This month’s guest post comes from my friend, Jeff, who is a writer, musician, and accounting student who lives in the Chicago area.
I have a weird relationship with the word “man.”
Not in a gender identity sense. In today’s vernacular, I’m a cis man, wear male clothing, and even have a pretty full beard. If a form I’m filling out asks me whether I’m a man or a woman, I check “man” without giving it any thought.
And yet, when it comes to describing myself in a qualitative sense, I hesitate to use the word “man.” It feels inauthentic somehow. I’ll readily call myself a “guy.” But I haven’t used the word “man” without some kind of diminishing qualifier, such as “young man.”
Until recently, I haven’t given my hesitation regarding this word much thought. It has been something that I’ve accepted, deep down, in a vague, general sense. I’ve been thinking about this more lately, though, and it’s more complex than I thought.
I’ll start with physical characteristics. I don’t do too badly in this category; I’m of average height, and though I could stand to lose some weight, I have a pretty average build. While that’s all well and good… it doesn’t seem to be enough. The ideal I have in my head for the word “man” is tall, strong, muscular, a range up to and including American football players, MMA fighters, and action/superhero movie actors. Some might describe them as “hypermasculine,” but I sometimes find myself feeling “less than” in comparison.
Somewhat related to physicality is voice range or tone of voice. I don’t have a high-pitched voice, but it is more in the tenor range. It’s not the deep, rich, commanding tone of a baritone or bass. Sadly, there have been times in my life when I’ve preferred to be silent instead of speaking up because I’ve been embarrassed of my voice, because I felt my voice wasn’t deep enough. Those mostly occurred when I was younger, but I still sometimes feel anxiety about it today.
Another characteristic is confidence. Men are supremely confident and know how to do things (especially repair work around the house and inside a car). When they speak, they expect to be right. Me… not so much. I’m confident to a point, but as you might assume by my writing this piece, it’s not full, unyielding faith in myself. I don’t have solid, immediate answers; I’m more of a thinker, perhaps overly much. As far as knowing how to do things, while some men seem to be born knowing those “handy” skills, I’m pretty much a beginner at everything. In some ways, what I do might be preferable; I’m sensitive to others, I keep an open mind, I’m willing to admit when I’m wrong and ask (sometimes begrudgingly) when I need help. But is it “manly”?
And then there are emotions. Ah, yes. Emotions. Men are stoic most of the time. When they do show emotion, they are only ever happy or angry, and are only allowed to cry at sporting events and funerals. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried to put on a stoneface, to push down or bottle up emotions. Even having emotions can be distressing: “I feel sad, and I feel anxious because I feel sad, and I feel ashamed because I shouldn’t be feeling anything to begin with.”
Age is another factor. In my mind, every male who is 10 years older than me is a man. However, for guys my own age, it feels odd to think of us as men. It almost seems like doing so would be claiming authority that we don’t have. The ironic thing is that 10 years ago, when I was 23, I probably felt the same way, that every guy 10 years older than me was a man. Now that I’m 33, what happened? Will I feel the same way at 43?
And then there are hobbies and interests. Men like sports, and… sports? Growing up, I was always more interested in music and the arts, decidedly unmanly things. It’s only been in recent years that I’ve developed a true appreciation for sports, though that was partly inspired by peer pressure.
The cherry on top might be sayings and general attitudes we hear from time to time. Things like “be a man,” “separate the men from the boys,” “real men do/don’t _________.” These seem manipulative, as if they’re an attempt to control by challenging our masculinity. And yet even if you readily dismiss them, they can still burrow into our thoughts and create doubt over time. My first thought is to blame marketing for that, but it seems more pervasive than that, more ingrained in culture.
In thinking about these factors, it seems that considering myself to be a man without hesitation would require me to be more than I am. Some of these factors are things I can change; for example, I can learn how to fix things, and I can work out more and build muscle. However, there will always be things I can’t change, like my voice and my height.
Should I have to change myself? One thing that strikes me is that my conception of “man” is a rigid ideal. If “man” was a matter of down-the-middle averages, then I would meet the criteria, no problem. But somehow, that doesn’t feel like it’s enough.
“Man” could be a matter of self-acceptance and confidence. Accept everything about myself that I perceive to be a shortcoming, and be confident in myself despite that. Is that the goal I should strive for?
Or perhaps “man” should be a demographic term, nothing more, with no convoluted meanings or criteria attached.
I don’t know. A man might have a definite answer for you, whether right or wrong, but I’m honestly still thinking it through. I can settle on an answer on a mental level, but that doesn’t mean I’ll feel it in my gut, in my soul.
Until then, I’ll just be a guy doing his best.
[Note: the title, which some might recognise, comes from Hamlet, a fuller quote of which can be found here. The phrase came to me while reading through Jeff’s post, and on re-reading this section of Hamlet, I can’t help but wonder if Shakespeare was also having a dig at how men/humans are represented, and how we represent ourselves…]