This piece was originally published on AlterNet.
The cultural ideal of masculinity isn’t just narrow and rigid — it’s literally unattainable. What can men do about it?
Here’s what you may not know: It works that way for men as well.
I’ve been thinking more and more these days about how rigid and narrow the gender expectations are for men. I’ve even written about it before, in this very space. But a recent article about male fitness models has made me vividly conscious of how the expectations of masculinity aren’t just rigid or narrow. They are impossible. They are, quite literally, unattainable.
And while this unattainability can tie men into knots, I think that — in a weird paradox — it can also offer a glimmer of hope.
On any sort of realistic irony meter, the concept of starved, dehydrated, dazed, weakened men being offered as models of fitness completely buries the needle. But this isn’t about reality. The image being sold is clearly not one of “fitness” — i.e. athletic ability and physical health. The image being sold is an exaggerated, idealized, impossible extreme of hyper- masculinity.
And the illusion being sold by the fitness magazines is that this hyper-masculinity is attainable. If you just work out longer and harder; if you’re just more careful about your diet; if you just take the right supplements and drink the right sports beverage… then you, too, can have a body like a fitness model. A cartoon image of fitness is being sold to men as if it were actual fitness. And men are being taught that there’s something wrong with them if they can’t get there.
But this ideal of masculinity isn’t just difficult to achieve. It isn’t just narrow; it isn’t just rigid; it isn’t just out of reach for some or even most men. It is, quite literally, unattainable. Even the fitness models themselves can’t attain it: not without nightmarish physical ordeals, camera tricks, and Photoshop. It is a carrot being dangled in front of a donkey — which the donkey will never, ever get to eat.
And we’re not just talking about physical ideals of masculinity. We’re talking about cultural ideals. Sexual ideals. Economic ideals. Emotional ideals.
And he pointed out that many of these ideas aren’t just rigid or limiting. They actually conflict with each other. As Glickman put it, “Some of the items in the box are contradictory. You can’t be a mechanic and a CEO. I’ve talked with men who are convinced they’re not Real Men because they aren’t rich and I’ve talked with men who are convinced they aren’t Real Men because they don’t work with their hands.”
In other words: The Act Like a Man Box isn’t just a painful, difficult, miserably limiting place to live. It is, quite literally, an impossible place to live. It doesn’t exist. It isn’t like having your goal be to live in a big mansion in Beverly Hills with dozens of supermodels hanging around the pool. It’s like having your goal be to live on the surface of the sun. It literally can’t be done.
But here’s the good news.
“Impossible” is, in many ways, a better cultural ideal to have than “really, really difficult.”
Because it’s a whole lot easier to ignore.
Now here is where, I freely admit, I am stepping away from more solid facts, and into the realm of harebrained speculation based on my own personal experience. That being said, I still think I’m onto something.
That was the day I quit worrying about it.
If the world is telling you that if you work just a little bit harder, you can be strong enough, pretty enough, rich enough, whatever enough… you’ll be a lot more tempted to keep running that treadmill, keep chasing the carrot that’s dangling in front of you. But if the world is telling you that if you work just a little bit harder, you can turn yourself into a unicorn and start shitting diamonds? The whole thing just becomes laughable. And it becomes a whole lot easier to step off the treadmill. Obviously the cultural expectations still affect you — I’m not claiming to be free of them, I don’t think anyone is — but it’s a lot easier to see them for what they are, and shrug them off, and get on with your life.
So guys? Listen up.
The world is giving you an impossible task. It’s not just a stupid task; it’s not just a pointless task; it’s not just a needlessly confining task; it’s not just a task that will make you miserable. It is, quite literally, unattainable. You will never, ever be man enough.
So stop giving a damn. And be whoever you are.
Be a whisky-drinking electronic music nerd who mixes a perfect Manhattan. Be a dialog editor who bakes banana bread and does stand-up comedy. Be a tattooed poet and kettlebell competitor. Be a retired soldier who does English folk dancing. Be a software engineer with waist-length hair and a thing for Michelin-star restaurants. Be a French-speaking rare book collector who calls into sports radio talk shows. Be a porn writer and atheist activist with eighteen cats. Be a muscle-bound gym rat who sings opera and cries in public.
Be who you are. That’s actually an attainable goal. And it’s a hell of a lot more fun.