This week’s activity surrounding Women’s Marches around the country got me thinking about my role in today’s world, but more specifically, what it means to be a man. Since I’m not necessarily comfortable with defining myself using the definitions of others, I guess what I’m really looking for is “what do I think it means to be a man?”. And to be quite honest, I’m not sure I have an answer that will be satisfying to many or even myself at times, but it’s one that I think is actually closer to a truth and onr that would be more beneficial to our world.
I think as a young boy, being a man was centered around physical achievements. If asked what being a man meant, I would have likely given a stereotypical answer about being big and strong. Possibly even referencing ripping a phone book in half. The latter argument breaks down quickly since really anyone can rip a phone book in half with the right technique. As for the former, I can remember thinking “I wish I could be as tall as my mom!”, as if that were the pinnacle of growth achievement. I’m not sure why I didn’t hold myself to a “higher” standard, such as my dad’s height. Possibly because I felt it was out of reach. Either way, I quickly outgrew my mom (and eventually well past my dad), so I must have been a man at 12 right? Not quite.
As I grew into my teens, I think my new definition of being a man was driven by societal norms I was experiencing at the time. It was in my teens I discovered how entertainment media influenced my thinking and feelings. This is the time I discovered shows like “All in the Family” and “The Waltons”. Shows that had some genuinely great and valuable commentary on family, life, and love, but also introduced me to family dynamics that advocated for a patriarchal dominant family structure, where being a man meant being the bread winner, making large decisions for the family, and being strong-minded and logical. I also spent much of my formative years in the deep south, which certainly carries with it a stigma about male dominated family units. But I remember being uncomfortable with this structure or this line of thinking, but not fully understanding why. Out of guilt, I would sometimes go and sit in the kitchen while my mom cooked dinner, just so she would have company, while the rest of the family was off tending to their own business. It didn’t seen right to me that she spent most nights alone in the kitchen, although no doubt she savored this time at times. So although what I was seeing in the world around me suggested to me that “this is what it means to be a man”, I still didn’t quite agree with it and wasn’t sure I could live up to it.
Once I reached my dating years, being a man was defined by romantically taking care of someone else. It meant doting over someone through words, gifts, and my time. It meant embracing cheesy holidays as truth. It meant flowers were the currency of love, which surely had to be the measure of being a man. But before I got into a relationship, it meant being “man enough” to approach someone I was interested in and talking to them. Being a man was making “the move” for a first kiss or more with someone. But as I’ve grown and graduated through different levels of relationships and have reflected upon my actions in past relationships, I’ve become uncomfortable with this definition of manhood. First of all, the recipe for love isn’t the same for everyone and I certainly don’t follow the same recipe today that I did over 15 years ago. In fact, I’ve thrown the recipe book out the window. I also am not comfortable with hitting on women at bars. I have enough confidence to do so, but I’ve realized it’s not about me and my confidence. For me, it’s about not reducing a woman’s worth to her physical attributes and risk damaging her own confidence. That’s not to say I don’t admire women’s physical appearance, but I’ve taken it as my responsibility to find other ways to show my appreciation that don’t take this risk. And quite frankly, if a woman wants to be the one to make “the move”, then by all means, they should feel empowered enough to do so. It isn’t strictly a man’s domain. That all being said, this isn’t to say I’ve figure it all out; quite the opposite actually. It could easily explain why I’m still searching for a partner in life, but it’s a route that I can feel comfortable hanging my hat on.
So where does this leave me? It’s not about physical attributes. There are all sorts of men out there, tall and short, ripped and floppy. And that’s ok, that doesn’t detract or add to someone’s manhood. It’s not about societal norms. I don’t subscribe to a patriarchal view of family or world. Much of how I’ve constructed myself and how I conduct my business is in direct opposition to that. And it’s not about having someone to take care of romantically. I’ve had that and I’ve lost that and I don’t feel that it takes away from who I am. It’s actually through that loss that I’ve found a path that I can be proud of and will hopefully lead me to a more fulfilling life someday, with a partner that brings me closer to being the person I aspire to be.
I think the definition of being a man is bigger. So big in fact that I think you almost have to throw out the idea of a definition completely. I don’t think I need the term in this context at all. I don’t need to behave in way that describes me as a man. I just want to be a good, kind, gracious, giving, and thoughtful person. But how does this separate us men from women? Again, I’m not sure we explicitly have to. Maybe some feel we do and that’s fine…for them. But for me, it just doesn’t really matter. Because what it gets down to is this. By just judging myself and my character against other men, I feel that I am implying that men are the pinnacle of what people should hope to achieve and the rest of the 50% of people in this world are somehow below that. I am implying that woman don’t have to worry about being good, kind, gracious, giving, and thoughtful. And I just can’t get on board with that. There are so many women throughout history and currently alive today that if I could conduct my life as well as they have, I would be a much better person. So in the end, I am just looking to be the best ‘person’ that I can be.