Guys Tell Us About Their Struggles with Toxic Masculinity
“If I was ever upset around my dad there was no way he was going to let me openly cry about something.”
Photos by Jayden Miller
This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
Like most of the world, I just spent eight hours of my life binge watching Queer Eye, whilst sobbing sporadically and also trying to hatch some sort of devilish plan to get them all to be my best friends. But what dawned on me whilst watching is how much the men they feature in the show struggle with emotions and vulnerability. It literally takes a band of five magnificent gay men to drag emotion out of them one beard spritz at a time and, although I’m maybe not surprised, it got me thinking: Why is it so many straight cis men struggle with appearing vulnerable?
Vulnerability, sensitivity, or anything deemed particularly “feminine” is rarely encouraged in young boys growing up. Instead, aligning to certain qualities like strength, power, and sexual aggression are seen as qualities that make up “real men.” But in 2018, men shouldn't be excluded from the proclamation that patriarchy sucks too—because it does, and if said patriarchy is punching you in the face every time you want to be a human being and show emotions, isn't it time to challenge that?
While a conversation around gender is common in my group of female friends, it is less so in a group of men; mainly because society tells them to shut up, be a man, and get on with it. But when I asked my guy friends about their experiences, I discovered how many grow to deeply regret cutting modeling, dancing, acting, crying, or even wearing pink from their lives. In an effort to understand and unpack how prescribed masculinity hurts dudes too, here are five men opening up and getting vulnerable about their biggest gender hang-ups growing up.
VICE: What was growing up like for you?
Aidan: Like every kid, I was terrified of seeming gay or seeming girly; everybody knew that to be those things was the antithesis of who you were supposed to be. Our lives were defined in opposition to the feminine—the two didn't exist together. To have success in pursuing women was a signal of success as a man, so it seemed the antithesis of that would be to be gay or impotent and that scared the shit out of me.
Do you think it’s different now?
I hope that’s different now. And watching my six-year-old nephew and 13-year-old niece there are things that are different about their upbringing and then there are some things that are exactly the same. Part of that is there is this unconscious presentation, installation or programming that we’re all complicit in. The things you’re supposed to do and like are drummed in from such a young age. I have pink tennis shoes and this morning my nephew goes “why are you wearing pink?” and I said “why shouldn't I? what’s the matter with pink?” He said “pink’s a girl color” and I said who says that and he said “everybody.” I was surprised by that, it’s 2018!
What did you get up to in school?
I played rugby because I wanted to play rugby and I liked rugby, but I'm not sure it started out that way. When I was 13, the school knew me as this talented violin player and they’d say “hey violin boy are you going to play rugby or are you worried about your fingers” and so I showed up to rugby practice and I knocked the hell out of a bunch of kids. Part of it was to prove the point that I could do both. But I did feel like there were these two counter-balances and rugby made violin socially acceptable. Being able to have that balance left me able to do artistic stuff. Because I had shown everyone my dick—just by putting it on the table so to speak—so what if I want to play the violin or take a ballet class or something?!
I also had long hair as a little kid and people would tease me for it. But instead of cutting my hair, I would double down on all the other things to prove that I wasn't a girl. If someone said “you’ve got hair like a girl,” I’d hit them. I thought that I could have this quality and make this choice that’s not within this “male” framework but at the same time, justify that choice by behaving completely within that paradigm.
Is there anything you didn't do and wished you’d done?
Absolutely. My brother was learning dance, and my close friend did dance too. I remember feeling amazed that he had the confidence to do that, and that he had the balls to be the only boy. Dancing in front of people—in front of girls! I remember never having the confidence to do it. Even at a club not too long ago I would have to be drunk. Nowadays, I don't give a shit. I will always be jealous of that kind of confidence—being able to not fear condemnation by your peers because you want to dance or be expressive. Still, I'm like “fuck! I wish I’d done that” and I think I’m going to do it now.
Yes! I’m going back and reversing all the effects of toxic masculinity… except for all of the sexual and neurotic damage that I’ll just have to work on for the rest of my life, I guess.
VICE: So let’s talk about your childhood—what was that like?
