“When I sat down to write this month’s essay, I had a very different conversation playing out in my head. Questions of death, my own reflections of it.
To write about it In the wake of the mass grief that my people have been through, seemed most inappropriate.
I found my wounds were still raw, healing in the aftermath. Putting those thoughts to another day I leaned back and started listening to the first episode of ‘Man Enough’, Justin Baldoni’s new podcast.
An episode in, I knew exactly what I wanted this essay to be about. So before we get to this essay, I want you to go to your podcast app of choice and download the first episode. It’ll be well worth the listen.
I appreciate you reading this and I hope you and your loved ones are well in these weird and uncertain times. “
Am I Man Enough?
What does it mean to be a man?
Can one word ever truly capture the complex set of experiences that vary so greatly from person to person?
What makes a man a man?
Why do men seek to outman the other men?
Why are we taught to build an armour to guard our insecurities and reject the invitation to share our vulnerabilities?
For years I had these questions at the back of my head and yet for those same number of years I was; drifting away, and never looking to pause and understand what masculinity meant for me.
Comfortable following a script that was handed to me from my first cognitive moments.
Never stopping to ask myself the simplest of questions.
Is there an alternative?
I come from a part of the world where the definition of masculinity exists in a hyper-masculine bubble.
Every bit of cultural and societal conditioning finding its roots in patriarchy.
A society where machismo reigns supreme; where men young and old strive to embody some of those Marlboro Man & Ron Swanson qualities.
A culture where stoicism, individualism, even misogynistic views and attitudes are often central to the definition of being a man.
They’re not unique to my subcontinent.
No matter where you’re born, at some point, you eventually realize that norms and notions of masculinity permeate our everyday living.
The cinema we consume.
The music we listen to.
The way we’re expected to dress.
Heck, even the health & hygiene products we use!
Something as niché as grooming has specific marketing for men, with a very ‘Grrrr I’m a man’s product!’ name and label.
Case in point, Gillette makes razors.
Yet they market women’s razors as Feather Touch or Featherlite and, yes you can take a good guess here, they market the same exact razor for men as ‘Turbo Mach Ultra!’ or some variant of such. Because of course, men have a monopoly on turbos and superchargers.
And of course, they do! Because real men are born with grease-stained hands, the stench of gasoline fresh off them!
We associate scents with masculinity.
Darker, earthy, woody scents, for instance, have always been associated with men, because perhaps we expect men to embody the characteristics of wood; unflinching, rigid, tough, and stoic.
As someone who spent a big chunk of his life in an all-boys residential school, I saw my peers striving to embody those very characteristics.
I cannot write about masculinity without talking about the five years I spent in boarding school.
Scindia was the first time that all of these societal and cultural norms found themselves in one concentrated hypermasculine pot for me.
Plucked from the comfort of my family home, I was left on a fort full of teenagers, each trying to figure out the mess of the teens and the chaos of masculinity, all on their own.
Our voices, our opinions, our codes; resonating within an echo chamber.
I struggled to make sense of it.
A hierarchy based on age and not merit.
The value placed in a student’s capacity to win medals and trophies, and not whether they were a kind human beyond those medals.
In my time on the fort, I have known great athletes who were assholes of the first order and supposed ‘hopeless’ ones with hearts of gold.
There was a lot of good in that place.
My mates, our camaraderie, memories etched into my mind with fondness… a reminder of the love that can exist between men.
And yet, those moments of love existed within a world that could be all too unkind.
I remember being beaten and punished most evenings by the senior-most students.
Toughened up in our young years by the contact of fists, feet, and hockey sticks against our bare skins.
Always followed with a generous echo of, “We had it much worse.”
We accepted it blindly. Just as they repeated what they had seen.
A cycle of the strong preying on the weak.
Years spent conforming to a code that even to this day makes very little sense to me. Left to blindly obey seniors for no apparent reason beyond the fact that they were senior in years and had found themselves at the helm of a machine that spun and churned young boys year in and year out.
‘Growing from boys into men, stronger for it, tougher for it, worthy of wrestling with bulls and bringing a lion to its knees. This was no ordinary school. Beyond the world, isolated on a fort of its own, this was no ordinary place. For this is Sparta!’
Sorry, got a bit carried away there.
But heck, that was the vibe.
Boys competing to outperform the other in every plausible metric. Pushed to the brink, with a clear unspoken message: Survive or be broken.
From my position in this madness, I got a front seat perspective of what hypermasculinity looked like.
What it bred.
Derogatory remarks about female teachers.
Scratch that, any woman.
Violence, day in day out.
Tussles to prove your mastery in strength.
Lineups, helmed by 17 - 18 years olds, punishing and beating 14 and 15-year-olds.
Each young boy, with a front seat experience of how to be the tough guy.
“We had it worse”
“Survive or break.”
If you didn’t play sports, you weren’t man enough. Heck, there were some sports that were deemed more worthy than others and as such more masculine than others.
If you were a tennis or squash player, you were somewhat borderline. If you were a soccer or hockey player, you were king of the arena, and if by some sheer luck you were into table tennis or some ‘sissy’ excuse of a sport, you were doomed.
Breaking rules, outdoing the other and being the bully were all the ways the boys around me exercised and channelled their masculinity.
