Alan Siebuhr is an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley. When he’s not balding early due to frustration and stress, he usually posts pictures of his cat, tweets the occasional snark at @amsiebuhr, and drinks coffee and milk in abundance.
I pinned him to a set of lockers. I couldn’t ignore him. There was only one option, and that was to show my dominance, even if he was joking. I can’t remember what he said, only that he was picking on me, so I had to stand up for myself. As I had my hand around his neck, incensed by embarrassment and humiliation, he told me to calm down, but I wouldn’t. It wasn’t something that I could let go. I had to do to show that he wouldn’t humiliate me again. If that took physical violence, then so be it. But I let him go out of fear of punishment, and walked away.
In retrospect, I should have done that from the beginning: I should have been able to walk away and let it go. At the beginning of the altercation, I was only frustrated, but being frustrated caused me to get so worked up that I would cry, and crying was shameful. So I made sure to be physical, to assert and stand up for myself the only way I knew how, since there was no other way that I could do so.
Growing up, I was a sensitive child. It didn’t matter what “negative” emotions I felt, be it sadness, anger, irritation, frustration, or misery, it would always end the same: with me in tears. As a result, when I was younger, I would try to hide these feelings by threatening people with violence or “kicking their asses,” to try to put on a façade of toughness. All around me were people, television shows, movies, and other influences that told me men are tough. Men are not supposed to show emotion, and the only way for a man to stand up for himself is to do so with violence. Men must show bravado and use their fists to fix their way out of situations. You also can’t forget men should lose their virginity at all costs, as the more sexual partners a man has had, the more of a “man” he is. This is what we’re taught at a young age when we are most impressionable. I unconsciously came to adopt these expectations of masculinity. It became expected as I got older: withhold your emotions, use violence when you feel wronged, and have as much sex as possible. Do not be helpless, as that shows weakness, and men are not supposed to be weak.
These expectations, and the way they are brought up in the lives of boys, create a “toxic” masculinity. When men avoid being vulnerable and looking for help, they keep feelings to themselves and are of the assumption that they are on their own. If they can’t be “strong,” then they can’t do anything. This attitude, if not broken out of, manifests itself into a toxic culture of violence and entitlement among men. In a world where men are 3.5 times more likely to commit suicide than women, and where men have to lose their virginity (to the point where it creates toxic relationships with women), it’s not far-fetched to conclude this narrow confine of masculinity is literally poisoning men.
So what does it mean to be a man in this day and age? How do you fight against what is expected of you? These are some ways in which I have dealt with this cultural toxicity personally, and perhaps they could help you in some way:
- Open up to others. Lack of sensitivity is one thing that holds many men back from having worthwhile relationships. They don’t open up about what’s bothering them and repress those feelings. To disclose this takes a lot of courage. It isn’t easy to share your feelings on any subject, especially when you’re conditioned to be feel ashamed about how you feel and sharing those emotions with others. But when you do share, you realize that people are willing to help you overcome the obstacles that are preventing you from moving forward. It’s okay to ask for help; there is strength in vulnerability.
- Understand that getting physical is not always the best way to handle situations. Sometimes getting through conflicts requires a cool head. You can’t think clearly if you’re always leading with a negative attitude. Obviously, this is easier said than done, but every time you feel yourself getting frustrated and wanting to yell and hit things, try to breathe slowly and understand that these situations are not worth the energy. You’ll also burn a lot fewer bridges by not getting too angry with other people.
- Know that you aren’t defined by the amount of sexual partners you have or haven’t had. When you find out that sex isn’t a trophy to be won and rather something that is consensual and fun, you’ll find that it allows you to see people as people rather than objects. This allows for more fulfilling relationships, both romantic and platonic.
Ultimately, modern masculinity can be toxic if you are led astray. It is important to know that it is based on false notions on what a man should be rather than what you personally feel like you should be. It has nothing to do with bravado, or becoming violent to solve your problems, but rather knowing that it’s okay to be open up and to have emotions. It’s okay to ask for help when you need it, as this helps foster connections with others and shows strength in vulnerability. And being vulnerable allows people to see you and to help you others) as a person rather than an object used for a specific purpose. So rather than following what society says you should be a person, you should show society that masculinity is independent and strong, not physically but gently.