“Are you okay, son?” I could barely here his voice through the pain and embarrassment. I was lying on my back, shocked by the hit my head had taken. The lights of the field shown down on me, and I remembered where I was. My team needed me. If I don’t get up right now, I thought to myself, this referee will make me sit out the rest of the game. My team needs me. Be tough. I stood up, fighting against the pain and pushing away the thought that I had concussion and shouldn’t go back into the game. There was a sharp pain in my neck, but I had to ignore it.
As I walked off the field, my teammate asked again. “You good?” I had to be. “Yeah, I just lost my footing.” I can’t let anyone know I’m hurting. At the end of the game, without knowing my decision, my coach took time to acknowledge my effort and energy throughout the game and praise me in front of my team. Good, I’m glad I made the right choice…
Tough. Aggressive. Manly. Relentless. Physical. All words that I have heard defining what a man should be. If I ever lapsed in any of these areas, I saw myself as weak. Undeserving. Childish. Emotional. Broken. Unique. Out of place. Before going further, I do want to say this – football is not the source of toxicity, violence, or abuse. I learned a lot of healthy skills – such as a resilience – through my coaches and teammates. The truth is this: many adolescents, like I was, are seeking identity. Seeking self-worth. Belonging. Meaning. I wanted others to tell me I was valuable because I couldn’t find value in myself. To me, value was status, appraisal, or recognition that I was the best man that society could ask for. As a result, I let society define manhood. I let them define for me what was good, what was expected, and what was valuable in a man. If only I could have known then the truth that I see now:
Those who I sought to please, the ones I wanted to impress – they too were fighting the inward battles of self-doubt, depression, anxiety, self-image, and isolation. They too saw the world around them and wondered why they couldn’t be the man that society wanted them to be nor the man they were taught to become. They too pushed away emotions, injuries, or any sign of “feminine” behavior. They too were told that these things were unnatural and showed weakness. This community of men is the blind leading the blind. The truth is there, hidden behind the blindfold of what we have understood masculinity to be. In our ignorance, we begin to tie this same blindfold around the eyes of younger men and women, girls and boys. We teach them that the abuse and violence they are seeing is normal, expected, encouraged, and endeared.
I knew I could never truly reach the expectations of manhood that were set before me, tied around my eyes. I wanted so desperately to meet these expectations, I grasped in the dark for the self-validation I was told they held. I learned to hide my “weakness” and shined a spotlight on my “strengths”. As a sophomore in High School, I had never learned how to openly address mental health or any other emotions I faced. I was full of shame at the sight of these weaknesses. I’m alone in this, how could I be so weak? The outlet for this shame, you ask? Anger. Aggression. Isolation. I constantly yelled at my mom, seeking desperately to shift the blame onto someone else for my perceived short comings. For the longest time, I talked with no one about my mental health issues, relationships, or anything that weighed heavy on my heart.
And then came therapy: Vulnerability. Truth. The telling of my story. I found the blindfold slowly beginning to unwind. The light of truth began shining into my life from others who had already removed their own blindfolds and identified toxic masculinity for what it is. I found men and peers who were dealing with similar struggles, who had dealt with mental health just like I had. I am not unique, broken or alone!
Sadly, toxic masculinity is real and running rampant through our culture. Men are taught that not only is it acceptable to be dominant and aggressive, but it is encouraged. You make your own decisions. You are your own man. You own your girlfriend, wife, or whoever dares cross your path. You deserve her, and therefore you can treat her as you wish. There is no room for respect in the presence of this toxicity. Those who stand up are almost always opposed or ignored.
Manhood itself is not the root of this toxicity. Instead, I find that our understanding of manhood is the culprit. True manhood is full of beautiful, cultivating, empathetic, loving, gentle, vulnerable and respectful thoughts and behaviors. True womanhood is full of beautiful, cultivating, empathetic, loving, gentle, vulnerable and respectful thoughts and behaviors. Toxic masculinity is when we lose sight of humanity and begin to see women as something less than human and lesser deserving of respect and dignity than ourselves.
Terry Crews puts it well. Seeing a woman as who she truly is – a human worthy of respect and our care – prevents a man from treating her they way he might be inclined to: physical, verbal, emotional, sexual and/or technological assault, violence, or general disrespect. Toxic masculinity offers the man a direct route to these urges and teaches women that they deserve and should expect these behaviors.
All men – including myself – have been exposed to this falsehood and acted upon it in ignorance and the blinding power of false entitlement.
I urge you then to fight against this cultural norm that is so present in our world and to re-write the script of manhood and womanhood in our thoughts, relationships, homes, families, workplaces, schools, communities, nation and worldwide.