Barbies Are For Girls

What are the consequences of raising boys to become “real men.”
06/23/2017 09:22 am ET Updated Jul 07, 2017
Irene Guillot

Most males have been in training to “become a man” since the moment our parents were told, “It’s a boy!” The instant the sex is proclaimed, assumptions and expectations of the gender role begin. Boyhood quickly escalates into a campaign for validation as an acceptable reflection of masculinity. However, masculine and feminine is not “one size fits all.” By trying to manipulate children into fitting into one box or the other, individuality and potential is being suffocated.

I, like most males, was raised to “be a man.” I grew up on a dead-end street on the “Westbank,” an unrefined area just outside of New Orleans. The kids in the neighborhood had epic kickball games in the cul de sac that turned into a summertime staple. We would hop the fence and cross the ditch to spend a day playing in the woods. We built precarious ramps to launch our bicycles off that made any adult who saw us come flying out of their house with anxiety. For the most part, when it came to playing outside, all the kids in the neighborhood banded together.

My closest friends were the boy across the street and my next-door neighbor’s granddaughter. The boy and I played video games and built weird inventions, and I played Barbie’s, pretend wedding, and Easy-Bake Oven with her. It’s embedded in my memory; the one day I was playing Barbies with my neighbor’s granddaughter and her grandmother stopped us. She told me that my dad didn’t want me playing with Barbies because that was for girls. What was once innocent playing as usual, was now a source of shame. We still played with Barbies. We just learned to keep it a secret, and I learned to fear getting caught.

I think I was 7.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines masculine as “Having qualities appropriate to or usually associated with a man” and “of, relating to, or constituting the gender that ordinarily includes most words or grammatical forms referring to males.” Feminine is defined as “female; characteristic of or appropriate or unique to women,” and “of, relating to, or constituting the gender that ordinarily includes most words or grammatical forms referring to females.” Both definitions are based on the physical qualities of male and female, and “appropriate” cultural norms. Society has defined masculine as “strength, dominance, assertiveness, and egotism.”[1] There is no expectation of empathy, support, or understanding. Misogyny and womanizing are not just expected, but encouraged.

Typically, boys are taught “how to be a man,” by adult males in their life who have been raised under the same stigma.

As children, we are told who we are supposed to be long before we get the opportunity to figure it out on our own. Boys are given Tonka trucks and toy guns. Boys don’t cry, and shouldn’t be a pussy. Conditioned to the idea that real men use violence to solve problems. We are coached to mask our feelings before we hit puberty. Once we do hit puberty, and have ALL the feelings, we internalize them and just do what we think we’re supposed to do. Be a “man.”

Typically, boys are taught “how to be a man,” by adult males in their life who have been raised under the same stigma. The boys who don’t live up to expectations of masculinity are swiftly labeled and bullied. To compensate for any insecurities, shows of masculinity are performed even more. The less one is seen as masculine, the more desperate he becomes to prove it, the more bottled up, the more self-hating. What happens to all of those internalized feelings that don’t get addressed?

The second leading cause of death for ages 10-24 is suicide.[2] More so than disease or homicide. 77.9% of suicides are men; nearly 4 times more than women.[3] The rate of suicide attempts is 4 times greater for lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth, and 8.5 times greater for LGB youth who come from highly rejecting families.[4]

Why? Why, as a society, have we decided to infect children with superfluous gender-based standards and expectations? Sex is biological. The words male and female simply refer to a persons chromosomes. Gender is identity, and it’s a fluid spectrum. Yet, masculine and feminine are treated like high contrast, easily defined, black and white ideas. This is how most of us were raised, and how most of our parents were raised.

By the time I was in 6th grade, I was forming a hard shell. I had hardly hit puberty, but I was already on a mission to do everything I thought I was supposed to do to prove to other people and to myself that I was masculine. I learned to police myself as a preventative defense. It’s unfortunately necessary. Adolescence is a bitch. Kids are all figuring themselves out and trying to prove the same things. I remember being called a faggot on the bus one day. A girl decided to “help” me prove I was straight by pushing me into another boy and instigating a fight. I didn’t have any problems with that kid, but I still punched him. It was what I was programmed to believe a man is supposed to do, and I also wanted to see for myself if I would win. The bus driver broke us up; I’ll never know.

Kids are mean. But it’s not just kids. Adults set these expectations. It was clear that no one wanted me to be gay, that gay definitely was not something anyone wanted to be.

Kids are mean. But it’s not just kids. Adults set these expectations. It was clear that no one wanted me to be gay, that gay definitely was not something anyone wanted to be. My sexuality was unclear to me, yet I felt like everyone was building a case against me. I was always instinctively in defense mode. To some extent, I successfully proved them all wrong. I dated the same girl throughout all of high school, and she was the girl all the guys wished they were dating. We broke up when I moved to New York for college. Being 18 and new to NYC, I jumped right into the hook-up culture, continued to succeed at the misogyny that I believed was expected of me. I had a handful of girlfriends throughout college and few of them turned into pretty serious relationships. I didn’t face any ridicule. From what I could tell, no one was questioning my sexuality. I knew that I had feelings for men, but I also had feelings for women. I was happy enough and had convinced myself there was no reason to acknowledge that anyone who’d ever called me a faggot, may have been right.

They were right.

It’s human nature not to admit when you’re wrong, or that you lied. I had a couple encounters with other men that I kept secret, and tried to forget that they had ever happened. After a couple failed relationships with women, that I genuinely wanted to work out, I took a few months to just go idle. I think it was the first time since puberty that I wasn’t either dating or pursuing someone in one way or another. A friend that I hadn’t seen since college asked me if I wanted to grab a drink after work. It was a little random. I had heard that he was gay, so I assumed he was just making it a point to tell his friends in person. I didn’t want to take that away from him, admitting that I had already heard from someone else. He seemed nervous. After many, many drinks, he finally told me he was gay. He wasn’t exactly excited about it. I kind of had a “who cares, it’s no big deal” reaction. I also told him that I’d definitely thought about it before. He seemed surprised. Some of that conversation is lost in a drunken haze. We shared a cab home, and on the way, he kissed me. I hesitated, then I kissed him back. The sense of relief was overwhelming and unexpected. In that moment, in that kiss, I came out to myself for the first time.

I immediately knew that I was no longer hiding anything. I was the hardest person for myself to come out to. I spent so many years disheartened; feeling like who I genuinely was, was wrong and unwanted. Then it clicked, like a light switch. I realized that being happy does not mean being what people expect you to be.

Some people know exactly who they are meant to be their entire life. The ones who always knew; who were “too gay to function,” but mixed in with them are a bunch of kids like me. The kids who aren’t certain, and aren’t encourage to figure themselves out. Some, like me, are fortunate enough to break through the stigma. Some, may never know that sense of relief. Having nothing to hide. To be genuinely happy and comfortable. Accepting myself and ridding myself of the conditioned shame may be the purest, most beneficial moment of my life. Who would I have become, had I had never come out? What if my old college friend didn’t come out to me that night? What would have happened if any of the relationships I had with women had lasted long enough that I got married? What if I never moved to New York City? What if I was never called a faggot, or never had to prove my masculinity? What if it was just OK to play with Barbies?

[1] Study.com: http://study.com/academy/lesson/masculine-vs-feminine-cultures-distinctions-communication-styles.html

[2] Center for Disease Control and Prevention: https://www.cdc.gov/injury/wisqars/leadingcauses.html

[3] Center for Disease Control and Prevention: https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/suicide-datasheet-a.pdf

[4] The Trevor Project: http://www.thetrevorproject.org/pages/facts-about-suicide

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