The Mask of Masculinity
On the field, in my personal life, and in my career, I’ve always subscribed to traditional notions of masculinity. Work hard, be tough, win at all costs, be aggressive, don’t be emotional—you know the clichés. I’m a boy from Ohio. It’s a factory, farming, football, meat and potatoes kind of place. The way I was taught to deal with my problems was to smash into things as hard as I could—on the football field, maybe in the parking lot too, if necessary.
In this way, I’m like most guys—whether they live in America or Zimbabwe. I was living the way I was taught by my dad, just like his dad taught him, just like we’ve all seen on television and in the movies. I was following their lead, on the path to becoming a real man. And just like most guys, it worked okay, until it didn’t. Sadness slipped in where success used to live. Loneliness and addiction took over for love. And depression blanketed all of it.
I think it’s time we ask: Is this lifestyle really working for the men in our society? Consider that, statistically speaking, males underperform in school compared to their female counterparts,1 have underdeveloped social skills and friendships,2 and are more prone to bouts of anger and unprovoked aggression brought on by depression.3 They also are more likely than women to use almost all types of illicit drugs,4 engage in more reckless sexual behavior, and be an absentee parent when that sexual recklessness results in pregnancy.
These are just a half dozen examples of problems men face that researchers, educators, and psychologists have connected in one way or another to our misguided notions of masculinity. As you might imagine, these problems don’t stop with the men they afflict. They ripple throughout society as a whole. In fact, their effect on the male quality of life often results in early death, either theirs or others.
Consider these numbers:
According to the FBI’s 2015 annual report on crime in the United States, nearly 88 percent of all homicides are committed by men.5 Men in the United States are six times more likely to commit suicide than women.6 Meanwhile, they are significantly less likely to seek help from a suicide prevention institution and half as likely simply to visit a doctor.7 And this trend starts early in the lives of men. One of the psychologists featured in The Mask You Live In, Dr. Niobe Way, found that it is when “we began to hear the language, the emotional language, disappear from boys’ narratives, that boys begin to have five times the rate of suicide as girls.”8 A suicide prevention study conducted in Switzerland summarized these findings in as blunt and bleak a fashion as possible: “Women seek help—men die.”9
Over the years, many well-meaning men and women have tried to address these problems from a variety of angles. Some thought the solution was to teach men how to “get in touch with their feminine side” or “get in touch with their emotions.” Others have invented ridiculously divisive terms like “metrosexual” and “alpha male.” Men have been lectured and harangued and criticized for being too much of this and not enough of that. These so-called experts promise us better relationships, more personal happiness, solutions to all our personal problems.
Like many guys, I’ve had certain books recommended to me—or rather, had a girlfriend or a relative try to push them on me—and yet, I never found any that resonated. Not because I have everything figured out or I’m perfectly well-adjusted, but because more often than not, the advice was condescending and impractical or just plain wrong. I couldn’t relate to the people trying to tell me these things.
It was a real shame.
Which is why, in this book, I want to do something completely different.
I’m not going to lecture anyone. I’m not going to criticize. More than that, I’m not going to try to change you . I don’t think men are fundamentally flawed or broken. Not at all. They are just trapped. I know that’s the way I felt for 30 years of my life. Remember those boxes we stuffed our emotions into when we were younger? As we outgrew the boxes, they transformed into masks that hold us back and hurt our friends, family, career partners, and intimate lovers.
The simple purpose of this book is to show you what those masks are, why they’re there, and how to take them off. I don’t want to change you. I just want to help you be who you already truly are. If you’re a woman, I want you to be aware of why men wear certain masks, how you can communicate with men when they are hiding behind them, and how you can support and inspire men to slowly remove these masks. Am I saying that most men are not being true to themselves?
Let’s look at the traditional depiction of a “real man.” A real man must always
• Successful at everything he does
• Physically fit
• Skilled at fixing things
• Good at sports or, at the very least, knowledgeable about them
• Attractive enough to women to be able to get in bed with them
At the same time, a real man must never be:
• Interested in what women think about his appearance
• Too emotional
• Without the answer to a problem
• Anything but first, most, or best
• Seen crying—not ever
If you think those are dated clichés I gathered together to make my point, let me point you to an experiment that English teacher Celine Kagan conducted over the course of 4 years from 2008–2012 at Little Red School House and Elisabeth Irwin High School in Manhattan with high school juniors and seniors in a class she specifically designed to “deconstruct the myth of masculinity.” She gave her students 10 minutes to respond to a simple prompt: “What is a man?” Their answers matched almost word for word the phrases I just listed off for you.
