As a man, I often feel the cloud of toxic masculinity casting a dark shadow above me. I understand that this hyperbole sounds melodramatic, but imagine living a life where you often question your every move due to the societal expectations of being a man. As I write this, I acknowledge the self-serving nature of writing a story about the hardships of being a man, in a world where women face unjust struggles day by day. But alas, I often wonder if my life would be easier if I were just to succumb to the cultural and societal norms of “what it means to be a man” rather than to have that exhausting everyday struggle of validating my own brand of masculinity. Living in a world dominated by machismo, heteronormativity, and toxic masculinity might be tiring, but it is our responsibility to make way for a more inclusive world for future generations.
The concept of toxic masculinity refers to traditional cultural masculine norms that can be harmful to men, women, and society overall. In other words, there is a wave of expectations that come with the male gender. Maintaining an appearance of hardness, suppressing emotions, violence, “tough-guy” behavior, all are associated with the antiquated concept of “being a man.” My first memory of feeling pressured by the ideals of my gender, was when I was a middle school student in my natal Mexico. I vividly remember looking at my male classmates and envying their confidence, their roughness, their “strength.” I wanted to be like them. Once the bullying started, I felt that the only way to make it through school was to completely change my personality and be more like my classmates. But as a soft-spoken, emotional, meticulous young boy, that proved to be a difficult challenge. Crying was a natural response to the struggles I faced, and a common response to my feelings was always “los ninos no lloran! (boys don’t cry!).”
When I look back at the media representation of males during my childhood, I notice a pattern. I don’t remember identifying with anyone. I always saw this alpha male prototype that only made me feel more insecure about the qualities I thought I was lacking. My dad was always an authoritative figure that instilled fear in me. He was a strong-willed, overtly-masculine, no nonsense kind of man. I remember loving him, but I don’t remember telling him that as often as I would tell my mom. I don’t remember affection coming from my father, but I could feel he loved me. I often think about the effect his emotional suppression had on my character growing up. I now look back and understand that his cultural upbringing failed him. When I look back at his life, it is astounding to me that I only remember him displaying emotions once. Engulfed by machismo and his determination to be the strong leader of our family, he secretly battled with health ailments. He decided to seek medical attention when his pain and ailments were so severe, he couldn’t ignore them anymore. I went with him to the doctor’s office and my purpose there was only to be a translator in case the doctor spoke no Spanish. I remember the shock of sitting in that office and watching my father break down in tears as the doctor diagnosed him with stage 3 pancreatic cancer. The diagnosis was shocking for sure, but watching my dad cry was something that I never thought I would witness. When I lost my dad, I decided to honor his life by not allowing my cultural upbringing and the societal expectations of masculinity dictate how to live my own.
As opposed as I am to compromising my identity, there are times when I have to adjust by speaking deeper or containing my (often involuntary) effeminate mannerisms for the sake of my safety. We live in a world where the concept of masculinity is so toxic that any challenge to those norms poses a threat, an invitation of violence even. But as traditional gender roles continue to be challenged by society, the lines of masculinity and femininity continue to blur. Of course, there is a lot of work to be done, but changes start from within. Changes start by examining our own views of masculine and femenine energy and acknowledging the necessity of the erasure of antiquated concepts. We must also remember that promoting overt masculinity or femininity discredits those who do not identify with either gender. In order for change to happen, we must challenge those around us who have been failed by their cultural or societal upbringings. We must stop the stigma that comes from men crying, seeking mental health, being emotional. When we break out of these restrictions, we allow ourselves to be more authentic. We allow ourselves to enjoy life without a constant internal struggle brought on by the preconceived expectations that were given to us. We allow ourselves to be free.