Kenny: I was pretty much free to express myself most ways and I never felt really trapped. But that’s barring emotions. Emotionally, I was definitely told to act and be a certain way. I could wear a pink T-shirt and I could ride a girl’s bike, but the emotional side of things was definitely like "you’re a boy so you don't cry. You're not a little girl don't do that." If I was upset around my dad, there was no way he was going to let me openly cry about something.
So he was a big force of toxic masculinity in your life?
Yeah. He came from a hard childhood. His father was a hard ass and then he developed into a hard ass. It was very much like don't be soft, don't show any true emotion, act like everything is OK all the time, act strong, and don't show any weakness. So that was definitely difficult to go through.
Did that toxic masculinity from older father figures trickle down into your relationships with friends?
With my peers, that was definitely more of the overt, standardized, toxic masculinity where it’s like "don't wear that shirt you look like a girl. Don't do this and don't do that." I remember in elementary school, I wore this shirt that was like a light red color—it was kind of a pink. This douchebag was like “nice girl’s shirt; you look like a girl” and he started making fun of me for it. I remember standing in the schoolyard thinking, what is this guys deal? This is weird. But also that I needed a new shirt because I couldn't be wearing this shirt to school, especially not when people were calling me a woman. I definitely felt the pressure from it.
The pressure to be someone else?
Yeah—growing up around peers, I often felt stifled in a lot of ways, mostly in regards to what I wore. I love clothes. I love fashion, but its only been easier to express myself in those ways as I’ve gotten older. It's mainly because I’ve stopped caring what other people think, but also people are more open to someone wearing something different and androgynous. Whereas growing up, if I wore something different, I would get made fun of. I would be told that it was for a girl and in those instances, I definitely wouldn't wear that item again.
So for your toxic masculinity inhibited you from expressing yourself—do you think that was a common experience?
It’s safe to assume that most guys went through that. I never spoke to my friends about it though. I was never taught to communicate those difficulties with anyone else from a very young age. It’s the lack of communication that’s crazy—I never had any ways of dealing with these things. I would internalize everything and finally getting them out was like years of relief. When it came to moments when I had to tell someone how I felt I just couldn't do it. It was almost impossible. It was so strange. I was 21 and I had one of my first serious relationships and the girl was very open and she would share all these things and I was terrified by that. I remember we would have arguments because I wouldn't tell her what I needed to say. I remember having the words in my head but it was like someone was muffling me. I had to physically like pull it out. The first couple of times I was like sweating I was so scared. I still struggle with this shit to this day. I’ve certainly gotten better—I don't hold back as much when I want to speak my mind but I think it will affect me for the rest of my life. I’ve only just started to get better over the last eight years.
What’s your relationship with your guy friends like now?
I am more comfortable with my guy friends now and I don't know if that’s everyone becoming more aware, or if that’s me becoming more aware and me becoming more comfortable with expressing myself. I tell my friends that I love them every single day and there’s no shame in that.
When were you first truly comfortable telling your friends you loved them?
Probably like early 20s was the first time I told my childhood friend that I loved him. We looked at each other and I was like “I fucking love you man,” and he was like “I love you too bro,” and then we hugged and we kissed on the cheek and ever since then, every time we give each other a hug or we say goodbye, we say it and it’s fucking awesome. I remember the emotions I had when it happened and my heart like burst, it was amazing. I feel like each friendship that I’ve made since then has been stronger off the bat because I’m more comfortable with having those feelings and because I’m open to the possibility of having that closeness.
Damn thats lovely—but do you think the toxic masculinity you experienced as a child has had a lasting effect in any other ways?
Sometimes in the back of my mind I still think: Oh, I can’t do that because that’s not what a guy would do. Then I’m like no, you can do whatever the fuck you want; you’re a human being—It doesn't matter what sex you are. Do what makes you feel comfortable. Then I do it and I’m like what a stupid feeling that was. It’s about casting away those lasting impressions of what was driven into me as a young person.
When do you have those moments the most?