As Kagan describes so beautifully, here’s how the process unfolded and how ridiculously skewed it tended to be:
Inevitably, the discussion that follows begins with a student positing, “A man is someone with a penis.” From this point, the conversation moves into a listing of male stereotypes: strong, tough, tall, rich, brave, independent, likes cars, doesn’t cry, has lots of sex, watches sports and pornography, etc. I write this list on the board, creating a powerful visual for the students to critique. “Does this list represent what the men you know are really like?” I ask them. Their answer is always, “No.” 10
Each of us will have a slightly different definition of what it means to be a man—a little bit more of one trait, a little bit less of another—but no matter what, the recipe will always add up to the same impossible creation. No human being could ever successfully live up to the standards we’ve constructed. Few ever even come close.
Yet falling short can have dire consequences: Men who are deficient in any of these categories are called soft, weak, and stupid. Other men in society label them as gay, losers, bitches, girls, or pussies. To disagree publicly with any of these notions of masculinity is to risk being made fun of, beaten up, or lumped in with these categories yourself.
I know. I remember one day in fourth grade at Smith Elementary School in Delaware, Ohio, my teacher decided that instead of going out for recess on our own, we would all play dodgeball together. I’m not sure if he did this intentionally, but he picked two of the popular boys to be team captains for the game. In standard playground fashion, each boy then chose one classmate after another to join their team until everyone had been selected.
I remember standing there, expecting to be pickedearly as part of a strategy to build a good team. I was one of the better athletes in class, so I wasn’t being egotistical, I was just being logical. The captains, being boys, started by picking boys. I was the tallest kid in class, so they couldn’t miss me, but boy after boy was chosen before me. Then the last boy besides me, a kid who was notorious for having no athletic abilities at all, was chosen. Being the last boy picked hurts, a lot. But as a 9-year-old, that pain doesn’t compare to the humiliation of not being picked at all, of watching as the two captains called out the girls’ names one after another until the very last girl—a girl whom I could lap around a track in a sprint—was chosen. I was the only person left. By default I ended up on the team with the tough luck of having to pick second.
Like many kids, I’d been bullied and teased before, made fun of, picked on, and laughed at. But not like this. This was in front of all my classmates. I was made to appear not only less than the other guys, but I was shown to be less even than the girls. It was deliberate and intentional humiliation—for a reason I can’t even remember.
In that moment, I decided that I would never be picked last in sports again. In response to their snub, I set out to “prove” those boys wrong and show them how good I actually was. I went out during that game and literally crushed every single one of them. I returned the humiliation they gave me by dominating them, not only in that inconsequential game of dodgeball but in every game I ever played from that point forward, physically reminding them of their mistakes. I dedicated my life after school to becoming the biggest, fastest, strongest athlete I could become. Without a doubt, this was the fuel for my drive to become All-State in multiple high school sports, a two-sport All-American in college, a pro football player, and then after a wrist injury ended my football career, a USA Men’s National Handball Team member. Winning and succeeding in sports made me feel the opposite of how I felt as a vulnerable, picked-on kid.
Do you know what the worst part of my story is? That it’s not unique. Nearly every man I know has his own version. The specifics may be different—it could have happened in eighth grade instead of fourth. It might have been a teacher who mocked him for being stupid instead of unathletic. It might have been from a well-intentioned father figure or an early girlfriend. It might have been about money or academics or any number of other topics. It could have turned him into a soldier, a ladies’ man, or a billionaire instead of an athlete or an entrepreneur. But almost every man has a story in which he learned—through pain, humiliation, or even force—how he does not measure up. When that happens to him, masks become more than a way to hide, they become armor. In this way, all men—each and every one of us, including myself—have worn or currently wear a variety of masks in order to endure the onslaught of expectations from the world and to live up to the definitions of what it means to be a man.
Can You Recognize the Mask You’re Wearing?
Over the last few years, I’ve interviewed hundreds of successful men and women in all sorts of fields. As I began to research the topic of masculinity, I asked the guests on my podcast several questions: What does it mean to be a man? How does this hold people back? What is your greatest fear? Who are you pretending to be?
What I learned from them is that all of us have or have had our own insecurities. All of us are, or have been, afraid to be vulnerable and real. Though this fear manifests itself in unique ways for each individual, with their help I was able to uncover nine common masks of masculinity that men wear interchangeably. I’ve worn almost all of them at some point in my life, and most likely, so have you or someone you know and love.
