Choose Your Own Masculinity

How much of a choice do we allow ourselves to make when it comes to how we express our gender?

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Photo credit: iStockPhoto

By Justin Lioi

It’s pretty simple for us all to come up with a list of stereotypically masculine traits. I’ve asked groups of people for the first things that come to mind and nothing on that list will shock you.

  • No crying
  • Fixing problems
  • Fighting
  • Little emotional expression (except anger)
  • Not interested in being nurturing
  • Preferring math and science to English class

These stereotypes are the water we swim in and the air we breathe: “gender norms” are not easy to miss. And for each of us, some of them make more sense than others. But how much of a choice do we allow ourselves to make when it comes to how we express our gender?


The Insidiousness of the Gender Police

When discussing gender, it’s easy to get confused by all the different terms. Sexuality, sex, romantic attraction, gender — these all mean something different.

I’m focusing today on gender identity and gender expression. Two questions:

  1. What gender do you identify with?
  2. Do you express yourself in the ways your culture has “normed” for that particular gender?

Unfortunately, some of the ways we’d like to express ourselves have been shamed out of us.

In a podcast called The Heart in the episode Pansy: Twirl, men who date women talked about times that a certain way they expressed themselves led to them being shamed by someone else — even their partner. The guy from the title of the podcast spoke about how he was expressing some excitement to his girlfriend and he impulsively twirled. She got quiet and expressed a deep dislike for him doing this: it wasn’t the kind of reaction she was comfortable coming from her boyfriend. The relationship didn’t last.

Many men can point to times that peers or, worse, parents told them that the way they were expressing themselves was not ok. Not because it was violently impulsive or dangerous — but because it didn’t fit the gendered norm. It weirded them out, made them uncomfortable — and they felt entitled to tell someone to stop it.

It’s a horrible message to receive: how I express (in the above case) happiness, is not ok.

And it usually doesn’t happen just once. Each time we get this message we build up a greater and greater sense of how we think we should present ourselves to the world. We start to think there is something wrong with us if we like to twirl — or cry.

It takes a strong sense of self and a strong acceptance of self to say “I gotta be me!” in the midst of this.

And depending on where we are, it could be dangerous.


Our Response to Gender Expression

As adults, it can be difficult to pick apart our masculinity and to know what parts work for us and are us and separate that from the parts that we’ve been socialized into and we’d rather shed. I love a good cigar and scotch with my uncles. It’s not a show I put on, but if I’m honest, there is something affirmingly masculine about it. Would I enjoy it as much otherwise? Maybe.

It can be informative to be aware of your reactions to people who are not conforming to their assigned gender norms. Perhaps some jealousy comes up — the freedom had by people who are not restrained by these norms can be amazing to witness.

But be just as interested in negative feelings that arise. Maybe some discomfort, even disgust — it can be helpful to wonder why such a strong reaction is arising. Why would someone not limiting themselves to the gender binary be so off-putting? I’d like to say it goes without saying that we shouldn’t put those feelings onto that person — don’t be someone else shaming them — this is something we need to better understand about ourselves and we should examine our honest feelings and learn from them. And, hopefully, move beyond them.

And we need to challenge our own myths. Perhaps you feel you wouldn’t be found attractive if your gender expression wasn’t as masculine as you’ve been led to believe it “should” be. The downfall to pretending is that you’ll have to keep that masculine mask on for the duration of your relationship. And that’s a lot of unnecessary pressure.


How we learned to express our gender wasn’t fully our choice. When we were infants, someone decided how to dress us. Someone told us what a “stud” we were or how “Strong and handsome” we looked — even though we were only 10-months-old!

The general public does allow for boyish exuberance, but as we get closer and closer to puberty the consequences for straying from the “norms” get more and direr. Now we’re adults and the choices are ours except that there are years — maybe decades — of shame that has reinforced those norms. It won’t be easy, but you get to decide now what you want to undo. Which parts of masculinity work for you?

This story was previously published on The Good Men Project.

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