What is Masculinity?

Everyday we are bombarded with ads, TV shows and comments from friends and strangers about how women should present themselves. I checked out of that conversation when I was 11 as it was tiresome and offensive. Thirty some years later, I’m still disgusted that people think they have the right to decide how women should look. I’m often told that I should wear make up and dresses, with the exhortation to “be more feminine”. Personally, femininity takes time and money I don’t want to spend. I can’t justify doing my nails when I’m going to spend my time digging in the dirt or building something. Some women can do both and more power to them.

However, somewhere along the way we neglected to mention that policing men’s bodies is also wrong. Just as there’s not one kind of woman, there is not one kind of man. We all have our styles and preferences. I find beards, hairy backs, and ill-fitting clothes on men to be highly unattractive. But if you’re a bearded dude in saggy pants and a stretched out t-shirt, I’m not going to run up on a dude and say, “Be more sexy!”

“Should dudes wear toe rings?”

The other day, this photo showed up on my Facebook timeline with the question “Should dudes wear toe rings?”. My comment was “No one should wear toe rings, but if they want to, who cares? It’s not affecting me.” Once I pressed enter, the previous comments opened and I saw mostly black women replying “Hell naw!” I’m not sure if the foot belongs to a man or a woman, but many of the commenters also asked about the nail polish.

To say I was utterly appalled by the comments is an understatement. The biggest problem with Facebook and realizing your friends are friends with close-minded people. I mean, most men wear closed-toe shoes and many of them could be walking around with the most kick-ass nail art and we wouldn’t know. Nor is it any of our business.

At first, I thought my reaction was because I’ve seen dudes wearing polish and jewelry all my life. Once I reached junior high, many of the boys I knew also started wearing polish. My first trip to a nail salon was with a group of guys I hung out with. They decided I should get my nails done and paid for it. When I’ve going to the nail salon with someone, it’s always been with a man. They were straight guys who just liked to look nice and they got lots of compliments from women on their hygiene.

“It’s not masculine.”

That was one comment on the photo and I admit, I laughed and shook my head. What is masculinity? Are we talking the laughable, yet pitiable alpha male presented in US entertainment? Are we talking straight-acting? Are we talking about men who treat people with respect? Are we talking about men, in general? Then what about me? What about butch women? Are we masculine?

The most ignorant comment given was a graphic saying the person was gay. I’m not entirely sure how nail polish can make someone gay or how only gay men wear nail polish. I know a lot of gay men who don’t wear nail polish and would never wear it unless or a costume. But even if the man who wears nail polish is gay, so what? Being gay is not affecting you. Men wearing nail polish is not hurting you. That comment only showed me the person was probably a bigot and also unaware of history and the world.

In most non-Western countries, men walk arm-in-arm or hold hands with their close male friends. In many Asian countries men sleep together in the same bed without awkwardly worrying about sex. They touch, hug, kiss and cuddle each other. They also have no problem telling another man how attractive they are. There is nothing sexual about it and it’s no loss to compliment or let your friends know you love them. I have to say that this version of masculinity is much more appealing than what passes for masculinity in America, especially among black Americans.

The Isley Brothers

The Isley Brothers



When I watch Korean variety shows, the men often talk about their make up regimes and what products they use. Lee Hong Ki, the lead singer of rock band F. T. Island is known for his nail art and how much he spends on it. Male celebrities with tough-guy images go on shows and talk freely of how they think they’re a little more feminine because they like to do things that South Korean gender roles says women do.  Even in such a conservative country, they’re not accused of not being masculine. Yet, Americans will look at Shinee and ask, “Are they gay?” while no one wonders about the sexuality of The Isley Brothers.

We all know that men in Ancient Egypt wore make up and kohl (dark eyeliner)has always been used in the Arabian peninsula. About 5000 years ago, Chinese people were staining their fingernails to indicate social class. Civilizations around the world enjoyed painting their faces and bodies until European imperialism tainted their worlds. Less than 200 years ago, men wore make up and high heels. The most dandy among them knew they had to look pretty to slay. Needless to say jewelry was also used to the utmost by all in each of their eras. I’m sure a combination of Puritan ethos and industrialization are why men in America stopped adorning themselves, but that didn’t last long thanks to stage and screen stars.

Today, there are so many options for showing masculinity. One can enjoying restoring cars and gardening. Or appreciate fashion and be an MMA fighter. You can love to bake while playing video games—oh wait, that’s me. This idea that nail polish or an item of jewelry, simply because of its location on the body, isn’t ‘masculine’ needs to be abolished. Let’s do better.