1. The Stoic Mask: Because every man must be invulnerable and tough, emotions are carefully managed and suppressed. There can be no crying, no pain, no feeling. A wall is put up between him and the world to protect him, to pretend he doesn’t feel the things he does, because weakness is an invitation to scrutiny and judgment and rejection.
2. The Athlete Mask: One of the clearest ways a man can distinguish himself is on the field or on the court. He is like a modern-day gladiator whose weapon isn’t death, but domination. Sports are how men prove themselves, and a good athlete is a good man—period. This means spending hours in the gym to get in shape. It means fighting through injuries and pain and fear to win at all costs. And of course, if for some reason a man isn’t good
at sports, he had better compensate for that by loving them and knowing everything he can about them.
3. The Material Mask: There is no clearer sign of a man’s worth than the amount of money in his bank account. Not only do men work incredibly hard—and sometimes do questionable things—to make as much money as possible, it’s all for naught if other people don’t know how much money he has. In this way, his cars, his watches, his houses, and his social media feeds become a representation of who he is. A man’s net worth becomes his self-worth.
4. The Sexual Mask: A man is defined by his sexual conquests—his worth determined not only by his bank account but by the number of women he’s slept with. Relationships? Those are for lesser men—for quitters and settlers. A real man loves them and then leaves them—but he’s so good in bed, they’re left fully satisfied, of course.
5. The Aggressive Mask: Men are aggressive. It’s their nature. They’re violent and tough, and they never back down. When they see something they want, they take it. Men hate; men have enemies. Of course they have a temper; of course they break things; and of course they get into fights. They’re the hunters, not the gatherers. It’s what men do. A man who thinks otherwise is not a man and is responsible for the weakening of the world.
6. The Joker Mask: A man has a sense of humor and a wit that can repel even the most withering critique or the most nagging doubt. Talk about his problems? Okay, Dr. Phil, maybe later. Cynicism and sarcasm and a sense of superiority, these are the intellectual weapons that a man uses to defend against every attempt to soften him or connect with him. If you want a man to let you in, expect a knock-knock joke, not an open door.
7. The Invincible Mask: A man does not feel fear. A man takes risks. Whether that’s betting his life savings on a
company or cliff diving or smoking and drinking in incredible quantities, a man doesn’t have time to think about consequences, he’s too busy doing. Other people (i.e., women and betas) have “problems.” But men? Men have it all under control. They’ve “got this” and they’ll be fine.
8. The Know-It-All Mask: A man is not only physically dominant but intellectually dominant too. If you don’t understand why that is, a man is happy to explain it to you—along with all the other subjects he’s an expert in. He went to a top school, he watches the news, and he knows all the answers. He certainly doesn’t need your—or anyone’s—help. He knows it all.
9. The Alpha Mask: At the most basic level, men believe that there are only two types of men: alphas and betas, winners and losers. No man can stand to be the latter—so a man must dominate, one up, and win everything. A man can’t ever defer. As a man, he must be in control, and he can’t ever do anything a beta (or a woman) would do.
Taking Off the Mask Isn’t Easy
The writer John Updike once observed that “celebrity is a mask that eats into the face.” I think what he meant was that celebrities, forced to perform and be “on” constantly, lose a sense of their real selves. Masculinity is a similar mask. And unlike the perils of fame, this is a problem that affects more than 0.001 percent of the population.
Many of us have worn our masks for so long that we’re not even sure what’s actually underneath anymore. We’ve lost track of where we end and the mask begins, of who we really are. That’s why removing the mask is not only terrifying, it’s painful. They’ve fused to our faces. This will not be an easy journey—though I will do my best to make the book easy to read. My own journey required confronting serious pain in my life. I had to face and sit with moments I would have much rather forgotten, things that I held on to and wasn’t willing to share with anyone for the first 30 years of my life. These weren’t just things that were done to me; I had to accept and acknowledge things I had done to other people—men and women alike.
However, it’s in the most difficult and challenging moments that we find the most meaning. An easy journey isn’t a journey at all—it’s just a walk in the park. In my journey of waking up and trying to pull off my masks in the lead-up to writing this book, I went from a passiveaggressive, egotistical, easily triggered, stuck in the stereotype “dumb jock,” to an inspired and inspiring, empowered and empowering, approachable and compassionate, loving . . . man. Not only did my business explode, but my relationships became richer with men and women, and my life is more fulfilled because of it.
Do I still catch myself wearing my masks from time to time? Absolutely! I’m still human. Triggering situations can at times set me off, and in those moments I do and say things that aren’t who I want to be. But because of the work I’ve done over the years, I’m now aware of it when it happens and I’m able to make amends. Most importantly for my growth, I’m able to laugh at myself with my masks on and take them off much more quickly so that I can live the loving life I desire.
