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The Stigma of Masculinity

Can men still be manly without feeling ashamed?

Men today face a new challenge: How to gracefully transition from a gender-polarized society, to one that has women and men, girls and boys sharing and exchanging roles in unprecedented ways. In particular, many guys struggle to define their masculinity and themselves as men in a culture that increasingly stigmatizes things like sexuality, aggressiveness, and competitiveness.

In what might be described as a type of “Reaction Formation,” some have taken to redefining masculinity into something that is decisively not. And while men and women are free to express themselves in any way they like, something is clearly lost when we begin to blur the definition of a word simply to suit social expectations.

Take, for example, an article featured on the GoodMenProject several weeks ago titled “The Manliest Thing About Me…” The author, Reesee Zigga Zagga, stopped a random assortment of men at a conference and asked them to complete the phrase: “The manliest thing about me is...” As I was looking through the collection of responses, I was surprised to see that most of them described attributes (stereo)typically associated with femininity, such as: “my heart,” “my ability to show emotion,” “I cry,” “my vulnerability.” While I don’t doubt that these men were describing real aspects of their characters, I was left wondering: Are these really the manliest things about these men? These men certainly appear to be in touch with their “feminine sides,” but seem to be disregarding their “masculine sides.”

Now, don’t misunderstand me. It is fantastic that many men today are able and willing to revel in the softer aspects of their identities. Just a few decades ago, a man’s admission of sympathy or compassion was more likely to be met with ridicule and social disapproval. Today, many men are quite at ease sharing parts of themselves that may have been disparaged in their fathers’ time—and that is awesome. However, alongside this trend of men embracing their softer side seems to be an omission, dismissal, and (at times even) demonizing of traditionally masculine/male traits, e.g. protectiveness, competitiveness, aggressiveness, assertiveness, sexual appetite, deference to truth over feelings, passion, confidence, independence, and so on.

Of course, these characteristics aren’t necessarily held by all men, nor are they necessarily absent in women. Indeed, gender expression is relatively fluid with regard to both sexes—some women are more masculine than some men and vice-versa, and nearly all individuals experience changes in their gender expression during their life or even from one situation to another.

Nevertheless, it is also true that the traits listed above (ones typically associated with masculinity) are found in men significantly more than they are found in women—a distinction that persists across culture, history, and even species. The majority masculine traits are directly or indirectly related to the amount of testosterone available in a person’s body. On average, men’s testosterone levels are 10 to 45 times higher than women’s.

This is all to say, no matter how you slice it, men, as a group, embody masculine characteristics more frequently and to a greater degree than do women. It is arguable that some degree of masculine traits are socialized into men at an early age. However, they are nonetheless embedded aspects of a man’s present-day character, and are resistant to change whether they were natured or nurtured into existence. And why should we want to change them?

Whether we are talking about masculinity or femininity, there is nothing inherently good or bad, better or worse about either expression of gender. This notion is as true today as it was 50 years ago.

My concern isn’t just about the re-narrowing of acceptable masculinity within society. What is at stake is men’s ultimate acceptance, understanding, and governance over their own natures as well as an individual and social recognition of what manhood actually entails. When a man can’t admit that the “manliest thing” about him is his insatiable sex drive or a yearning to be better than the next guy, then he is left to feel ashamed of these parts of himself or is compelled to deny their existence altogether—only to have them abruptly emerge during times of high stress and/or vulnerability.

In the words of Jon Kabat-Zinn, "acceptance is not surrender." That is, accepting that you are a highly competitive guy doesn’t mean you have to give in to every felt need to outdo the people around you. On the contrary, by accepting that competitiveness is strong motivation in your life, you can learn when and how to make use of your competitiveness and when and how to reign it in so that you can focus on more important things. This is, of course, simply mindfulness.

By knowing and accepting potentially problematic aspects of our masculinity, we gain insight into the truth of ourselves and our relationships with others. But a man, who is unwilling to admit that he is aggressive, sexual, protective, or competitive—at least to himself—sacrifices his capacity to oversee and make use of those parts of himself that he is too afraid or ashamed to acknowledge.

More from Aqualus M Gordon Ph.D.
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More from Aqualus M Gordon Ph.D.
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