I’m consistently amazed at how little self-awareness people can have at times. Or, at least, I’m assuming that there are others with as little self-awareness as me. My understanding of myself seems to come in bursts of revelation rather than slow, incremental gain. As my thoughts swirl around in a storm, sudden flashes of insight appear like lightning.
The current storm in my brain has been regarding gender roles. As my understanding of feminism grows, I realize that gender roles are one of the key areas of society that must be challenged in order to provide equal status for women. But such an issue is just as applicable for men as well, since men face gender roles and norms of their own, and it would be somewhat odd to attack feminine gender roles and leave the masculine ones intact. So this issue, more than perhaps some other feminist issues, has an incredible power to unite both men and women in challenging social stigmas and oppression.
So like I said, these flashes of insight about myself tend to come when I am deeply focused on certain issues. As such, I’ve recently come to understand a bit more about the social forces that have shaped my life, and I’d like to share that understanding with you. Perhaps it won’t be interesting to anyone but myself, but I’m hoping that others might find some benefit from reading it.
The insight came to me a little while ago. I was at a get-together with some of my friends, and at one point the conversation turned to a discussion about being self-conscious. I was asked what made me most self-conscious (well, talking about being self-conscious does it pretty well!), and after some thought, I answered that it was the difficulty with performing traditional masculinity. I have never been Mr. Macho, and I understand that I never will, but the pull to be so is still there. Social pressures are always at work to force me to conform, or to shame and ridicule me if I do not. As I walked home that night, however, my flash of insight came as I realized just how much progress I’ve made. The history of my life came into sharp relief, and I realized an important trend: I have reclaimed virtually all of the “non-masculine” pursuits that I had, at some point previously, given up.
I used to enjoy reading. As a kid, I voraciously consumed (metaphorically, of course) innumerable books from the library. I developed this love of reading from my mother and my sister, both of whom were also avid readers. But at some point, as I entered my teenage years, I found out that reading wasn’t “cool”. As someone whose self-esteem is almost entirely dependent on what others think of me (though I’m working on that too), I stopped reading. The influences of my friends were so powerful to compel me to completely drop my love of reading. From then on, my reading was confined to textbooks (necessary reading), car magazines, and sports scores. After I escaped elementary school, the last two categories faded away, but I didn’t really start reading again for my own leisure until just a few years ago. So for at least about 10 years, I missed out on the enjoyment of one of my favourite activities. All because such a pursuit was not “manly” enough or “cool” enough.
I also enjoy web design. The story of how I became interested in it is too long and complex, but I started learning how to design websites during the summer in between elementary and high school. I continued to dabble with it for a few years, but eventually got sidetracked with better things (like pursuing women, and having a social life) and gave it up. It’s only been very recently that I’ve gotten back into it, upgraded my skills, and started doing some paid work designing sites. Now, I know web design is not a feminine activity by any means, but it also is not an activity that stereotypical masculinity condones. “Real men” don’t spend their time indoors, under the glow of the LCD screen—they are outdoors landscaping or building skyscrapers or playing football. They are using their rugged biceps and bulging forearms to do something other than move their fingers on a keyboard. And in the pursuit of being manly, I gave up my interest in web design. But I’ve since reclaimed it. And I’ve reclaimed that detail-oriented personality that now simultaneously fuels my web design skills, my interest in research and data analysis, and my grammatically-precise writing.
The final activity that I’ve reclaimed is my love of logic puzzles. Even now, I am not entirely comfortable about sharing with others that I like doing logic puzzles. It’s absurd, I know, but the pressure is there all the same. When I was little, I loved doing puzzles of any kind. Word searches, crosswords, jigsaw puzzles, and other various logic puzzles kept me entertained for hours. My family would get old books of logic puzzles for me, and I would try to get through them as quickly as possible. But soon I learned that “normal” people didn’t do such things. No one in my class at school liked doing that sort of thing (at least, that I knew of). So I just didn’t talk about it. And once the social pressures told me that “real men” didn’t waste their time on trivial things such as using their brains, I gave it up. My books sat unused and growing dusty. When I moved out to go to university, I left them at home. They were relics of a distant past when I did the things that I actually enjoyed doing. But I’ve reclaimed them once again. As my time in university stretched on, I slowly got back into them. It started with sudoku puzzles.1 Then I started doing the crossword in the student newspaper. And then I got hooked on griddlers and never looked back. I still don’t do as many as I’d like, but it has become an outlet for me to relax while still keeping my brain sharp.
These are the activities I have reclaimed from my childhood. These are the hobbies that I have rescued from the clutches of 23 years of socialization and gendered social discourse. I’ve made other developments as I have grown and matured: I’ve discovered an interest in art, poetry, and music; I’ve discarded my false interest in cars and sports, interests which were only developed in order to fit in with my friends in high school; I’ve begun to develop an interest in charity and social justice issues, domains within which I am still finding my place; and I’ve slowly started to wean myself off of the desire for the approval of others, which is what got me into this predicament in the first place. These are all markers of what I consider progress. I am slowly redefining myself, and my redefinition involves reclaiming my “roots”, so to speak, to take back the activities that I once cast aside. I did this without intentionally trying to discard gender norms, but now that this realization has come, I am eager to discover what changes will result from intentional action.
Social change cannot happen without personal change at the individual level. The result of this process of redefinition so far has been so freeing. I still feel these social pressures, but I feel much more comfortable resisting them and replacing them with genuine individuality. My hope is that others will join me in this task, to reclaim their own identities and personalities. And I’m interested to hear of what progress some might have already made. What kind of pursuits have you discarded or reclaimed or created fresh, which challenge traditional gender norms? And what areas do you have left to work on?
- By the way, I now strongly dislike sudoku puzzles. Ironically, they make me feel stupid. They’re one of the only types of logic puzzles that uses numbers but has absolutely no math whatsoever, so I feel like I’m playing a game that has been dumbed down for the “mathematically impaired.” But still, I do appreciate that logic puzzles are making a comeback in the general population. [↩]