Being beaten with sticks, being asked to fit into a certain parameter, obeying the words of the senior kids to the last letter were the norm.
It was the culture, the law of the jungle.
Across the board, spread over the eight senior houses.
That became the cornerstone of our understanding of masculinity.
Being enough of a man, the focal point.
As we grew up and became senior students, I saw my peers striving to embody those very characteristics, enabling the cycle of bullying and outrageous requests that we had come to know ourselves.
Emotions got locked away in a very distant corner.
You couldn’t both be a man and show emotions.
Like, that is clearly contradictory in nature.
When most kids at the age of thirteen were just figuring out life, I found myself in a world where any weakness meant social expulsion.
As each year passed, the tough guy act thickened.
This rancid and convoluted idea of what it meant to be a man, an idea that today is against everything I believe in, was one that started becoming part of my identity.
Against my better judgement, despite knowing in my heart that it was wrong, I gave in to the conditioning.
My student exchange to Canada changed that for me.
Abe & Dillon my catalysts.
They introduced me to an alternative model of masculinity.
Dillon was one of my roommates.
A year senior to me and a basketball player par excellence, he was the towering image of masculinity.
I was wary of him when we first met.
All the big shot athletes that I’d known in my school were often dicks.
Dillon couldn’t be any further from one.
Hearing about his experiences of prejudice and racism as a young black man was eye-opening for me.
Our collective experiences as the ‘other’ bonded us. When I was met with racial remarks from a classmate in drama class, he was the one to offer me support, a space to share my hurt and frustration.
In time, over the span of weeks, we became good friends, brothers in our own right. Sharing our experiences and vulnerabilities.
Abe, while not a roommate, lived down the hall from me.
A week in, he found me slumped over my desk lost in thought and approached me.
“I get it, man. It's a new experience, but you’ll be okay.”
He took me under his wing.
Always, and I mean it, always stopping by to check-in.
Keeping an eye out for me.
He helped me in my transition into this new culture.
As a Mexican kid, now in his third year at the school, he was well aware of the cultural shock that came with it.
Sharing his room with a day student, he always had a bed that was free and as such, Dillon and I often found ourselves spending weekends in his room.
Through chance, coincidence, or some divine intervention, the three of us became pillars for each other.
Spending our weekends sharing our experiences, holding a mirror for the other, and growing as men through our bond.
Leaving that behind was perhaps the toughest part of it all. I remember the night before my flight.
Saying goodbye to them in Abe’s room, up till the early hours, sharing what we meant to each other.
Our hopes and dreams for what lay ahead.
Three men, from different worlds, sharing our vulnerabilities, baring our souls, and shedding a tear.
Holding space for each other.
Back to the fort from my student exchange, I experienced a cultural shock.
While some semblance of clarity had found its way through my time in Canada, the realization dawned when I arrived back on the fort.
It felt alien.
The lie that I had been living for the past few years had broken down.
In the wake of it, I was met with the force of these emotions and feelings that I had spent years burying away.
While I very much had the choice of not feeling any of it, for the first time despite all the resistance from my mind and matter, I chose to.
You see, I tried taking all these things that I thought made me a man and used them to see if I could understand myself better.
Could they make me a better person?
The answer was no, every time I tried.
So as terrifying as that step was, as uncomfortable as unpacking all of it was, in the end, it was worthwhile.
It led me to the person I am today.
Am I Man Enough?
It is the question we started with.
It is a question I’ve been asked over the years and it is a question I ask myself on the regular.
I have often wondered what it means to be a man.
Society has one way of showing it. Different cultures have their own way of defining it; the history of the world points to a certain definition of what it means to be a man, my own life on the fort its own, and yet no matter how far we go and how many pages we peer through in search of it, the answer, in my opinion, remains subjective.
We define our very own definition of what it means to be a man.
For me, it means acknowledging the good and the bad that exists within me, in my relationships, and having the strength, fortitude, and the commitment to work on them so that I may inch closer to this idea that I have of myself.
For me, it means showing care to those I love and hold dear. Holding space for them so that they may find healing through their wounds. Holding space for them to grow.
It means being a safe partner, father, and friend. A safer citizen.
Being a man for me is living as my truest and honest expression of the self.
The transition isn’t easy.
It isn’t meant to be.
Challenging the value and belief systems that form the backbone of who we are as people is perhaps the toughest thing we can do.
And I cannot recommend it enough!
It’s an ongoing process.
It’s tough as nails!
But just take the first step and allow the rest to follow.
Start by taking a look at the things that you think make you a man, and see if they make you a better human.
Start by taking stock of your beliefs, your principles, the script you’ve followed so far.
Start that inquiry and see where it takes you.
It won’t be easy, and it sure as heck won’t be comfortable shining the light on the shadow within you.
But do it!
Start by sharing.
Talk to the men around you. Your fathers, grandfathers, the friends you call your brothers. Share and see where that takes you.
Talking is the first step in recognizing that there might be something amiss and recognizing that something needs change is the first step in changing it.
Spend some time with yourself.
Take a good look at not just yourself, but also the men around you.
See if they add to your newfound definition and take space if they don’t.
Do it all.
But start with that first step.
Hold space for others.
Be more flexible.
And for christ's sakes lads! Just Talk.
We all know being the silent tough wooden plank has not got us anywhere so far.