My childhood was amazing. I had a loving family. Friends. A good education. I was given every opportunity to succeed. My parents were great at giving me lessons in a lot of the important stuff. But along the way, I missed out on some fundamental information.
And here I am today. Twenty-nine years old, and I have no idea what to say when I’m in the bathroom and someone knocks on the door.
I either say “Uhhhhhhhhhh” and hope they go away or “Yes?”, as though they were knocking at my front door. I really wish this was addressed at some point in my upbringing. I’m still working to find a solution.
I also had to teach myself how to shave. The shaving lesson from my father consisted of him looking at me one day, in the peak of my awkward teenage years, and saying, “When are you going to shave? You look ridiculous.” I quietly got an electric shaver and did my best. It wasn’t until I was in my early 20’s that I picked up an actual razor (and learned how much human faces can bleed).
In fact, I missed out on a lot of lessons about manliness. I was raised in a very female dominated environment. Between sisters, aunts, cousins and my mother, with my father at work, I was often the only boy around. I never really knew how to dress or groom myself in a manly fashion. I was never taught what it meant to be a man.
I do, however, know how tough it is to walk in high-heels, what it feels like to wear a dress and how to put on make-up (which eventually led to an interesting adolescent phase). I’ve watched more figure skating and learned far more about the female reproductive cycle than would otherwise be expected.
Being surrounded and guided (pushed around) by a pack of females for the first 20-something years of my life has led to a great respect for women. I love women. But I began to equate being manly with just not doing what women do.
Growing up with all the ladies showed me how to be sensitive, kind, compassionate, caring. They showed me how to take pride in my appearance, to put effort into how I present myself. And I took all of these profound, powerful lessons and either hid them or ignored them altogether. I thought that if I expressed all of this, I wouldn’t be very manly. It’s how girls behave.
Luckily, I didn’t over compensate in any respect. I was actively kind, sensitive, compassionate, etc, but I did it as secretly as possible. I cried, but it was always behind a fortress of locked doors. If I did something nice, I’d make it seem as though I didn’t really intend for it to be nice. I would hug someone who needed it, but pretend I did it just to get them to stop crying. Ya know, in a real manly way.
I went through a lot of my life without questioning any of this. I never asked, “What does it mean to be a man?” I guess I thought I had a handle on it.
I didn’t even begin to question my misguided definition of manliness until I learned how to fight. Being tough and fighting, I thought, was the epitome of manliness. As I progressed in my training, however, I came to the realization that I was wrong. It isn’t the fighting that’s manly. It’s the discipline it took to get me there that is manly. Discipline and perseverance, I decided, are manly. Put those qualities towards becoming a fighter, dancer, figure skater, artist or anything and it is manly. I left it there for a while. I was still pretty misguided, but I didn’t question it.
Then I saw the show Mad Men.
I wrote that whole long introduction to illustrate that my life was leading up to some tiny little tipping point that caused me to question everything and, well, my next sentence is the unfortunate truth. The television show, Mad Men, changed my life.
It’s set in the early 1960’s. The men would not leave the house without looking meticulously groomed. Their hair was perfect, they had a freshly shaved face and they dressed in amazing suits. Every single day. And it’s outrageously manly.
You can watch the show on mute and know when a character was falling apart and going through an awful and terrible situation because he would look like…me. His life is falling apart, his shirt untucked, his hair sloppy, he’d have stubble on his face. He’d look like me.
My normal, daily look was used to illustrate a man on the brink of destruction. This is especially disappointing to me because I’d been ignoring the female influence that told me to spend time in front of the mirror perfecting my look before leaving the house in the morning. I had to actively fight the urge. I thought that it was just something girls did. I was denying my lifetime of training. I want to dress well! I want to do my hair! This sent me on another journey of self discovery.
I did the unthinkable. I got hair goop and tried to do my hair like the guys from the show. I was fairly embarrassed about it at first. I did it as quietly as I could. I knew people would notice, but I tried not to announce it. I used my girlfriend’s comb and experimented with the goop. At times, I had to use a chisel to get the product out of my hair. I don’t know if it looked good, but it looked better and it at least looked like I was trying. People noticed. I got feedback immediately. Mostly, I heard things like, “What’s the special occasion?” I started to see the statement it makes to put effort into the way I look.
It was a bit of a snowball effect after that. I went to a professional to get a haircut and some advice on how to groom. I instinctively went to a female stylist, which, in retrospect looks like I still assumed this was a girly thing to do, but she got me looking better and I no longer had to chisel the product out of my hair at the end of the day.
It was at this point in my journey when I moved from Honolulu to Portland. As the weather began to change here in Portland, I desperately needed warm clothes. I had to go shopping. And I was determined to look good. To dress like a man!
I needed help. I had some research to do. I spent almost as much time reading about men’s fashion as I did studying for my first term of medical school. I don’t regret it. And I found two invaluable resources: The Art of Manliness and Clinton Kelly.
I learned the basics of fashion. I read tons of tips on how to shop and find clothes. I finally went shopping. Between the fashion-advice articles and the help of my girlfriend, I was able to completely reinvent my look. I tuck my shirts in now.
In my men’s fashion research, I realized that I am not alone in this quest to understand my identity as a man. I found an endless number of how-to articles about man-related things. A whole world opened up that I never knew existed. I read everything I could.
I quickly saw that, much like fighting, it’s not the hair or the clothes that are manly. It’s the pride and confidence it takes to express myself. It is the courage to allow myself to explore my interest in fashion.
It became clear to me that this whole concept of manliness is more about attitude than anything else. I started reading articles on the qualities and characteristics of a man. I was ready and willing to change to become a better man. I found simple, common and very familiar themes. Discipline. Determination. Perseverance. Confidence. Responsibility.
One particularly striking article I read recently is “24 Rules For Being a Gentleman in 2014” by Chelsea Fagan . It reads a little more like “24 Rules To Avoid Being a Sociopath”. I was laughing while I read it. But then I read through the comments. A disturbing number of them are from men claiming that this list is ridiculous, impossible to achieve, “a woman’s wishlist”. What!? It’s essentially 24 ways to be polite, respectful and responsible. I’ve adhered to all of the rules on that list since I was a child.
Suddenly, I can confidently consider myself a man. And it’s not because I read all of these articles and followed their advice or because I made big, personal changes. It’s because I grew up with a bunch of females that instilled in me a sense of respect, kindness, sensitivity. All I had to do was stop holding myself back because of my misguided idea of what it meant to be a man.
I was backwards all along. It was the women in my life who taught me to be a man, I just didn’t know it. It’s not the clothes you wear or how tough you are. It’s not that you never cry or how much money you have. It’s not even a gender-specific idea. It’s living an honest and virtuous life. It’s understanding and accepting who you are as an individual. It’s being a good person. And that’s not manly. Or womanly. It’s humanly.