It manifests itself now as fear—subconsciously, I guess it’s the fear of looking weak. But it is getting less and less, not just with me, with everyone. Everyone is being taught how to express themselves for sure. Over the last five years, everything is moving toward not having any toxic influences and just having positives.
So you can wear that pink shirt now?
So when did you first notice prescribed masculinity?
Louis: I noticed by the time I reached middle school. I was forced to play soccer or football and I didn't really mind, but I was with some really strange dudes. If you didn't abide by what they said, you just fell out of their social hierarchy and I guess that’s part of the toxic masculinity; there’s a hierarchy amongst men. I think its hereditary, like passed down from generation to generation.
Who was at the top?
Social jocks, dudes that were either athletically beneficial or dudes that had social value—things like that. At the very beginning, I felt that I was at the very bottom because of my weight, but as I grew up and lost weight, I was able to get respect but it didn't change what I saw about that hierarchy.
But was there anything you didn't feel comfortable doing?
I was definitely self-conscious about doing music at school, but modeling was where I got more scrutiny than the music. In music, I could rap about whatever. People still respected me because they knew my hustle. The modeling was where I got scrutiny because if someone heard I was modeling, and I had makeup on my face, all of a sudden it’s like boom, you’re some weird dude. But it’s not like that. I’m getting paid a lot to do what I do but they don't respect that hustle. They just disrespect what they think might be happening.
Did you ever think about quitting modeling because it wasn't manly?
I felt self-conscious about modeling, but you can’t let self-consciousness get to you. It’s the equivalent of a fan yelling out to LeBron “you suck” and him taking that in and messing up.
So you don’t let it bother you?
No, I don't let it bother me. I hear it but it doesn't bother me. That bother is what pushed me to ask: Do I want to push this or do I want to sit here and feel sad for myself. I was about 12 when I started thinking about shit. But earlier than that, I became aware of it when people started telling me my favorite colors. When people tell you from a young age that blue is only meant for boys and pink is only meant for girls, you start to shit on people who don't conform to that.
It was little things, little things that build up. It wasn't big things because big things get noticed and no one wants this kind of behavior to be noticed. You don't want your teacher catching you. You want to keep it quiet. It was just the little things, you know? I would tell people I did gymnastics and they’d be like “You do gymnastics? You’re a bitch.” or they'd laugh at me because I had ribbons. The ribbons meant I had accomplished in that sport but they laughed at me because of who I was for that sport. They don't see your accomplishment. They see your gender and who you should be.
Web designer, London
VICE: Tell me about what you were like when you were younger.
Jerome: I was very boyish when I was younger but I was also quite emotional.
When did you start to feel self-conscious that emotion wasn't boyish?
The end of elementary school was when it seemed to be totally inappropriate to be emotionally vulnerable in that way. And after that, I became less and less emotionally present. There’s a dialogue around gender when you’re growing up and the dialogue around being male was that children and babies cry and are emotional and with boys, it felt like crying was not desirable. What was desirable was strength, bravery, being someone who has answers or fixes things, and that was something I saw in my dad. He always had an answer, he was in authority, and he was sensible, which was a huge thing for me. When I was seven or eight, I had an idea of an upstanding man in society and that was just what was in my environment. The image of men that I saw everywhere were those things. Definitely not unsure or vulnerable.
Do you think that harmed your development?
I think switching off emotionally was very negative for both myself and the people around me. You’re emotionally poor as a result and you lack that connection with the people around you. The greatest things in my life that make life really wonderful come from those connections with people. So to have a way of being that is really distant and you don't really share yourself is a really sad thing. It makes you a lot more lonely in an unnoticeable way.
Were you ever vulnerable?
I think I just didn't have access to it. The only person I was emotionally close to was my mom. I was allowed to cry with her and she would respond positively. As I got older, I was very aware that I didn't feel able to be emotionally vulnerable in front of my dad or with other people. Then after that, I made a point to be stronger and manly and more confident and played confidence for my entire life. I think I still do—I play it like its a necessity.
