“Why are you crossing your legs that way? That’s how girls sit.”
A personal conflict with masculinity– meaning, the qualities that American society has glomped together to make up what a man should be, and as it relates to gender roles– was planted within me at a young age.
I was the kid who would sneak into his mom’s closet and try on her high heels. They were pretty and it was fun. I was caught a number of times, and I would always kick the heels off quickly, as if in protest that such a girly thing was associated with me.
It was always embarrassing.
I vaguely remember one occasion, where my sister helped me dress up in one of our mom’s summer dresses and heels; a costume that she felt would highly amuse our dad. I was along for the ride, mostly because she seemed so encouraging.
Dad did not find it amusing. On the contrary, it made him pretty angry to see his young boy in women’s clothing.
I also grew up playing with “girl” toys: Barbies, Polly Pockets, Bratz. I thought changing their styles and swinging their hair around was fun, I guess. But anytime I sensed an adult coming near, I would toss the doll over my shoulder and sheepishly pretend to be doing something else.
Despite feeling embarrassed about liking stereotypically girly things, I did not readily recognize how the societal norms of masculinity did not match up with who I was.
In fourth grade, one comment really got me questioning gender roles and how I was expected to fit into them.
The class was having some sort of ice cream party for one reason or another, and I remember everyone buzzing with excitement. It was a happy occasion. We were all sitting around, enjoying ice cream, laughing and being nice to each other.
An older, bigger boy who was sitting next to me noticed that I was sitting with my legs crossed. For some reason, this was a huge issue for him, and he pointed out that I was sitting like a girl.
Now, I know that kids just speak their minds and can be vicious. And I also know that the 90s were not exactly focused on doing away with gender roles. Still, that kid’s comment really stuck with me for a long time.
An inner dialogue formed in my head, questioning why I did things the way I did. I noticed my more feminine mannerisms and began comparing myself to other boys my age. It was toxic.
During high school, when I told everyone I was gay and started dating a boy, I felt that my newly identified sexuality would calm my anxiety about not fitting the masculine norm.
Of course, I was a hormonal teen, and I did not understand swirly thoughts of gender and sexuality. It was foreign and messy and awful. I still felt that I wasn’t living up to some non-existent standard of manliness.
Thus, the seed of masculine conflict sprouted and quickly spread like insatiable ivy throughout my being.
I have never, not even a little, felt that I fell into the box labeled “Masculine.” And it’s not so much that I want to be more masculine, or change the way I am. It’s that these preconstructed, narrow-minded, societal ideals and expectations of how a man is supposed to appear and behave have been continuously thrust upon us.
Honestly, the older I get, the less I care about expectations. Gender roles are dead. I can still be a man without adhering to the made-up rules of masculinity.
Yet, there are still small occasions where I’m faced with other men who ooze this palpable, almost overwhelming arrogance over meeting their MAN quota for the day. They win because society has historically told them that they are the norm. They are right.
In general, the world would be a much happier place if people put less weight on the words “masculinity” and “femininity.”
We are more complex than that.
— J. S.