How do we define masculinity?

To most people in our world, masculinity has been characterized by heterosexuality, stoicism, athleticism, sexual activity, and overall dominance.

But such a rigid definition of masculinity is toxic. For one, the uncompromising definition forces young men to actively change who they are to fit some socially destructive mold of a man. Rather than teaching them to love themselves or to be attune with their emotions, as a culture, we push them to bottle them up.

SEE ALSO: Why is everyone suddenly talking about gender? 

As someone who doesn’t fit into the traditional confines of masculinity himself, I wanted to figure out why the box even exists and what criteria categorize its exclusivity. For years I’ve been rejected from the heteronormative confines of what masculinity looks like. It took a toll on my self-esteem. What made me considered less than masculine? Who kicked me out of that small box? Eventually, I learned from my incredible, loving friends, the only way to defy these stereotypes is to simply give them no power— to be unapologetically yourself.

It’s easier said than done. For me, it took years to come to terms with who I am. I wish that we as a culture could start redirecting the tone away from ‘be this’ to ‘be yourself and love it.’ As a 17-year old boy, I get that you may have no idea who you are, but this is the moment of exploration and self-discovery, and we can’t get lost in that search.

If you’re forcing yourself to fit that mold, how will you ever find that ‘real’ you? But as the most forward-thinking and progressive of generations, we’re starting to get it. We’re slowly but surely deconstructing these stereotypes and removing their presence from our lives. As the amazing young men of Gen Z will show you, we stopped giving, excuse my French, a f***. We’re bored. We stopped caring what other people think. That makes traditional masculinity boring. That makes being a certain stereotypical way as a man really contrite. Being your unabashed self, than, is what’s cool. 

Over the past few months, I conducted interviews with select individuals from Generation Z to see if I was alone in my perspective on masculinity. I asked these young guys some tough and introspective questions about their own sense of masculinity. I was surprised by just how I was not alone in my own journey towards manhood. These young men each told me that they, too, felt the traditional confines of masculinity was not only toxic, but suffocating. You may have read how Generation Z is pushing the definition of masculinity but people don’t believe it until they see it— well, here’s our proof! These individuals have something to say; they have struggled with, defied, or accepted their masculinity, whatever that word means to them.

This is Gen Z. This is the future of masculinity. Here’s what we have to say.

David Cash, 20, Toronto @davidmcash

Tell us one time you challenged the idea of masculinity, or perhaps, questioned your sense of masculinity.

“I question my sense of masculinity as often as possible.  I think living within the harsh confines of what is societally correct is boring.  Sometimes I want to wear makeup.  Sometimes I want to buy something from the women’s section.  In my mind this makes me no less masculine, in fact, it does the opposite— it affirms my masculinity by allowing me to be unapologetically myself.”  

In your opinion, what does society and youth culture think about being masculine and stereotyping the male gender? Have you felt a shift in perspective or a movement towards more positive thinking?

“I think as a whole, society has a long way to go when it comes to assumptions, stereotyping, and micro-aggressions.  However, there has been a clear shift in younger generations that seems to be moving towards a more progressive and liberal future.  I think ultimately people just need to take the way people perceive them less seriously and allow for their fragile sense of the gender binary to be shattered.”

How do we defy these stereotypes?

“I defy conventional stereotypes by just being unapologetically myself.  If that means wearing makeup to the club, or loving fashion, or calling someone ‘girl,’ so be it!  In my mind, I only have one person who can really judge me and that’s myself. ”  

David Lynch, 19, Charleston, SC @david.lynch

Could you tell us one time you challenged the idea of masculinity, or perhaps, questioned your sense of masculinity?

“I mean I’m from the South, so growing up with the sexuality I do is difficult, and it often inherently challenges this idea of masculinity, but ultimately I kind of settled on the idea that you don’t have to necessarily adhere to societal standards to identify as masculine.”

In your opinion, what does youth culture think about being masculine and stereotyping masculinity? Have you felt a shift in perspective or a movement towards more positive thinking?

“I definitely think the people I surround myself with at Harvard, view masculinity in a very similar light in the sense that we view it as something that’s very flexible and not necessarily defined as the way that perhaps our moms and dads identified it as.”

How do you think society perceives you?

“The way society perceives me here is equal and just like everybody else. I think in Charleston, society perceives me as disabled and someone that is at a disadvantage. I think in general though, society is pushing towards the former of the two views.”

Hari Randhawa, 17, Houston, TX @harirandhawa

Would you say you’re ‘masculine?’ 

“I do not consider myself masculine. I identify as gender nonconforming, as my expression of gender has never matched the societal definitions of masculinity or femininity. I’ve never identified strongly with either of those, and my gender expression is loose and free flowing. I am comfortable with my identity as a male, and my gender expression does not have to ‘correlate’ to my gender identity in any way.”

Could you tell us one time you challenged the idea of masculinity, or perhaps, questioned your sense of masculinity?

“I got into makeup about a year ago – something considered very feminine. I received a lot of criticism for it, but I’ve always thought of makeup as an art form that isn’t restricted to just one half of the population.”

