Everything I want to tell young men about what it means to be a man
IF YOU’VE GOT A PAIR OF TESTICLES…
someone has, at some point, probably told you to ‘be a man’. What a stupid thing to say to someone. On one hand, everyone knows what that means, but really, nobody knows what it means. What does it mean to ‘be a man’ in the modern world, especially considering that being ‘a man’ in the current year is very different than ‘being a man’ fifty years ago, or a hundred years ago. Hell, ‘being a man’ means different things in different countries, so how can that be good advice to anybody.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it, and I think I have a pretty good definition of what you need to do to ‘be a man’.
THE STEREOTYPICAL ‘BE A MAN’
I did some quick googling, and looked up what the traditional ‘be a man’ traits are. A lot of them are different, but most cluster around the same group of things:
Men are strong physically
Men don’t talk about their feelings
Men take risks to get things done
Men have sex, because sex is important
Men handle their problems internally
Men don’t do things that other men don’t like
Let’s look at each one of these individually.
#1 - Men are strong physically
I mean, yes, biologically men are strong. No duh. But physical strength isn’t limited to one gender, and some people aren’t genetically made to be super strong. If being a ‘man’ means being something that some men physically cannot do, then it’s not a very good criteria.
#2 - Men don’t talk about their feelings
This is one of the big ones when people talk about ‘being a man’. Men for generations were raised to not talk about their feelings, so you know what they did when their feelings became too much for them? They killed themselves, like, a lot. Some of them drank themselves to death. Some of them shot themselves in the head. But all of them suffered because they didn’t think they could talk about what was going on with them. Even worse, like the previous entry, some men are physically born with chemical imbalances in their brain making them more prone to feeling certain things, so this is another terrible criteria for what ‘makes a man’.
#3 - Men take risks to get things done
You’ll be surprised to learn that this one is dumb too — lots of people take risks. Some risks are calculated risks, where the benefits outweigh the negatives. Some are just dumb. But it’s not only men that risk things, and choosing not to risk something doesn’t make you less of a man — it just makes you someone who doesn’t want to risk something. Another bad criteria.
#4 - Men have sex, because sex is important
Sex is a healthy and natural part of a relationship, but it’s not the only part of a relationship. Having sex is a lot like eating pizza: some people want to eat pizza all the time, some people only want it sometimes, and some people hate pizza. Some people want certain things with their pizza, some aren’t picky because pizza is pizza, and some people are OK if they only have pizza a couple times a year. All of those are completely healthy and normal feelings towards pizza, and also towards having sex. Having sex, or being desirable as someone people want to have sex with, is like being someone who can afford to buy a pizza every day. Sure, that’s cool if that’s what you’re into, but it doesn’t mean anything other than your ability to get pizza. Just like it would be dumb for someone to tell you, ‘You’re not a man if you don’t eat pizza EVERY SINGLE DAY’, it’s the same thing with sex. As long as you’re happy with how much sex (or pizza) you have, then you’re fine — it doesn’t mean anything else.
#5 - Men handle their problems internally
This goes back to the ‘men don’t talk about their feelings’ item, but no, men don’t handle their problems internally. Not talking to anyone about your emotions, or not showing your emotions, has been proven over and over in scientific studies to lead to worse outcomes such as high stress rates, depression, and ultimately suicide. If you’re the type of person who wants to handle their problems internally, that’s fine, but if you need some external help, that’s OK too. Expressing your feelings and asking for help is healthy, common, and the most productive way to solve a problem. This is just another bad stereotype.
#6 - Men don’t do things that other men don’t like
This is one of the most common other problems: lots of men stop doing things they enjoy because it’s not ‘manly’ or ‘men don’t do that’. Here’s the thing: people in general, not just men, can’t agree on what the best soda pop is. A room of ten people will often have a hard time picking a restaurant to eat at. So the idea that you’re supposed to do, or not do, something that literally half of everyone on the planet agrees on is the most ridiculous thing on the planet. Do the things that you enjoy and that make you happy, because you’re never going to please everybody, so you might as well make yourself happy.
This collection of ideas is, in psychology, called ‘toxic masculinity’. Toxic masculinity is a set of ideas that men hold themselves and other men to that doesn’t really benefit anybody. Nobody’s life is made better by toxic masculinity; as a matter of fact, I’ve talked to a lot of dudes, and I’ve never heard one say, ‘Wow, I really love it when I’m sad and somebody tells me to stop crying’.
Toxic masculinity also spills over into the ways we interact with women: there’s a seeming expectation that men should be dominant against women, that women are useful only in their ability to provide men with sex, and that men’s anger should be directed towards women who don’t do the things they want them to. That’s not only toxic, but all sorts of sexist, and a terrible way to live. And it doesn’t just harm women, it also harms us by pidgeon-holing and stereotyping us into things that we’re not. When the #metoo movement came out and people were saying that men needed to fix the way they interact with women, lots of guys said, ‘Hey, I resent that, I’m not like that!’ I’m not like that either, and that’s toxic masculinity. The fact that you have to say ‘we men aren’t all like that’ means that we men, as a gender, have a problem with both the way we interact with people.
The whole system sucks, and every time we say ‘be a man’, we’re reenforcing it.
