Handle With Care

By: Chloe Kirk

Photos: Michelle Terris

The term “masculinity” as it is used today works to discourage men from feeling, from expressing vulnerability, from being in touch with their emotions as a means to prove their strength and worth. Worth we’ve defined as the ability to disengage, to “stop crying”, to “be a man”.

We assign gender to toys, colors, materials, clothing, even activities; rules enforced upon each of us to inform us of and perpetuate the restrictive commands of patriarchy. These crass gender assignments are both a source of and a result of a culture that we’ve created to deny the full humanity of both women and men and the freedom of expression that we all crave at a soul-level. This is a culture of emotional assault that has yet to be questioned on a mass scale.

It’s true that feminism and liberation movements have swayed us closer to a culture of empowerment, equality and inclusion, but the traditional mores of patriarchy are rife. In Bell Hooks’ The Will To Change, the indoctrination process that occurs as boys become men is a focal point for the conservation of patriarchal power in our society. When boys are young children they are not bound by the knowledge of the chastening sex roles that exist in the world around them, rather they are free to experience their true selves. One of the most profound bodies of research in my exploration on the subject comes from the studies performed by Tronick and Weinberg who have found that “infant boys are more emotionally reactive than girls. They display more positive as well as negative affect, focus more on the mother, and display more . . . distress and demands for contact than do girls.” In other words, infant boys are actually more expressive than infant girls and crave care and love and the ability to execute dependence.

The groundbreaking knowledge from this study brings to the forefront the emotional need that exists within young boys, contrary to many common, socialized stereotypes that tell us that boys and men are less emotional or do not feel. This major shift in perception of boys’ emotions enhances our understanding of their deeply rooted need for connection and alludes to the trauma enforced upon them when we suppress these candid desires, using damaging phrases like “man up” and “stop acting like a girl”.

As young children or infants, boys do not yet act on the reverberation of shame that comes at a later age, rather they feel free to be themselves, to explore, to play. But as these once-whole, young boys grow older, we limit their liberated and imaginative capacity and restrict this exploration of self. We tell them not to cry. Not to be a sissy. Not to play with dolls out of fear it will “turn them gay”. We criticize effiminacy and we suffocate their identities with rigid sex roles and patriarchal expecations. We emphasize a “manage your own emotions” identity because we want to raise “strong men”, yet we weaken them in this withholding of love, which is the most human desire of each of us at our core. We tell them what we will accept and we demand it through the practices of our shame-driven culture. In this treatment and shame, they are conditioned to feel that love is not intended for them, and in return they do not learn healthy love whether in practice or in receipt of.

The most fulfilling relationships I’ve experienced with men in my life (all relationship types) have been with those who’ve ventured to challenge their emotional barriers and brave the menacing waters of vulnerability. Heartbreakingly, these moments of engendered “risk” were often followed by an apology for being “too emotional”, a plea for their true identities to be seen. The irony that the limitations and emotional constraints we place on our men actually leads to less fulfilling relationships with men, tells us that a transformation is needed. A transformation in our treatment of men as a culture. A transformation in our understanding of men as souls thirsting for love. A transformation into a more holistic view of masculinity and the decision to discard that which exists as a symptom of the tiresome plague of patriarchy, and above all, patriarchy itself.

It is our work to transform the limiting perspectives we evoke on femininity and masculinity thoroughly enough to create the experience of internal freedom for all individuals, embracing the strengths of both within each of us and the balance it can create in our emotional lives and in our relationships. We must discard the patriarchy within each of us and begin seeing our men as the boys they once were, in need of connection and love. And to the boys that we will raise in the future, we must provide to them the freedom to express themselves authentically into adulthood without fear of shame. To encourage this embrace of the soul will transform our understanding of what it means to be a “real man”. Real, full of realness, vulnerable, emotional, compassionate, soulful.

Handle With Care is a meditation on embracing your profound identity as a human and the tenderness it requires. It is the journey of a man back to his truest, most