In your opinion, what does society and youth culture think about being masculine and stereotyping the male gender? Have you felt a shift in perspective or a movement towards more positive thinking?

“I live in a rather socially conservative environment, so I don’t see many people with socially progressive attitudes. However, I do notice that younger people do take more easily to the idea of gender being a fluid, non-binary concept. I think a lot of teenagers, specifically males—both cis and trans— are starting to grow tired of the cage that masculinity places them in.”

How do we defy the stereotypes surrounding what it means to be masculine?

“I think the biggest way to defy the stereotypes is to not fear them. Society has a tendency to alienate and even demonize non-masculine men, and I feel that masculinity is simply a mechanism people use to appear ‘normal.’ There’s nothing inherently wrong with masculinity itself, but rather with the expectation that all males must exemplify the concept. Realizing that one’s thoughts on their gender expression are the only thoughts that matter is the key to breaking down expectations.”

What does masculinity mean to Gen Z?

“Masculinity to this generation is an outdated ideal that is slowly fading as our culture shifts in a broader, less concrete direction. I feel that our generation sees gender expression as something that should matter much more to oneself than to others.”

Zeeshan Hassan-Adoh, 16, New York, NY @zeeshan.ha

In your opinion, what does society and youth culture think about being masculine and stereotyping the male gender? Have you felt a shift in perspective or a movement towards more positive thinking?

“From what I’ve seen, I think we’re definitely moving in the right direction. On a personal level, I consider myself incredibly lucky to live in an environment— both at school and at home— where traditional ideas of masculinity are challenged on a day-to-day basis. I think that youth culture is in fact shifting towards greater acceptance, and even celebration of men who defy stereotypes commonly associated with masculinity. I’ve met so many amazing people from all around the world who challenge these stereotypes and keep an open mind, and that makes me incredibly hopeful for the future.”

How do we defy the stereotypes surrounding what it means to be masculine?

“For me, the way I find myself defying these stereotypes and ideas is being truly myself. Gender does not have to play a role when it comes to self-expression and no one should be able to tell you what is appropriate or not for you to do on the basis of gender expression.”

What do you wish guys were more free and able to do that they aren’t fully at the moment?

“While I think we are moving in the right direction, there’s still a lot of work to be done. For one, I wish guys were able to express their emotions— aside from anger— more freely without fear of being viewed as ‘less of a man.’ I also wish guys could as a whole be more free to experiment with their identities and be less confined to the grip of toxic masculinity.”

Have you ever questioned your own identity? Could you tell us that story?

“Definitely. I think balancing different aspects of one’s identity can be incredibly challenging, and as a multiracial man of color in my case, I’ve often found myself questioning my worth in terms of society, but also in terms of masculinity and what that means for me.”

Daniel Varela, 17, Lawndale, CA

Could you tell us one time you challenged the idea of masculinity, or perhaps, questioned your sense of masculinity?

“I joined the La Femme club— a feminist/women affinity group— and being one of the only two boys there, I felt I was challenging the masculine norm in my school. It was an amazing experience that probably would not have occurred had I been trapped by the masculine culture in my school where guys tend to disassociate themselves from gender issues. ”

How do we defy the stereotypes surrounding what it means to be masculine?

“Just be yourself rather than what others tell you to be. Do not conform to the standards society places upon you, but allow yourself to create your own image.”

What do you wish guys were more free and able to do that they aren’t fully at the moment?

“I wish that guys could understand that being a sensible, loving, and woke guy is sometimes better than being what society wants. From teenage years to early adulthood, men can be so unaware of the endless possibilities of identity because of their extreme conformity to the masculine image.”

EJ Dohring, 22, Phoenix, AZ @ejdohring

What are the stereotypes surrounding being masculine?

“The most problematic stereotype is the notion that you can’t be masculine and also in touch with your emotions. I think of the classic war-movie image of a mother crying over the death of her son and a father remaining stoic. Just cry, damnit!”

How do we defy these stereotypes?

“We can defy these stereotypes by giving them no power. Be and act however you feel.”

How about men’s fashion?

“Men’s fashion is so boring compared to women’s. I yearn for the day— and I don’t think it’s far away— that tabloids are talking about what men are wearing on the red carpet. It’s time to break the idea that the only way a man can dress up is in a tux.”

What do you wish guys were more free and able to do that they aren’t fully at the moment?

“A friend of mine and I were shopping a few weeks ago, and he saw a pretty floral dress and said, ‘Ugh, I would totally buy this if I was a girl.’ I wish that our society were progressive enough that he, or any man, could buy that dress and rock it without fearing judgment or double takes.”

Was it ever hard to come to terms with who you are?

“It was a little challenging to accept that I was gay. I was raised protestant, and I feared the classic Bible-banger sentiment ‘all gays burn in hell.’ I still sometimes fear it. This quote by Deepak Chopra has really helped me in that regard and maybe it can help others too: ‘Religion is belief in someone else’s experience. Spirituality is having your own.’ I’ve learned that there are no rules when it comes to beliefs; you must create your own.”

Brian Cook, 19, Chicago, IL @blamebrian

How would you define masculinity?

