1. Does healthy masculinity even exist?
Intellectually speaking, this is the most difficult article I’ve written in my time with The Body is Not An Apology. It’s involved reading, research, introspection, dead-ends, and hair-tugging (and I’m at the tail-end of a graduate school degree).
Some of the best people in my life, people I love dearly and have always trusted to tell me that absolute truth have told me that this topic should be right in my wheelhouse. That my sense of masculinity is some of the healthiest they’ve ever seen.
When I’ve pushed them on the subject however, the responses always seem to be on the periphery of what I’m asking. Why do I have healthy masculinity? Here’s a smattering of answers I’ve gotten:
“Because you’re so sensitive and in touch with your feelings.”
“Because you’re willing to admit when you’re angry, but you don’t act with violence.”
“Because you’re not ashamed to dance to Katy Perry songs or admit that you cried at the end of Atonement.” (Seriously though, y’all, that ending messed me up)
“Because I have no interest in pursuing masculinity for its own sake, and therefore don’t really care to prove myself as a man.”
The pronoun changes in that last one are not typos. That’s excerpted from a long, meditative journal entry I wrote only a couple of years ago when I was first exploring the act of calling myself a feminist. That debate didn’t arise from a belief that the label of feminism was somehow going to make me less masculine—I was just worried it was too much to tack on after already calling myself a Leftist.
More Radical Reads: A Man’s Role In Consent Culture : “Silence In Sex is NOT a Sign To Move Forward”
2. Maybe healthy masculinity is an intersection of healthy habits.
Some time ago, I came across this article by Leo Babauta at Zen Habits about the idea that “discipline” is a myth, and what people are really discussing when they talk about it is an intersection of motivation, habits, and consistency. While I haven’t decided if I fully agree with him, I can’t help but ponder if a similar argument can’t be made for healthy masculinity.
Take another look at my list up there. Being sensitive and in touch with my feelings has nothing to do with being masculine: I’d argue it has more to do with self-awareness and empathy, ideas that have nothing to do with the gender spectrum, excepting that toxic masculinity works against their cultivation.
Not acting violently when I’m angry isn’t a masculine trait either—it’s a point of self-control. If self-control is a masculine trait, why is it that women are expected to have it in abundance? When a woman raises her voice in an argument, terms like “hysterical,” “shrill,” and “emotional” get bandied out to discredit whatever logic she presents or valid criticisms and feelings she might have. Also, not acting violently should not be anyone’s high bar. It’s just plain decency.
This brings me to the third point: I like “girly” stuff. I always have. From the boy bands that my sister listened to—and I listened to while curled outside her bedroom door—to sappy love poetry. From an unhealthy obsession with Hello Kitty merchandise to a deep appreciation for the films of Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore (and Music and Lyrics, the truly adorable romantic comedy they did together, which I maintain is still one of the most underappreciated films of 2007).
As great as my devotion of all of this may be, it is all an embrace of my feminine side. No big deal, we all have that duality, and a generally healthy individual will be capable of embracing both sides of it however it naturally occurs.
So could healthy masculinity be an intersection between empathy, self-control, and an embrace of one’s feminine side?
Could it be a myth in the same manner that Babauta describes discipline?
And what do I do with the queasy sensation in my gut whenever I try to label any aspect of myself as masculine?
3. Or is saying ‘healthy’ masculinity like saying, ‘healthy’ flesh wound?
Through my entire life, I’ve found the concept of masculinity that’s been presented to me to be sickening. I’ve known men to have breakdowns over the very possibility that they fail in proving their manhood. And I’ve known them to hurt people over it.
One of my favorite portrayals of this masculinity is Emilio Estevez’s character, Andrew, in The Breakfast Club. He gives a monologue at one point explaining in graphic detail his assault on another student for being “kinda skinny” and “weak.” He explains that he did it to impress his father, a man who pounds into his son that to physically dominate in sports and to ‘act out’ is the only appropriate measure for him. That he’s a loser otherwise.
[Video embed from youtube, transcript at end https://www.youtube.com/watch?
Men like Andrew’s father, his friends, are still what I picture when I consider even just the term masculinity. It is a masculinity intrinsically linked to violence, emotional self-harm, and mistreatment of those who don’t measure up to a standard.
