Tears were streaming down my face. I was 10 years old, sitting in our antique Oldsmobile, outside the parking lot of an ice cream shop. My dad and I regularly had father and son nights, and on this particular one I gathered the courage to make a confession:
“I don’t know how to not cry. I wish I could stop but sometimes I just feel like crying, and I know boys aren’t supposed to do that.”
My dad consoled me and told me that it was all right. It was perfectly natural for boys to cry. “If you need to cry, just let it out, son. You have nothing to be ashamed of,” he reassured me.
I felt a little better after that, but it still didn’t shake my discomfort. I didn’t realize it then, but somewhere deep within in me I knew what a man was supposed to be, and I felt that I wasn’t it.
It was around that time that I can recall my first encounter with the lie of masculinity.
Over the course of many years, I came across many other lies that one by one began to build a skeleton of falsehoods living within my consciousness.
And being an innocent child, I accepted those lies. I knew intuitively that they were wrong, but I felt like I was being wound up with a key, predestined to follow a path set before me.
My male identity was being created, and I was slowly learning that men are supposed to be strong, not vulnerable & aren’t expected to express their emotions.
I was learning that men are considered queer if they don’t act brash and overbearing; that men are supposed to be dominant, not submissive.
I was learning that men are horny, not sensual.
The most dominant imprint in my mind was that who I was was not okay. Growing up in a house full of girls made things even more difficult (I have four sisters). I felt weird and “unmanly” when I acted in a more expressive way. I quickly learned that “expressiveness” was considered feminine.
But I learned to put on the mask and I wore it well. I would play football, run track and wrestle in school. I enjoyed these sports a lot, but I also did them because it was expected of me as a man. I didn’t like playing house or dolls with my sisters not because I found it boring, but because I knew that it wasn’t what boys were supposed to do.
Looking back, it’s easy to see that my parents and everyone around me were desperately trying to instill a strong sense of gender identity within me. I thought it was normal, of course. But many parts of it felt fake.
For instance, when I hung out with guys, why didn’t we actually talk? I don’t mean talk about sports or music or cars. But actually tell each other how we feel and give each other support (and I don’t mean slaps with a towel). There were many times I wanted to tell my friends that I wasn’t doing well emotionally or that I needed help. But that’s not what guys do. Maybe if this changed there would be less suicides among men.
Women are so great at supporting and openly complimenting each other. Why can’t men be like that? Will it really threaten our masculinity that much? If anything, I think it would strengthen us.
The lie of masculinity also crept up when I spent time with my family, acting in ways that I didn’t choose but was expected to. It manifested itself in my marriage. I had a “role” as a husband that I was expected to fulfill. To be vulnerable and admit my weakness to her wasn’t expected or welcomed. It was considered unmanly. So I buried that part of me.
In many ways, masculinity wasn’t something I felt or identified with. It was more of a performance that I felt I needed to act out out of fear for being shunned by other men (and women).
For much of my life the lie felt normal. But I slowly began to see its ugliness for what it was. I vowed to change it.
Therapy helped me see just how deeply these roles were embedded in me. I started to realize that I could create something different if I wanted to. I could actually define what it means to be a man for myself. I hadn’t considered that possibility before.
Digging through each layer of mud covering who I really am became my mission. I noticed that I acted differently depending on who was with. Not just because I was expressing different parts of me in a way I wanted to. But because I thought I should be manly and obnoxious around other guys, censored and conservative around my parents, and sensitive and playful with my lover.
The real me was partially revealed in each setting I found myself in, though I always felt like something was inhibited and held back. I wanted to be the same person no matter what situation I was in. I wanted to be open and expressive — masculine, feminine, straight, gay, bi, straight, queer or otherwise — not in the way others saw fit, or the way I was expected to as a white, male, middle class American. I wanted to be fully and utterly me.
To be a man isn’t to live by a rigid set of adjectives. It just means to be fully who I am — expressed in my own integrity, living my own truth. I only struggled to be a man because I was looking for my manhood stamp-of-approval from somewhere outside of me.
I realized the fastest way to be masculine or feminine is probably to stop caring about it. Be who you are, regardless of who you’re with or what you’re expected to do. There is a beautiful spectrum of expression in manly and womanly energy; we are vast and contain multitudes. Embody the qualities that you want, not because they’re masculine or feminine, but because they vibrate deeply with who you are.
I’m more than my gender. So are you.
I know there are others silently wishing to express themselves more fully and step outside of the box. I urge you to please do so. If there is something you want to do that you feel might question your manhood, I challenge you to act out of truth rather than fear.
As a fellow man, I’m here to support you. Not out of brotherhood, but because you’re human, and a beautiful person.
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Jonathan is a blogger and coach who helps people get paid to be who they are. He’s a barefoot runner, trafficker of truth, and has written several digital guides that can help you live and work on your own terms. Grab them here.