That was the currency that I thought was the most valuable at the time—how powerful am I? how much better am I? I really did take on a lot of sexist ideas. I remember genuinely believing that men were better and I remember a really distinct feeling of being annoyed by the emotional vulnerability of women and being annoyed by the weakness of it. It all goes along with a power trip of strength. I think lack of vulnerability pretty much sums it up.
What things couldn't you do?
I think expressing emotion was the first thing that shut off. I guess later on I felt a very strong sense that I had to move away from art and other interests of mine because I felt like I had to provide. There was a very strong sense of if you're going to be a man, then you have to provide and I think that stopped me from following my heart with some things. The example is a bit archaic but there was also the sense that boys were headed toward earning lots of money whereas women were being taught sewing. My sister was taught to sew. I wish I’d been taught how to sew.
Did you see toxic masculinity at school as well? What did that look like?
From ages 16 to 18, I was in a group of guys and we were basically misogynistic most of the time. There was deeply set misogyny in our class. There was also bullying and homophobia. All those male traits—violence and anger—together meant that we ended up making more than half the class really miserable. I was really miserable, and even though I was also mean and bullied other people, I had that done to me. The power games that go on when everyone is trying to be powerful and assert their authority and dominance over the space are incredibly destructive. I feel lucky to have got off lightly, but I'm sure others don't and have their lives formed by those interactions and those years.
So what changed?
About six years ago, when I was 19, my girlfriend and I got together and that allowed me to open up and at the same time, I’d detached myself from a lot of my teenage environments. I had a close and moving friendship and relationship with my girlfriend and I started realizing that I could be more emotionally vulnerable and I could enjoy crying, that it could be a positive thing. I was at a point and I was looking to grow and to expand and I was particularly interested in spiritual growth. I wanted to understand myself better I guess. I was definitely inspired by wanting to be closer to my girlfriend. If I hadn't gone through that process, I don't think we would have had the relationship we have now.
VICE: What were you like as a kid?
Jesse: I was super sensitive and super emotional. I wasn't at all masculine. I had to learn how to manage it so I got into sports really quickly. I was an athlete for a long time and that must have been when I hardened a little bit. The energy in a huge group of dudes in a changing room—it seemed that wasn't the place to be crying all the time.
But you’re an actor now, so why did you pick sports growing up?
I kind of just got into it because I was thrown into it, but I also loved playing sports and I was really good at it. It was a really good thing for me, but hockey maybe stunted a bit of growth in terms of expressing myself completely. Whereas with acting, I feel completely free and I've learned that I don’t have to hold anything. You get a pat on the back for letting it all out which is cool.
And that wasn’t the case for hockey?
No. It's super bro-y. I guess it starts with like the nature of the game—there’s a lot of aggression and testosterone being thrown around so I imagine that plays a part. The whole goal is to win so there was definitely an aversion to anything seen as weak. But there is a level of emotion in the tea—it’s just different because it stems from the passion for the game you're playing rather than being open and honest with each other. It works for a lot of people. It just wasn't really me and I was never really good at the classic banter with those people.
Is everyone comfortable with the bro stuff or is it an act?
It at least seems that way but for all I know. There was like half the team that was feeling the same way. You have to put it on. The guy next to me could have been uncomfortable with it as well. I'm not bashing that stuff at all, it just wasn't conducive to me.
Were you nervous going from hockey to acting?
For sure—the year before I started film school was my last year of playing hockey, and I remember being super scared of anyone finding out. like if the hockey guys found out that I wanted to be an actor it would be weird. And although I was definitely old enough to not give a shit, I was still nervous about telling them.
Do you regret playing hockey for so long?
Definitely not. I got this shroud of masculinity and safety through hockey and I do feel indebted to that. A lot of my confidence did come from that, so I don't regret any of that part of my life. Maybe it did slow down some other sides of me, but I gained confidence from that and built from there. It helped with life in high school. I had a circle that I could use if ever there was an insecurity.
Did you need the hyper-masculine confidence to then grow and be a normal person?
Yeah, I think so. I think I’m just realizing this right now.
What would have happened if you kept playing?
I would have been stuck, mainly emotionally. I'm still such an emotional person. As soon as I started training as an actor that was something that came so naturally.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.