The other side is the honorable ideal of masculinity, and it can be just as troubled. It definitely makes a better sounding case for itself. This is the line of thinking that men should seek to take care of their families, keep their word, hold doors open for women, etc. Some people refer to it as chivalrous. I’ve often thought of it as condescending.
Again, there’s nothing exclusively male about these supposedly masculine actions. Women are often shouldering significantly more of the burden of family care than male partners, but we don’t look at this as a masculine trait in them. Keeping one’s word is again, just decency, and it is patently offensive for men to pretend that they have some kind of monopoly on the behavior. As to the door opening, I just say hold the door for anybody, regardless of gender-presentation. It’s just polite.
For a long time, the idea of “healthy masculinity” was like saying “healthy flesh wound,” in my mind. This can be a damaging paradigm, especially for men within progressive movements and acting as allies and activists for gender equality.
More Radical Reads: Clenched Fist: HeteroPatriarchal Masculinity Always Equals Violence
4. Is rejecting my masculinity radical self-love?
If I’m a cis-male who loathes a natural aspect of myself on instinct, it’s a recipe for inner disaster. Toxic masculinity can drive men towards violent or abusive actions both towards themselves and to the world surrounding them. Similarly, this counter-programmed twitch to cast off anything resembling maleness or machismo without thought or consideration can destroy a person from the inside. It is a rejection of an essential part of oneself.
Radical Self-Love demands just that: love. Love of every chunk of ourselves, even the ones we might consider abominable. Like any proper love, it should be examined and worked on. We should love with an active and honest mind. Masculinity need not be thrown to waysides if it’s loved with critical eyes.
5. Healthy masculinity means acting from compassion, not dominance.
So if toxic masculinity is condescending, treating those who are not the ideal male as either weak or in need of protection, healthy masculinity must reserve itself. The healthy masculine figure must provide and care from a place of compassion rather than dominance. This is a hard line to walk, but not impossible.
Where toxic masculinity objectifies and encourages violence and intimidation, healthy masculinity must root itself in empathy and a mature outlook towards the presentation of physical power and privilege. This requires men to think about how they inhabit spaces, how their presence interacts with other bodies in spaces. It takes practice and a lot of thinking. It’s doable though.
Toxic masculinity builds boys and men like Andrew from the clip above and the father he describes. It encourages worth as rooted in acts of malice, a supremacist outlook in which weakness is tantamount to an unworthiness of existence, where the only ideal to strive for is single-minded pursuit of an ape-ish caricature of maleness.
Healthy masculinity, on the other hand, has the wherewithal to stop itself, decide that proving manhood isn’t worth all of that, and walks away, confident in its choice. It’s the difference between the boy who decides to pick the fight, and the man strong enough to walk away.
Are you learning how to come to terms with your relationship with masculinity? Come join us in our next webinar 10 Tools for Radical Self Love.
[[Youtube Video Transcript:
Andrew: I taped Larry Lester’s buns together.
Brian: That was you?
Andrew: Yeah, you know him?
Brian: Yeah, I know him.
Andrew: Well, then you know how hairy he is. And when they pulled the tape off, most of his hair came off and some – some skin, too.
Claire: Oh my God.
Andrew: And the bizarre thing is that I did it for my old man. I tortured this poor kid because I wanted him to think that I was cool. He’s always going off about how when he was in school and all the wild things he used to do. And I got the feeling that he was disappointed that I never cut loose on anyone, right? So I’m sitting in the locker room and I’m taping up my knee, and Larry’s undressing a couple lockers down from me. And he’s kinda, he’s kinda skinny. Weak. And I started thinkin’ about my father, and his attitude about, about weakness. And the next thing I knew, I jumped on top of him and started whaling on him. And my friends, they just laughed and cheered me on. And afterwards, when I’m sitting in Vernon’s office, all I could think about was Larry’s father and Larry having to go home and explain what happened to him. And the humiliation – the fucking humiliation he must have felt. It must have been unreal. I mean, how… how do you apologize for something like that? There’s no way. It’s all because of me and my old man. God, I fucking hate him. He’s like this mindless machine that I can’t even relate to anymore.
[crying, imitating his father]
Andrew: ‘Andrew! You’ve got to be number one! I won’t tolerate any losers in this family! Your intensity is for shit! Win! Win! Win!’ You son of a bitch. You know, sometimes I wish my knee would give. And I wouldn’t be able to wrestle anymore. And he could forget all about me.]]