Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Men Have Feelings Too!: A Look at Praise and Self-Esteem in Masculinity

I apologize for length! I tried to eliminate wordiness.

One of the first things we discussed in class was the hypothetical situation of looking in the mirror, and what your reflection said back to you. Some of us saw the melanin first, identified as latino/a, black, white. Others saw more feminine features; some saw simply a human being. We came to realize that those identifying as the last type are oftentimes white men, those typically representative of privilege. We supposition that they see no identifiers because they are the status quo, but have we ever thought about the fact that maybe the reason why they see nothing to identify is because they feel nearly invisible?

We all know the privilege afforded to men throughout history, so there is no need for me to discuss that, all I ask is for readers to have an open mind when thinking of men’s relationships with violence (sexual and otherwise) and issues with praise, self-worth, and body image.

The last fight I can recall having with a significant other revolved around my feeling underappreciated and undervalued in our relationship. I felt that the longer the relationship progressed, the less I was receiving compliments or praise. After the third or fourth time of bringing this issue to light, he retorted back with something that turned me upside down: “Well, you never compliment me.” Wait, I thought, confounded, I had to? Up until that point, I hadn’t considered how necessary it was to reciprocate, I naively (and with sexist tendencies, too) assumed women needed the support system of compliments more. Luckily, this caused a mental overhaul.

I stumbled upon a blog entry by Hugo Schwyzer in which he touched upon this topic. He explained in his blog titled “Of never feeling hot: the missing narrative of desire in the lives of straight men,” that we, in America “don’t have a culture in which many young men grow up with the experience of being seen and wanted.” He emphasizes a man’s experience with being raised to think of his body as functional rather than fluid. A main notion of male sexuality revolves around the way their drive is portrayed as nearly animalistic. This leaves men with two options: let it free and “score”, or abstain heroically by being a man “in control.” As Schwyzer points out, rarely is it explained that a man may in fact have a third option, being the object of a woman’s lust, particularly in terms of their bodies. A discourse never discussed slowly evolves into an option that rarely occurs due to perceived standards.

I independently surveyed some males I know to get their opinion on this topic, and the idea was further corroborated: “I feel women tend to compliment men less, especially in public or when they feel genuine sexual attraction, due to the fear that they will break a social norm or come off as desperate, slutty, or aggressive.” – FH, 21 (white, heterosexual)

Schwyzer continues to point out how many men only get the most solid and steady praise from individuals in their life like their mother and that this does not fulfill more desperate needs in terms of sexual and physical appreciation. Additionally, he explains another unique phenomenon, which I wasn’t personally aware of as holding truth until I followed up with males I knew. Schwyzer explains: “Most young men grow up with what might be called the ‘Brad Pitt Discourse’: the idea that a small subset of particularly attractive men are the objects of women’s desire.” While many women I have come to know usually consider males and females in very separate places in regards to self-esteem, ideas like this introduce the similarity amongst the sexes in publicized notions (that are often grossly unfair) that they (willing/are forced to/etc) subscribe to. It may not be as obvious since a great deal of advertising dollars go into the female market, issues of inadequacy and self-worth know no limitations in terms of gender. Independent research proved this point, too, to be accurate. “I feel that many men feel that they are unattractive or undesirable. I remember the first time I was in a serious sexual relationship it blew my mind that a girl I found sexually attractive could find me sexually attractive. In our society the norm is for men to woo the women but a lot of guys are afraid to do this because they feel such intense sexual desire for women that they couldn't fathom a woman having the same feeling for them.” – FH, 21 (white, heterosexual)

Lastly, Schwyzer discusses his sexual experimentation with men and women and the vast differences between them in terms of receiving as well as types of desirable praise. He explains that when he was with a woman, he seemed to have to establish a causal relationship to bring on her praise, instead of it having to do with preexisting personal desire. With the man, it changed and was exclusively desire-based and therefore felt more explicit and also genuine to Schwyzer. “She said encouraging things like ‘You make me feel so good.’ When I first was with this older man, he said something that rocked me: ‘You’re so hot, you make me want to come.’” Concluded in the survey of a male friend who identified as a 4 on the Kinsey scale (predominantly homosexual but not incidentally heterosexual): “My own experience with women is limited. Whenever I was with them, it was easy for me to compliment their body, to say things like “You're hot”, “you're sexy”, etc. But whenever I heard compliments from them, I didn't believe them. I never thought I was handsome or good looking. It was only until I started seeing men did I believed the compliments and the praise. It felt more honest hearing it from them than from a woman.” – SK, 19 (white). It appears that in addition to Schwyzer’s explanation of men being inundated with the idea of their bodies being tools with a purpose from youth, it is most often only liberated by two individuals on the same side of the problem sharing sexual and physical praise.

