As silly as it sounds, a defining moment for me was a tweet. A largely ignored tweet based on a Netflix original series that upon revisiting for this article, I realize was a dumb joke. It went like “To All The Boys I’ve Had Brief Close Friendships With Before Our Collective Toxic Masculinity Manifested In Miscommunication And Stubbornness Which Ended The Relationship.”
What bothered me about this and why I still think about it is that, in a single sentence, it summarizes the thing that I had never realized about myself.
At that moment, I thought of every friendship I’ve had with another man, from childhood to now, and it all clicked into place. I had always thought I simply got along better with women. It just was an aspect of my personality that had no discernible reason. It was just how I was hardwired. I mean, my grandfather even once told me he had the same feeling. It’s embarrassing to say but this tweet really changed all that.
When I first learned what “toxic masculinity” was, I thought of the obvious ‘bro-y’ things — pointless competition, sexist comments in the change room, fragility, chauvinism and violence. The things that everyone hates about masculinity — for good reason.
With these criteria, is it very easy to not buy into these ways of acting and thinking. Something that, for a good part of my life, was how I understood myself. I didn’t catcall women, brag about sexual conquests or demean people with names. So how could I be affected by toxic masculinity? I had defeated it!
This tweet made me realize that toxic masculinity is more insidious than I had thought. I had thought acting not ‘macho’ had rid me of the problem, but as soon as I checked off that box, hundreds more boxes appeared. Toxic masculinity is with me at all times, even now. It’s what people see when I walk into the room. It’s how I’m expected to act around certain people and, even worse, it’s what stops me from organically creating and understanding my relationships with other men.
This is no one single person’s fault. My dad cries openly at Christmas movies, plays ’90s ballads on his guitar and taught me not to bottle up emotions, but those intuitive lessons can only go so far when faced with an entire world that desperately wants you to act a certain way. This sort of intuition only works divorced from societal reality. You can’t logic your way out of ingrained toxic masculinity.
It can feel like a skin-tight suit that I’m desperately trying to get off at all times. If I tug in one direction, it gets tight elsewhere. And even when the whole thing is loosened, after a few hours it tightens back up again. It’s the constant work of trying to give myself room to breathe. It’s the internal battle of feeling comfortable expressing my feelings, the battle of not feeling like I’m giving leeway when I open up to friends. It’s always reminding myself that talking to another cis man doesn’t mean I need to be on the offence or defence. It’s the ever-present reminder that I was taught something that I need to unlearn.
But with this realization comes freedom. While some pillars of toxic masculinity remain inside me, it gives me the chance to create new, positive ideas of what it means to be a man that will hopefully make the old ones obsolete. I have been able to interrogate what it means for me to be a man and find new, positive ways of expressing my masculinity.
Grappling with toxic masculinity will be a continuing struggle, both in myself and the people around me, but I look forward to the moment I can be comfortable being masculine, in whatever way I want.