We hear time and time again that young girls are little flirts and are bound to be troublemakers when they grow up. You’ll have to beat the boys off with sticks, we tell their parents. So when they start going to school, we ask them about their crushes in class instead of what they’ve learned. But it’s 2016 and parents are, well, parenting their daughters a little more like they do their sons. Though the vice versa isn’t so common.
Phrases like “man up” and “big boys don’t cry” still inundate our vernacular. It’s considered wrong or at least weird for boys to be anything but fierce athletes encouraged to trivialize their eccentricity. They’re not supposed to be artistic, to be romantic, reticent, vulnerable, defeated. If they are, we say they’ll grow out of it and into their own—and by that we mean the one solidified definition of masculinity they’re taught from the time they’re born.
We caught up with the author of Man Up: Reimagining Modern Manhood, Carlos Andrés Gómez, to talk about being a man. His memoir, he says, “is all about trying to give men permission to be all of who they are, be their authentic selves and not feel like they have to be beholden to a cliché, one-dimensional, stereotypical dude.” A former social worker and teacher, Gómez has performed as both a lecturer and poet on six continents at more than 400 colleges and universities. Today, he’s working alongside AXE’s Shower Thoughts campaign in galvanizing guys—emboldened by the precious real estate that is the shower—to rethink masculinity and celebrate themselves. Here are some phrases we can stop telling them when they’re young to speed up that process.
“If you boldly and unapologetically share all of who you are, people may be shocked by it, people may be startled by it, but overwhelmingly, people respect it. And overwhelmingly, there is something at the core of our humanity that resonates.”
1. “Man up.”
There’s a fine difference between telling a kid to grow up for their own sake, and telling a kid to man up. When another kid picks on you, man up and bully back. When another guy looks your girlfriend’s way, man up and mark your territory. When you sprain your ankle in practice, man up and get back out on the field. “When I was a kid, I was a really sensitive, tender-hearted little boy; it seemed like everyone was constantly telling me to man up,” Gómez observes. “So that was a phrase for me that was incredibly damaging and harmful.” It’s harmful because it’s meaningless; there are ceaseless manifestations of masculinity, and basically telling a kid to grow a pair is telling them to suppress reactions or instincts that are natural to them—because real men would.
2. “Big boys don’t cry.”
My pops cries at sappy commercials. My grandpa cries tears of joy at beautiful days. Likewise, Gómez notes: “I’m a super emotional, open, raw and sensitive human being. I’ll cry watching a movie. I’ll cry reading a book. I’ll cry when I tell my mom how much I love her and my best friends how much I love them. I’m a very emotionally present person.” But people still tell their kids that boys don’t cry because doing so is a sign of weakness. What’s actually a sign of weakness: the suicide rates among our youth that are not on a decline—much of which can be attributed to the lack of safe spaces boys can comfortably express emotion. This also leads to emotionally inept adults who resort to violence.
3. “Guys should always be ready to fight.”
Bar fights are neither uncommon nor that different from the recess fights back in the day—maybe with the exception of intoxication and the legal risks involved. For Gómez, it was through a bar fight that he witnessed a pivotal point in his own life. Face-to-face, he began to tear up, he explained. And it took the other guy and the circling crowd by surprise. Why? Because what man cries before brawling? Right?
4. “Winning is everything.”
From the time boys get into sports they’re—not always, but all-too-often—told that winning is everything, put before ethics and fun. They’re rarely encouraged to at least relish in their improvements even if they lost. So if they do lose, they can become their own self-loathing, toughest critics. While competition is certainly healthy, this intensive mentality has the potential to transcend across all aspects of boys’ lives and become destructive to both themselves and those around them. Because putting down other people to get ahead is not cool, Trump.
5. “Nice guys finish last.”
In the same vein, boys are told that they have to behave in a certain way in order to get what they want. If they’re “too nice,” nothing will come of it. This also filters into the notion that “boys will be boys,” which essentially dismisses poor behavior because, well, they gotta do what they gotta do.
6. “That’s not a sport…”
We too often assume that boys probably play football or baseball or basketball, or at least want to. But not all boys are into “conventional” sports. Some like dancing. Some will be figure skaters. Some are cheerleaders. And some would just rather try a hand at acting, or writing or coding and will one day run Apple and overpower all of us. Fortunately, it’s becoming sort of taboo to knock others’ hobbies, and we do find that people are increasingly interested in or respecting of how others choose to spend their free time. “If you boldly and unapologetically share all of who you are, people may be shocked by it, people may be startled by it, but overwhelmingly, people respect it. And overwhelmingly, there is something at the core of our humanity that resonates,” Gómez says.
7. “You can’t be both.”
We live in a world where people are evermore accepting of others’ choices. Football players are dancing in halftime shows and Shaquille O’Neal has a menswear line. But there’s still this preconceived notion that being both an athlete and an artist of some kind is a totally crazy concept. “For me, growing up, when I started writing poetry… I had an identity crisis about loving poetry. I wrote poems for years and I hid them and did not tell anybody—and was worried about what they meant to my life. Because I was the athlete. I was the basketball player… And you couldn’t be both an athlete and an artist. That didn’t exist in the era that I was 17 years old,” Gómez recalls. “I wish I had more role models that reflected different and more varied manifestations of masculinity. Because I think that, a lot of times, we don’t know what’s possible until we can see it.”
So why are we still talking this way to our sons?
Photo Credit: Twenty20/@523mra