In our textbook “The Male Body,” an additional point is made based on the “armor”- related tendencies of the male body. Whilst analyzing dual advertisements including men and women with their pants down for an underwear ad, author Susan Bordo notes that when men in ads strip for erotic display, they “tend to present their bodies aggressively and so rarely seem truly exposed”. Additionally, their bodies “are a kind of natural armor.” (30). As we have discussed repeatedly whether through veins of machismo or in familial influence according to orchestrating a child’s gender displays, it is clear that one of the main issues is related to the generalization and feeding into men as stones. This characterization finds itself mimicked and expounded in terms of violence. The causal relationship between men not feeling praise for themselves and their physical form, and their eventual predisposition towards multiple forms of violence is undeniable.

Some of the factors listed that can cause a propensity to physical and sexual violence on Stop Violence Against Women’s website are as follows: a preference for impersonal sex, poverty, lack of employment, lack of institutional support, associating with sexually aggressive peers. To quickly tie them together (so as to not make this too much longer), it is clear that a preference for impersonal sex can be borne directly out of a man seeing his body and being raised to understand his body as nothing but an instrument. The aspects of poverty, unemployment, and a lack of institutional support corroborate the idea of low self-esteem and self-worth and the environments that propagate it. Lastly, the association with sexually aggressive peers is likely to come out of this cultural predisposition to socialize all men in the same way regarding their bodies and self-confidence which exacerbates the issue on an aggregate level.

My ultimate suggestion and interest in this subject comes to rest in the understanding and support of establishing body image workshops for young men, in the same way they exist for young women. Sexual education overhaul could also help to improve this. I have read of discrepancies (even in The Male Body) in which boys are shuffled off to a class to look at STI damage and women are brought together to bond over their menstrual cycles. All children should learn to love their body, develop a more personalized relationship with it, and see use beyond the science.

I think that equal praise should also be brought to these types of workshops or organizations. One common complaint, regardless of race or sexual preference, was the lack of even praise in terms of gender constraints.

“[We’re taught] it's okay to compliment women on their looks. When men are complimented it is typically about some sort of skill or status they possess, and when men compliment other men then you're bordering homosexuality. I feel it takes away from our humanity.” – KA, 21 (heterosexual)

“From my experience, men compliment women just as much as women compliment men. I even see women compliment women all the time. I see a gap in men complimenting men, probably because it is seen as a queer thing to do.” – SK, 19

Men and women taking part within feminist struggles have already begun to establish relationships related on patriarchal institutes that harm women as well as violence-related movements that find a lot of blame being put upon men. I think it is time we see the causal relationships at play, and begin bringing self-esteem and praise into the paradigm of pro-feminism/male feminism as well. It's easy forget for some feminists that the men beside us aren't invincible due to all of the wealth and benefits they've accumulated within the system. However, as people who sing a battle cry of "Equality", we should be first on board to establish environments that give men an equal opportunity at feeling good about themselves.

(*Note* Due to time and length, I included some extra interesting quotes that were unused below.)

“I certainly feel like I am more likely to be generally complimented by females when exhibiting more feminine traits (I think this is less typical maybe) I think that it's personally because I'm naturally more feminine than most males I know, therefore when being more feminine I guess maybe it seems genuine and it sticks out. I certainly appreciate any compliments given on my behavior, but I also believe that it is natural for men (even myself) to especially enjoy compliments regarding one's masculinity, I guess because it makes a man feel more appealing to the opposite sex when receiving praise for his role as a male. It seems to me that men want reassurance that they are competent enough to hold down the masculine side of things because we feel it's important for it to be known that we can fill that spot in a traditional relationship.”

“Now though it may not be praise, a man's sexual performance is certainly more talked about.”

- JS, 23 (self-identified as heterosexual)

“I feel as though women are taught to not feel as though men need compliments because are to be emotionless stalwarts of masculinity that require no form of support. I personally believe that men need it, whether they admit it or not, and I thrive on it.”

- KA, 21 (heterosexual)

“It is seen as chivalrous and appropriate for a man of any age to pay a woman a compliment such as "You look very pretty today". However for a woman, particularly a younger woman (especially an attractive younger woman) to tell a man he looks "handsome" is seen as provocative.”

- FH, 21 (self-identified as heterosexual)

“I find that I get more compliments from girls whenever I act ‘feminine’ in that way, but whenever I'm around gay men, I get more compliments when I'm ‘masculine’.”

- SK, 19 (self-identified as a 4 on Kinsey scale, predominantly homosexual)

“I can't really remember the last time I was complimented for doing something masculine. Again, not that it matters much to me (a compliment is a compliment), but it seems as though acting feminine gets you a gold star while acting masculine just gets you by.”

- JF, 20 (self-identified as asexual)


Kevin Alvarez said...

I loved this. While objectification hurts women most predominantly we sometimes seem to forget that the psyches of men are harmed as well.

art. said...

this is a fantastic post. sorry you didn't get more backed up in class.

why do you think that across genders people feel they need to establsih a relationship first? it a safety issue? being afraid of seen as too forward? in my experience, when interacting within the "same" gender it seems people feel more 'free' because its as if there is a hidden understanding that homosexuality is out of the question, allowing for more forward interaction to be seen as 'just a joke'.