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What Does it Mean to Be a Man?

What Does It Mean to be a Man?For years, I believed that I wasn’t all that manly.

Even though, biologically, I am indeed a man, I felt like I fell far short of the cultural paradigm of masculinity. I don’t watch or play sports. I prefer yoga, pilates, and running. While I enjoy a good hike every now and then, my heart lies in the city, which I rarely like to leave. Mowing the lawn aggravates my allergies. I love cooking but hate grilling. I’m not great with tools or machinery, and I don’t especially enjoy driving. Shopping, on the other hand, I can get into. Some of my closest friends are women, with whom I discuss my emotions, and books. Real men don’t really talk like that, do they? Don’t they just tell jokes and grunt?

So I thought, anyway.

I blame my background, as I often do, because these insecurities must have started somewhere. No one chooses to be anxious about their sense of self-worth, right? That toxicity is buried in childhood, before the ego’s defense mechanisms have kicked in, when the psyche is fresh and accepting.

In the ticky-tacky suburbs of my youth, an adolescent boy played Little League or football, and dressed in certain ways, and considered girls a different sort of species altogether, one weaker, needier, and only good for one thing. Though I had friends, I was never popular. I existed on the fringe, and that became my identity. I wasn’t a manly man or a guy’s guy; I felt uncomfortable and awkward, and while friends applauded my being something other than “normal,” I never felt encouraged to be different at home.

If only I had a time machine, I’d go back to my younger self and report that it gets better. I just turned thirty-six, and finally I’m beginning to feel comfortable in my masculine skin. Perhaps because I’m comfortable being uncomfortable. I’ve come to recognize that worrying about being a man is a part of being a man. I used to think myself alone in that, but I never have been, and now — finally! — guys are talking about the uncertain condition of masculinity.

The State of Men — a report by the marketing communications agency JWT — found that three quarters of the American and British men they queried said that “gender doesn’t define a person as much as it used to,” and that “men and women don’t need to conform to traditional roles and behaviors anymore.” Gender, as the report puts it, is more fluid.

So what defines a man today? According to the 1,000 or so people surveyed: Being a gentleman and having good manners lies at the top (70%), followed by keeping your word (65%) and personal values (64%). Financial support for the family comes in above emotional support, but only by three points (55% compared to 52%). Physical strength (31%), money (26%), and power at the workplace (24%) lie significantly lower on the totem pole, and the number of sexual conquests ranks last (8%).

This isn’t a total reversal of my youthful ideas about what a man is, but it’s a pretty big flip. I would’ve thought that sex, money, strength, and having guy friends would have been pretty high up there. And though I would not have been surprised to find Sean Connery in the number 2 spot on a list of men that men admire, I would have been shocked to see Bill Gates in the number one position. The guy’s rich, sure, but he’s no movie star, and he’s now synonymous with philanthropy, which is pretty cool. And he wears glasses.

What’s more, family is a strong value for many men. While we write about the so-called Mommy Wars, the majority of men (86%) report struggling (perhaps less vociferously) to balance career and family. I’ve sometimes had to work hard to keep my male-ego afloat as a stay-at-home dad, with my wife providing the lion’s share of the family income (lioness’s share, I should say). But again, I’m not alone in this. Being a man means fretting about how much emotional support you’re providing to your family. Financial support is only part of it.

As Ann Friedman put it on New York Magazine‘s The Cut, “America is finally getting around to having the conversation about what it means to be a man that, decades ago, feminism forced us to have about womanhood…. Ultimately, confusion about modern masculinity is a good thing: It means we’re working past the outmoded definition.”

So here we are, guys. We’re a diffuse group who want to keep some classic signifiers of being a man — we like suits, perhaps, or facial hair, or beer, or even hotrods — but we also want to moisturize our faces and discuss emotions and play dolls with our kids. We can be an anxious, changeable lot, hard to read, perhaps even illogical. We care how about we look, and our bodies, and aging. We like sex but some nights we just want to cuddle. Wait a second… this is sounding a little bit like a traditional woman, isn’t it?

Maybe gender differences aren’t so hard-coded after all. People are people, as the saying goes. We all worry. And in that, we can take comfort.

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