Stripped of the various masks of masculinity, we’re free to be who we actually are. We can love. We can find our purpose. We can connect. We can actually work harder, do more, be better, and appreciate every step of the way. That’s what I am proposing we try to do here together.
Why We Need to Do This Work
I am not proposing an exploration of masculinity for political, biological, or even anthropological reasons. While all of these would be valid reasons, they are certainly above my pay grade. Instead, I have written this book to encourage you to remove your masks for one simple reason: It will make you a better and more successful person in all areas of your life.
Regardless of gender, the key to success in life is creating meaningful relationships. You cannot reach financial freedom, become an Olympic gold medalist, have a loving family, solve any of the world’s problems, or achieve your wildest dreams on your own. Doing anything great requires creating a team and fostering important relationships that develop and support you along your journey.
I have spoken to many successful entrepreneurs, athletes, inventors, designers, and writers. Regardless of their reputation, I have found that what lies beneath was a caring, empathetic, and insightful person. There was no way they could have accomplished what they did without empathy and insight—and certainly their success would not have lasted long if they did not have them. In fact, when we discussed their mistakes and darkest periods, inevitably what came up were regrets about selfishness, ego, aggressiveness, and a refusal to listen to the feedback from the world around them—all of it driven by a fear of vulnerability.
Contrary to what much of our culture tells us, invulnerability was a weakness that threatened their success, not a strength that supported their achievements. The obvious irony is that from a place of vulnerability, many new ways of existing in the world open up: honesty, compassion, acting for the good of others and without ego, and the ability to heal from one’s own wounds. As Dr. Brené Brown wrote, there is nothing weak about vulnerability. On the contrary, it “sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.”
There are many things that our definition of masculinity inhibits, but the damage it does to our relationships and sense of self, and therefore to our chances of success in life, should be enough to make you reconsider the stereotypical definition of “masculinity.” For that reason, I’m going to be making my case for removing the masks of masculinity for the most selfish of reasons: It will make you better, make you happier, and make you more successful. The fact that these choices may ripple through your relationships and the world as a whole in a positive way—that’s just a bonus.
A Note About this Journey
This is going to be a book that sets forth a new definition of what it means to be a “real man.” My goal is to support every man and woman as they work to unlock their full potential, achieve their dreams, and live happy, fulfilled lives. But I want to make it clear that I’m not a scientist or a psychologist, and I’m definitely not a doctor. Just as I would never claim that I am “great” and therefore qualified to lecture anyone (I’m a student like you), I hope that you don’t think I am writing this book to shame or talk down to anyone. This research and journey is as much for me as it is for you.
Thus, before you start reading the chapters, I want to provide the following disclaimer: If you see me criticize any behavior in this book, you can be certain that I myself have been guilty of that specific behavior—or worse—in my own life. We all have things that hold us back from who we were born to be, from our authentic, most powerful selves, and I am no exception. I’m on the same journey as you. On top of that, if you find any wisdom or insight in this book, rest assured that the source is not me. Instead, the likely source is one of my mentors or one of the “greats” I spoke to in the course of this research. It has been my intention from day one to be a conduit for them, and if I bring anything to the table as a writer and thinker, it’s in my ability to gather their insights all together in one place and organize their observations into an actionable format.
I also want to say something about gender throughout this book: Many of my examples, stories, and interviews are with men. And I am a man. The book includes masculinity in the title. But for the women reading this, rest assured that there is plenty in here for you. We all struggle with these masks throughout our lives, whatever our gender. Understanding these masks of masculinity can help you decode the men in your life—and shed light on your own biases too.
What I don’t want to do—and what I hope I haven’t done—is imply that men somehow have it harder or that women have it easier. This is a personal book; that’s why I use the word I in it. This is a book about a very real set of struggles I’ve had, and so if you hear the voice of a man fighting his own fights throughout this book, that’s exactly how it was meant to be. My hope is that in those struggles you can find something approaching guidance—maybe even solace—regardless of whether you are a man or a woman.
I hope that with the brave insights and experiences of every person mentioned in this book, we can all find something worth learning, something we can apply in our own life, and something to spark meaningful conversations. Using the prescriptions provided at the end of each Mask chapter, I believe it’s possible for men to evolve into a new modern-day archetype that can help them lead powerfully in business, express courageously in relationships, find inner peace and happiness along the way, and become a sounding board for women and other men in their lives so that all may understand their roles and lift each other up in this process.
It’s time to unmask.