WHAT DOES ‘BE A MAN’ MEAN?
Well, if we stop and think about it, ‘be a man’ means one thing: 'be the thing that I want you to be’. If you’re being told to ‘be a man’, you’re being told by someone else that your behavior doesn’t match what they imagine you should do, and you need to conform to their expectations.
Imagine if I broke into your bedroom and shouted at you to start wearing a yellow tee-shirt every day (since yellow is my favorite color). You’d laugh (or more likely, be pretty angry) and tell me to go away and leave you alone, because it’s your choice. Who cares what I want you to do, you are your own person, and you can make your own decisions.
The phrase ‘be a man’ is the more socially acceptable version of me demanding you wear a yellow tee-shirt. It’s what we say when someone is acting in a way that we don’t like. And, I’m gonna let you in on a secret:
A lot of the time, someone telling you to ‘be a man’ is because they’re uncomfortable with something you’re doing and don’t know how to respond to it like a healthy adult person.
When my dad died as a kid, I remember being told to ‘be a man’ at his funeral and not cry. What were they actually telling me, though? The message was clear: men don’t cry, because… uhh… because men don’t cry. The more honest answer was that they were uncomfortable seeing me cry — my crying made them want to cry, and that upset them, so I needed to stop in order to not make them cry. They weren’t emotionally healthy enough to handle their own feelings, so they wanted me to handle theirs for them by changing my own behavior. But that’s not fair, and that’s not right. I’m entitled to feel any way that I want, even if you don’t like it, and just like you shouting at me, ‘YOU SHOULD HAVE WORN A YELLOW TEE-SHIRT TO THIS FUNERAL’, I’m not obligated to listen to your bad advice anyway.
‘Be a man’ is code. It’s code for ‘I’m uncomfortable with something you’re doing, so stop doing it’. And in this case, no. I’m not responsible for how you manage your own feelings, so stop asking me to be.
SO HOW CAN I ‘BE A MAN’ IF THE WAYS EVERYBODY TELLS ME ARE WRONG?
I think there are two parts to being told to ‘be a man’. The first part is to ‘behave the way I want you to’, like we discussed. But I also think there’s an unspoken second part to it — a more optimistic interpretation of ‘be a man’. And that means to ‘be better than you’re currently being’. But again, like so many things, ‘being better’ isn’t limited to one gender. Everyone can be ‘better’, and be healthy inside and out. So let’s instead make a list of ways that we can all ‘be better’, not as men, but as human beings. To me:
#1 - Being a man means talking about how you’re feeling, even if those feelings are embarrassing or scary
There are currently 7,530,000,000 people on Earth right now. You are absolutely, positively not the only person to feel a certain way at any time. Even if you think your feelings are ‘one in a million’, that means there are still a TON of people who feel exactly the same way you do. So you might as well benefit from their knowledge and experience. If you can’t find someone immediately around you who understands how you’re feeling, start asking around. I guarantee there’s nothing you can be feeling or going through that someone else can’t understand.
#2 - Being a man means caring about things
Everything that has ever been created is because somebody cared about something. Sometimes it’s an idea, or a thing, or a person, but everybody cares about something. Caring about something is important for helping both us, and that other thing, grow. Doesn’t matter what it is, there’s nothing that is considered ‘embarrassing’ to care about. If it matters to you, then it matters. Period. Love baking, or playing basketball, or teaching children? All those are awesome, keep on caring about them. The real problem is when we stop caring about things — life gets pretty awful when that happens.
#3 - Being a man is about caring for or protecting other people
I hesitate even writing ‘being a man’ in this one, because really, this isn’t about being a man. This is about being a good person. A good person cares for and protects other people, not because he or she needs a reason, but because it’s the right thing to do. Sometimes this is very hard because ‘protecting’ or ‘caring’ are active verbs — they imply you have to actually do something. That means actively calling out other people for doing crappy things like harassing other people, making mean or demeaning comments, or being unnecessarily aggressive. It’s not easy doing this, but that’s because the right things aren’t always easy. Helping other people stay as safe and comfortable as you are is important because then other people will do the same back for you.
#4 - Being a man means not caring what other people think
At the end of the day, the only person you’re stuck with is yourself. You can drive a million miles and disappear into the wilderness, but at the end of the day, you’re still stuck with yourself. So you might as well be the kind of person you want to be, since the only person you need to please is yourself.
#5 - Being a man means understanding that other people are different from you, and why that’s OK
Everybody is different. I mean, with 7.53 billion people on the planet, everybody would have to be different. Being better means understanding that difference, but also understanding why that difference matters. This means understanding both sides of an issue before making a decision, even if understanding both sides makes you uncomfortable. It means seeing something from someone else’s perspective and how they might be affected. And being a man is to be OK with all of those things, tolerating other people the same way they’re tolerating the things that make you unique.
IT’S HARD TO CHANGE THE WORLD…
but it’s much easier to change yourself and the world around you. So don’t let somebody else tell you how you should be; be the kind of person who makes you proud, and help other people be the same way. And ignore anybody who tells you to ‘be a man’ expecting you to be different than the way you are — they’ve obviously got some personal issues they need to work on themselves.