I think I’m just getting to the age where I can truly process my adolescent experiences. I don’t dwell on those days often, but when I do, I find that I can approach them with a clarity and emotional detachment that I simply wasn’t capable of before. I’m not sure why. Maybe my frontal lobes are finally done forming; or maybe those feelings just aren’t so raw anymore. Regardless, it’s made for much more healthy, productive reflection than I’ve had on this subject before.
In high school, I was a bit different from other people my age. Well, mostly just the boys. I fit in with the girls just fine. But other guys never really accepted me as part of the group, because I didn’t fit their description of what a guy should be.
My voice was a little higher and more nasally than theirs, with just a hint of a lisp to it. Whereas other boys tended to keep their feelings to themselves, I had no problem expressing my emotions openly to anyone who would listen. I wore skinny jeans long before they were popular. And I loved to feature bright colors in my outfits, whether it be a purple wristband, a neon tie-dye t-shirt, or bright yellow athletic shorts. (Yes, really.)
Growing up, I was expressive. I was eccentric. And I was a little too much for my male peers to handle.
It may not be true everywhere, but where I’m from, people have a very narrow definition of masculinity. Men are supposed to be strong, independent, rugged, and tough. And boys are taught that if they want to be “good,” then they have to exhibit these traits as well. They’re indoctrinated with rules from a young age that are meant to reinforce culture’s gender norms.
- Boys play rough.
- Boys don’t cry.
- Boys take charge.
- Boys compete—and win at all costs.
These expectations are placed on boys and men as a standard for them to live up to. But I never bought into all of that stuff, and I paid a heavy price for it.
I wasn’t raised with those kinds of expectations. I was never told I had to act a certain way or play a certain way or be a certain way because of my biological sex. My parents simply allowed me to be myself, and that included buying me the doll I begged them for one Christmas when I was little. That included allowing me to dress the way I wanted to. That included showing up to my sports games and then showing up to my choir concerts and musical performances when I realized sports weren’t for me.
I’m thankful that my parents never tried to force me to fit into some outside standard of masculinity. But I wasn’t immune to those expectations. They simply came from somewhere else: my peers.
I didn’t fit my male classmates’ preconceived notions of what a boy should be. I didn’t play sports. I didn’t date a lot. I didn’t act tough or repress my feelings. And based on those observations, my peers came to the conclusion that there had to be something about me that made me so different.
The explanation they landed on was that I must be gay. And they had no qualms about letting me know about their theory. “Bullying” is probably too strong a term for what I experienced, but I was consistently referred to as gay (and many derogatory terms along those lines) by my classmates.
Of course, they meant this not only as a way of explaining my non-conforming behavior, but also as a means of punishing me for it. Where I’m from, being labeled “gay” is considered an insult. And I had that label hurled at me every single day of high school.
To be clear, I wasn’t gay. And I wasn’t too bothered by the accusations because I knew that they were wrong. But the way the other boys treated me did make me wonder why I wasn’t like them, and just as they did, I sought an explanation.
Which is what led me to identify for a long time as a metrosexual. The term is still somewhat elusive, but it basically refers to a straight man who cares about his looks. In my mind at the time, it was a way to explain how I was seemingly effeminate without being gay. I felt like I owed the world an explanation for who I was, and that was the only way I could find to do it.
Once I got out of my hometown and went to college, I was exposed to a much broader understanding of the world and, with it, a broader understanding of masculinity. No longer was I tied to the legalistic definition of manhood that was forced upon me growing up. Instead, I was able to see what real, healthy masculinity looks like: things like being a good person, being there for those you love, protecting those in need, and using your gifts to make the world a better place. That’s what being a man is about.
It took a long time, but eventually, I came to the realization that I am a man. I’m the man that I am meant to be. And trying to live up to someone else’s standard of masculinity for so long was only preventing me from truly being me.
Looking back, it seems ridiculous that I ever relied on a label like “metrosexual” to understand myself. Although I would never devalue the peace and meaning someone else may gain from identifying as such, I’ve come to realize that it is not for me. I know now what I couldn’t know back then—that there is absolutely nothing wrong with me. I am a straight man with my own personal mannerisms, interests, and forms of expression. I am exactly who God made me to be, and no one can ever make me apologize for that.
Society tried to force me into its narrow understanding of what masculinity should be, and I pushed back against it. When I did, I was made to feel like I was the problem, and I had to come up with new language to reconcile my own experience with the lies I was being fed about what it means to be a man. Although I came out the other side secure in who I am and willing to forgive the forces that wronged me, it is my goal to ensure that my own children don’t have to face the same pressures and struggles that I did.
When it comes to other people, we get so caught up in the shoulds, in trying to define how others should live their lives. But when we spend so much time forcing our expectations on people, we never get a chance to know them for who they really are. Sometimes, we don’t even give them to chance to find out who they are themselves. And when we do that, we’re doing them, ourselves, and the world a disservice.
As far as I’m concerned, the only thing people should do is be themselves and work to become the best version of themselves that they can be. We are each created different for a reason, and we each have something unique to offer. Why would we stifle that by trying to make everyone else look just like us?
I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be like everyone else. I want to be me. And I want you to be you. And I want my nieces and my nephews and my future children to be themselves, too. I don’t ever want my preconceived notions of who they should be to get in the way of who they truly are.
So I’m committing to root out the shoulds in my own worldview. We all have them, whether they be cultural gender norms or something else. And we all try to force them on other people, but we don’t have to. So let’s stop. Let’s allow people to be who they are and simply appreciate them for it. I’m thankful I’ve always had at least a few people willing to do that for me, and I want to do that for others. How about you?