Seven years ago, I was standing in a checkout line at the 99 Cents store in Los Angeles when I overheard a conversation between what I assumed to be a father and his young daughter. “I have to get another one, this is a boy color,” the young girl said as she grabbed a blue necklace off one of the shelves housing all of the impulse items next to the checkout. To my surprise, her father responded, “There’s no such thing as boy colors or girl colors, they’re just colors.” Then he placed the blue necklace on the conveyor belt.
I turned around to look at this man and his child. His response was simultaneously simple and complex. Was he stating an objective truth? Or was his statement a response to having felt the burden of masculinity that shames men who don’t conform to its narrow openings?
Growing up, I wish I would have received more targeted direction from my parents about how to integrate the definitions of masculinity that lead to freedom and abandon the beliefs that lead to bondage. And while they didn’t necessarily teach me anything about manhood that I would consider toxic, their passivity left me vulnerable to the societal mind and its stigmas associated with masculinity.
School was the first place I learned that emotions made me weak and less masculine. I was teased in middle school and all through high school for not wearing name-brand clothes like the other kids. Growing up in a Christian conservative home, I was sheltered and hadn’t learned to defend myself against kids who were already exposed to things like sex and alcohol. I felt like a small fish in a big ocean, and like sharks that smell blood, any sign of weakness invited more predators.
I cried after not making my 8th-grade basketball team and the other boys made fun of me for it all the way until 10th grade. That’s when I started physically fighting back. While it may not have been the best way to deal with kids at school, I convinced myself fighting was the only way to protect my body and dignity.
I internalized the belief that all emotions are bad. As I grew up, I suppressed them all – and not just the bad emotions, but also the good ones. Since then, my male mentors, my therapist, and my faith have all helped me come to understand that expressing my emotions doesn’t make me any less masculine.
Masculinity, as I’ve come to understand, is not a hard set of rules about what men can and cannot do, but a socially constructed concept. When I think about my evolution as a man and the breadth of my experiences, my life is too big to fit into the narrow definition of masculinity.
I don’t believe all traditional aspects of masculinity are harmful. Men protect, men build, men lead, men work, and men mentor. However, as a culture, we’ve accepted and, through social reinforcement, normalized a definition of masculinity where men don’t talk, can’t be emotional, and can’t cry, and personal choices even remotely considered feminine are stigmatized.
I often ask myself, Who gets to decide what masculinity means and what it doesn’t mean? Is our collective definition of masculinity serving us? Who gets to decide what’s a boy color and what’s a girl color? For many men, choosing a pink necklace generally means that your masculinity card is revoked. Harry Styles, a millennial musician known for painting his nails, sent people into a frenzy when he graced the cover of Vogue magazine in a dress. People are equally confused by actor and rapper Jaden Smith, who consistently pushes the boundaries of masculinity with his clothing and commentary.
In my experience, when men’s masculinity is threatened, many of them turn into the infamous Regina George—the female character from the movie Mean Girls who bullies, polices, and retaliates against anyone who threatens her high school version of reality. The irony is not lost on me.
The statistics on men are an indictment of modern masculinity. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, in 2019, the suicide rate among men was 3.7 times higher than among women. Additionally, The Federal Bureau of Investigation reported that in 2020, men accounted for 77% of violent crimes in the United States. Even though men are taught not to express their emotions, it doesn’t mean that we’re not dealing with anger, anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation.
Recently, I read a powerful quote from the Indian religious leader of old, Osho, who stated, “Creativity is the fragrance of individuality.” I thought about how our individuality, creativity, and personhood are at stake if our society chooses to continue holding fast to a narrow view of masculinity that even go as far as to inform our color choices.
In history, the type of individuals who innovate and challenge the status quo are those courageous enough to abandon old ways of thinking. Seven years ago, standing in line at the checkout aisle of the 99 cents store, a father was courageous enough to abandon society’s old way of thinking. He knew that the idea of a boy color and a girl color was just an idea, and in one response, he empowered himself, the future woman in his daughter, and me as a passive listener to rethink our notions of masculinity.