“I think with a spectrum defining our pronouns and genders, masculinity still holds this finite definition that only some men fit into. I mean I live on a college campus where fraternities are the main stream, and I see bucket hats, I see glossed-over attitudes, I hear about girls getting sexually assaulted all the time, and I just believe masculinity today holds on to this toxic, destructive connotation.”

How do we defy these stereotypes?

“For defying these stereotypes, it’s just being comfortable with who you are. It’s saying, ‘I might be a little feminine, I might be completely masculine, but I’m not going to let that affect my life.’ So I think when you are a person who’s reading an article, who’s studying what it means to be male or just trying to defy those stereotypes, it’s about being grateful and understanding and appreciating who you are and spreading that with people around you. You might get retaliation, you might not get the feedback you want, but if you’re comfortable with yourself and if you love yourself, then other people will love you too.”

What do people think defines men’s beauty? How about men’s fashion?

“One of my friends here at Northwestern who’s in the theatre program with me is an ambassador for MAC Makeup, and you can see everyday that he wears makeup. That may not fall into the category of ‘male’ or ‘masculinity,’ but he very much identifies as male and masculine.”

What scares you most surrounding the idea of identity and public perception? What makes you feel most vulnerable?

“In general life, just being judged is a very scary thing, and being able to let go of stereotypes and what people think about you is the most beautiful thing you have; once you find it, you figure out there’s so much more to life than ‘What will people think about what I’m wearing?’ ‘What will people think about what I look like?’ You can truly find peace. You can truly find love in the world, and I think that’s what living is about.”

What do you wish guys were more free and able to do that they aren’t fully at the moment?

“I wish people made bolder choices in fashion. I feel sometimes when I walk around in the city and in the Northwestern community, it’s very much the staggered board shorts or this mediocre fashion, and I’m not talking about fashion in The Hunger Games where everyone is like super crazy, but I think there’s this stigma with fashion that, especially in males, holds to this tank top, to the shorts, and to the socks that go up to the knees. That’s very ugly, and I wish that we could move into a different era of fashion.”

Thaddeus Scherer, 20, Jacksonville, FL @thadscherer24

Do you think you fit masculine stereotypes?

“No, and the more I’ve grown, the more I see myself drift from the norm. As I got older, I started to find my own path of masculinity, one that required me to accept myself and to realize that any choices I made are the ones that defined the person I am today. My Dad always told me, ‘Reputation is how others view you. Character is who you really are inside.’ These two things can differ sometimes, and that’s okay.”

In your life, how much power do other people’s opinions hold and have they ever affected you?

“I care more about my happiness, and what makes me happiest is doing the things that I love. When I am working on music, or when I’m singing, at the opera, reading a book, or watching a ballet, I feel fulfilled in a way that would never be able to be touched by others.”

What scares you most surrounding the idea of identity and public perception? What makes you feel most vulnerable?

“I still feel vulnerable opening up to people. I feel like when I was growing up people would say, ‘boys don’t cry,’ and it was even less acceptable to talk about feelings of insecurity, doubt, loneliness, sadness, because that made you vulnerable, and in turn, delicate, and in turn, less of a man. ”

What does masculinity mean to Gen Z?

“It is a task that Generation Z is going to have to overcome. It is up to them to break these boundaries and have serious conversation about what defines gender today. Especially with today’s current political situation, it is important to be vocal, to strive for change, and to ask important questions. Our generation is the generation of the future. It will be us who’ll be taking jobs, changing lives, and innovating like never seen before. It is very important for Gen Z to remember that. Masculinity’s definition is up Gen Z.”

Chris Lysik, 20, North Kingstown, RI 

Could you tell us one time you challenged the idea of masculinity, or perhaps, questioned your sense of masculinity?

“I can clearly remember the first time I realized who I was didn’t necessarily line up with the expectations of others. I was in 3rd grade, and I was riding in a car with one of my family members. They had just picked me up from a playdate with a male friend, and when I left, I gave him a hug. While we were riding in the car, this family member turned to me and said, ‘You know, you should stop hugging guys so much. It’s okay to hug girls, but it’s kinda weird for you to hug guys.’ This was the first time I realized there were clear societal rules I was supposed to be following.”

Do you think you fit these stereotypes?

“The question isn’t whether or not you fit these stereotypes, but rather whether or not you actively change who you are to fit these stereotypes. There is absolutely nothing wrong with fitting the stereotypical ‘masculine’ mold if that is who you truly are. It’s when you deny who you are in order to fit the expectations of others that you run into problems.”

How do we defy these stereotypes?

“It’s as simple as staying true to yourself. Don’t worry about what other people want you to look or act like. Be yourself.”

What do you wish guys were more free and able to do that they aren’t fully at the moment?

“We live in 2017. We have the legal right to dress how we want, marry who we want. While it may not seem like it at the moment, we are still in the most progressive age in American history. Unfortunately, it’s the societal pressures that are holding us back. Until we can walk out our front doors knowing that there will be no judgement or persecution, there will always be more hurdles and boundaries to cross.”