I am a man on a journey. I don’t know the destination exactly, but I am working to get to a place where my identity as a man is free from the confines of traditional male socialization that prevents me from experiencing my full humanity.
Boys are traditionally socialized to not to be vulnerable, ask for help, or be honest when hurting, confused or in pain. My experience was no different. Don’t get me wrong, my household fostered a space where I was able to show difficult emotions, thanks to my mother and her openness and love. But the world has different plans for us as men. The world won’t allow us to escape the stories of what a “real” man looks like or how he behaves. No matter how much my mother tried to show me it was okay to show my pain, to ask for help, or to be scared, the collective socialization I experienced overshadowed her efforts. For me, that social force was absolutely inescapable.
I was picked on in school for being overweight, not tough enough, not strong enough, not handsome enough, not brave enough and not independent enough. That was all code for not man enough. In eighth grade, boys in the locker room made fun of me when I stepped on the scale in gym class, each making wagers on how far the scale dial would slide right. As my gym teacher found balance on the scale, I saw a number that represented my failure to be a man. I allowed that moment to define me. I was devastated.
My 12-year-old brain said, “I will NEVER feel this way again, and I will NEVER let them make fun of me for my weight again.” Now I realize that the decisions I have been making for the past 21 years about fitness, my body and food are not independent and free choices made by a fully matured adult male, but those made by a scared 12-year-old boy who felt like he lost his manhood in a locker room.
Every morning I wake up and drive to the gym before work. I thought I was doing it solely because I loved fitness and it made me feel good. I had fooled myself into believing it was all about health and vitality. When in reality I showed up every day because a scared 12-year-old made a promise never to be hurt like that again.
What the 12-year-old me didn’t know at the time, is that I had been pre-programmed to buy into the very narrow expectations society puts on boys. I had been socialized to believe that a man is strong, has muscles, defends his family and uses his strength to display his power. As I stood on the scale, based on the meaning I had accepted about manhood, taught to me through collective male socialization, I had no power, no strength, and I wasn’t a man.
This is not uniquely male by any means. Women and girls have their own set of struggles when it comes to body image expectations dictated by gender socialization. Society imposes gruesome and excessively strict notions about what women should look like. But because I identify as male, I can’t fully comprehend those struggles. I only know mine. Men are rarely given space to speak truth to our struggles and fears about our bodies. Justin Baldoni and Matt McGorry, both friends and supporters of A CALL TO MEN’s work, have used their platform and influence to talk about their own body image issues. I appreciate their efforts to let other men know they are not alone.
Society has authored a very incomplete story about manhood. That story shaped mine and served as the genesis for a very critical part of my identity – of my manhood. In my work at A CALL TO MEN, I am rewriting that story so that manhood is not limited, so that boys don’t fear shame in the locker room, so that we are intentionally building each other up as men. I invite you to join me.
- Jay Taylor, A CALL TO MEN Trainer