Masculinity has been a topic of debate for a long time. With several subtopics like “toxic masculinity,” “soft masculinity,” or “modern masculinity,” we are living in a pivotal time where we are redefining the concepts that we have been following and asking questions about the beliefs we’ve been adhered to for our whole life.
From historical figures like Julius Caesar, Napoleon Bonaparte, and archetypes like John Wayne and Rambo, we’ve been absorbing many ideas of what being a man should be. A huge and sometimes ambiguous list of adjectives, including brave, strong, intelligent, and attractive, becomes a checklist that men should follow in order to be considered men. And this has been a topic that is not just relevant for men, but people of all genders reinforce these ideas and, in many ways, become victims of these ideas.
Today we’ll talk about some social constructions about masculinity, what they mean, how they affect men’s behaviors and thoughts, and how these social constructions as a whole influence the way men perceive and consume fashion.
Men have to be smart
A study led by Ashleigh Shelby Rosette presented the conclusion that when male leaders ask for help, they are seen as less competent and are judged more harshly than those who aren’t.
There is a lot of pressure for men to be smart. Many assumptions around how all men should be good with numbers, should know how to change the wheels of a car, or even fix a broken machine at home are part of daily conversations in today’s world. More often than not, in the workplace, the opinion of a man still has more weight than the opinion of a woman. It becomes an unnecessarily uncomfortable scenario for everyone because there are women who really want and deserve to be heard, and there are men who are carrying a lot of pressure to come up with a good idea and would prefer if someone else takes the lead.
In a recent study published by The Conversation, researcher David Reilly among other researchers, found out that men tend to overestimate their intelligence while women tend to underestimate it. There doesn’t seem to be a relation between IQ and gender. The difference is how each one perceives their own intelligence.
If men want to be perceived as intelligent, their clothes must communicate that same message. This can explain why many men are scared to try new trends or even new colors or styles. It makes sense to feel this insecurity. If men are constantly expected to be smart, how would they risk creating a bad impression on people?
How often have you heard phrases among groups of male friends like “You look stupid.” Clothes are one of the first things men make fun of. It seems like fashion is a topic that only girls should discuss, but at the same time, men are expected to look clean, polished, and “not stupid.”
It makes sense to think: If people think that I dress like a stupid, they would probably think I’m stupid. It’s better to keep wearing the same clothes I’ve been wearing for a long time, although my authentic self would like to try to wear something different.”
Men have to look strong.
As kids, many of us enjoyed watching superhero movies. The magic of climbing buildings to fight the villains, or using a vibranium shield to fight extraterrestrials, is something kids of several generations spent many hours watching. They admire them, they dress up like them, and in their dreams, they wish they could have their superpowers.
These are some of the very first images that we see of how men “should” look and be in the real world. So inevitably, we start to wish we had Thor’s arms or Black Panther’s abs, or any other body part or feature of a superhero we watch.
In the end, how cool would it be to feel as admired, respected, and welcomed as these superheroes are?
The stereotypes of muscular men associated with beauty are not limited to the fictional world of superheroes. They are also in fashion shows, and campaigns, magazines and advertisements, movies and shows of different genres, the music industry, the health industry, and the list goes on and on. Suddenly, we see a major disconnection between the types of bodies we see in all these media and the body we see in front of the mirror. The way men react to this disconnection can lead to eating disorders, anxiety, depression, or low self-esteem. It’s very hard, and for many men, almost impossible, to achieve the body figures that mass media portray. After all, there’s a huge industry around fitness and beauty, and many of these male bodies that we admire, and envy at times, are a result of lots of time and money.
Under this very restrictive idea of how men’s bodies should look, many types of men’s bodies are ignored and misunderstood by the fashion industry. How hard is it for plus-size men to find clothing that aligns with their style and budget? How challenging is it for small men to find clothes or footwear outside of the kid’s department? Men have to look strong, is what mass media claims, but what if their body was simply not born to fit into that category? Does that make him less of a man?
Men should not be sensitive
The word sensitive is often used as an insult toward men. It seems like showing your emotions and being vulnerable is often interpreted as a sign of weakness or something that is “not masculine.” To make things even worse, sometimes people think of being feminine or being a girl as an insult, and many of these ideas start at a very young age. You can hear 7-year-old kids playing in the park and yelling to a scared boy, “don’t be a girl,” if he is scared to do something the rest of the kids want him to do.
In high school, masculinity is shown when you are good at sports, you are attracted to girls, and you have a girlfriend that you show as a trophy to your friends and family who have been asking for several months why don’t you have a girlfriend. When we are adults, we still drag this need to prove we are masculine to the people around us, even the people who have known us for a very long time. For those who have suffered this need on a deeper level, it may be harder to let go of their “masculine” ideas and try fashion that for several years has not been perceived as masculine.
Men have to be wealthy
In the United States, 71% of people believe it is important for men to be able to support their family financially in order to be a good husband or partner, even as women’s financial contributions keep growing. (Pew Research). Aligned with the fact that in two-thirds of straight American families, the husband has a higher income than the wife, there is a huge expectation for men to be financially stable. In a way, many people associate a man’s manhood with how high his income is.
This expectation can create a lot of anxiety and a wish to show wealth through visible products such as watches, cars, and of course, fashion. This can be one of the reasons why designer accessories for men are becoming more popular. A Ferragamo belt, a Rolex watch, or an Armani suit are not just products to wear as trophies celebrating one can afford them (although many times they can’t). These luxurious items are also a proof of manhood, a sign of being a man who can support his partner financially and be “man enough.”
An interesting aspect to consider is to ask ourselves: who keeps feeding this social construction and making it bigger and still relevant to this day? Are men shaming each other in a competition to see who can be the wealthiest? Do women automatically expect men in their family and social circle to be financially stable without allowing them to share their financial struggles? Why is this expectation still prevalent?
Men should be “masculine”
It is hard to find a clear definition of what masculinity is. Oxford defines masculinity as qualities or attributes regarded as characteristics of men. But these characteristics change depending on the time period and the location. There are different men qualities in Los Angeles than in Cairo, or in Caracas, or Tokyo. However, a general pattern that many times is prevalent is that being masculine is completely different from being feminine; there doesn’t seem to be a common ground in between. If a society claims that wearing makeup is feminine, then it can’t be masculine. If a small town somewhere in the world thinks that listening to pop music is a girly thing, then a man who listens to this kind of music will be seen as girly.
This idea restricts the possibilities of what menswear can be because once there are sparkles, sequins, feathers, lace, or any fabric or texture that is directly associated with womenswear, it is seen as feminine, and going back to the previous point, many men don’t want to be seen as feminine.
Luckily this is starting to change because some straight, cisgender men in the entertainment industry are taking a step forward by trying clothes with these “feminine” characteristics. This helps their fans and followers see that men can wear the clothes they want, and that doesn’t make them “less of a man.”
It may seem as if we have already overcome many prejudices and social constructions that we have carried from the past, but there is still a long way to go. We define masculinity every day with our behaviors, with the way we treat each other, with how we react when we encounter someone who thinks differently than us, when we face someone who wants to react aggressively, and we have the power to decide whether we want to be aggressive as well or not.
Many of these ideas of masculinity came to our heads without us signing up for them. We absorbed them by looking at the world and seeing how people interact with each other. But that doesn’t mean that we should keep the definition of masculinity we acquired when we were little; we can redefine it with new values that make us feel better about ourselves and can make people’s lives around us easier.
“I want to be a good human. And I believe the only way that can happen is if men learn to not only embrace the qualities that we were told are feminine in ourselves but to be willing to stand up, to champion and learn from the women who embody them” -Justin Baldoni.