labeling an emotional problem, conflict with the messages men receive about the importance of self-reliance, physical toughness, and emotional control.” (Mahalik, Addis 2003)
In other words, men are being given a message of what it means to fulfill their “gender- role socialization,’ and be a “man.” The message of “self- reliance, physical toughness, and emotional control,” influences men’s behavior resulting in continued emotional burden, and a feeling of a lack of emotional resources and support available to them.
I feel that in my childhood, because of a lack of expectations to be “masculine,” or be any gender, it allowed me to achieve two results.
1. I was able to separate my gender identity and my sexuality.
2. I was able to discover my own path to find my gender identity, which helped me define what it meant to be a “man” for me, giving me the confidence, and strength to succeed socially.
William S Pollack, author of “The ‘War’ For Boys: Hearing ‘Real Boys’ Voices, Healing Their Pain,” says “Boys today, indeed, are in serious trouble, including many who seem “normal” and to be doing just fine. Confused by society’s mixed messages about what’s expected of them as boys, and later as men, and pushed prematurely to separate from the bonded and connected love their “sisters” rely on for psychological sustenance, many feel a sadness and disconnection they cannot even name (Pollack, 1999). Research (Levant, 2001; Pollack, 1998, 1999)”
What this he is saying is, boys are being expected to behavior a certain way and yet not have any emotional support to manage how they feel. Yet, unlike our counterpart, women, who continues to still be supported emotionally, men tend to feel they can’t turn to anyone for support during their emotional development.
This emotional unbalance in men leads to various outcomes for our gender. Many of which we see in today’s world as more and more men begin to act out in the only two emotions we can exhibit, anger and hostility. In the dissertation of Michael Dickerson, he creates the argument of the “dark side” of what it means to be a man.
“[Brooks] argues that there is a ‘dark side of masculinity’, one that includes a range of negative behaviors that appear in some traditional men. These ‘dark’ behaviors include violence, alcohol and drug abuse, sexual excess, emotional flight or withdrawal, sexism, and inadequate behavior as partners in a relationship.” (Dickerson 2015)
What Michael Dickerson was trying to emphasis, is the influence of social gender roles and the resulting behaviors. While these definitions may not always result in men’s negative behaviors. The reality is, this continued lack of emotional support can drive some men to choose an unhealthy path in expressing themselves. This is causing pain for them and others.
If we really want to give our children a chance. If we can learn to see our boys and men as more than just an idea of masculinity. We will empower them to express themselves more effectively. This could create a better future for our children. Male emotional help is not spoken about enough. Our male children deserve to be given more tools for emotional support and development.
If I had not had the experiences in my childhood, I feel I would not have seen the sadness that blankets the many faces of men in our society. If it weren’t for my opportunities to be myself and discover my own definition of being a “man”, then I wouldn’t recognize the need for change within our cultures. It is time to give our men the support that they need, and hopefully change our world for the better.