What does it mean to be a man? Guardian readers respond

Our series The State Of Men asked hard questions about modern masculinity. Our readers pitch in with their own analysis

What does it mean to be a man in 2020?
‘Masculinity represents strength not just physically, but mentally and emotionally.’ Illustration: Lehel Kovacs
‘Masculinity represents strength not just physically, but mentally and emotionally.’ Illustration: Lehel Kovacs
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Last modified on Fri 13 Nov 2020 13.04 EST

My identity as a man is centered around my family. I have done my best to love, support and provide for them and feel that I did a pretty good job even when faced with hardships. I believe that respecting others, doing the right thing, and a hint of altruism is essential to being a decent man.

Men from father’s generation kept their feelings private. My dad never talked about the second world war, never talked about finding my brother dead, never talked about marital problems when it was obvious they were very unhappy together at times. I know they were in counseling for a while, but I was the youngest of seven and they never spoke about it with me. When I married, I married for life, mostly because they did and that’s what I believed in: keep your promises and vows. I have been married for 30 years now. Some of it was unpleasant, but we stuck with it and and things always got better.
Jeff, US

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I am nearly 80 years of age. I was born and lived in the UK for 40 years. My father’s generation was born during the first world war (in which their fathers fought), experienced the Depression, and fought in another world war before reaching the relative calm of the 1950s and 1960s. Even then, the shadow of the H-bomb was a constant reminder of the fragility of life.

Men expressed themselves through the way in which they responded to these challenges – and many failed the test. For my generation, life was clearly much better but we were reared with the discipline needed to confront the return of earlier hardship. The main challenges for men today are to have an awareness of history and to cast off the complacency which has caused many to become self-indulgent, undisciplined and weak.

I have one son who moved 2,000 miles from a wealthy New York suburb to teach special education at a Title I school in Wyoming on his own initiative, knowing nobody there. After five years, without financial assistance from his parents, he has bought a house and married a young lady from a similar background in a New Jersey suburb who has qualified as a special education teacher without family financial assistance.
Paul Tillotson, US

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When I hear the world masculinity, I think of the very stereotypical stuff that’s often lampooned in media – rugged beard, chopping wood, barbecue, not talking about feelings, watching second world war films and going to football games.

I’ve come to dislike what the word stands for. It’s not like I’m super far away from things you’d expect from someone “masculine” – I enjoy football, I play a lot of video games, I’m tall and well-built and fairly hairy. But I also like complimenting my friends on how they look, talk about my feelings, cooking for my partner, drinking sweet cocktails.

My dad was quite different to most of his generation. He always showed his love and talked openly about it, and wasn’t afraid of hugging or showing affection. However, he is absolutely terrible at talking about his mental health. Having been diagnosed with anxiety myself, I can see that my dad shows telltale symptoms, and it does have a negative impact on him. However, he really dislikes the idea that there is anything “wrong” with him. I’ve been to therapy and found it incredibly useful, but I don’t think I could ever get him to agree to go to therapy himself.

I think the main challenge for men today is the difficulty that comes with shedding old-fashioned ideas of masculinity. The idea of treating sex as a reward for hard work, promoting the idea of harassing women or almost tricking women into sex, was really normalised for me as a kid through a lot of TV and films, even family-friendly sitcoms.

On top of that, I grew up in a friendship group of guys who only knew how to communicate to each other through insults and jokes at each other’s expense, and it’s taken me years of actively fighting that to stop myself from just being mean to my male friends. Every now and again I’ll still do it, almost as a reflex, but I try my best to be more kind and complimentary. But I think it’s so difficult for men today to retrain their brains and behaviours, because so many of us are brought up to act a certain way.
Matt, UK

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“Masculinity” should disappear from our lexicon. We should be thinking in terms of becoming human beings. As for my son, I want him to have control over his own identity without influence of social pressures or prescribed norms. His likes and dislikes will help define him as a member of the human race and what part he wants to play in the world. I encourage him to nurture those parts of him he thinks are most important, and to always be OK with himself.

Frankly, I want the exact same thing for my daughter.
Ric Doringo, US

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I can cook, clean, buy tampons for my wife or daughter, wear pink, cut down a tree, split logs, fix my own car and can always make time to listen to wife or children when they need me. I am a man that embraces the qualities that both sexes contribute to a relationship. By not conforming to the gender paradigm imposed on us as children, I’ve been able to enjoy life in a more open and fulfilling fashion.

I hope that from a young age, boys start to observe men’s actions within and outside their immediate circle. Look at the consequences that men’s negative actions have had on them and their family. Boys need to also look at the good, loving successful fathers, brothers, uncles, friends, mentors and learn from them. If you surround yourself with positive, smart, successful people, some of it will rub off on you.
Hector Osuna, Mexico

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Masculinity to me is defined by a man’s drive, motivation and compassion. I’m 54. A man [in previous decades] was defined as tough, rugged and mean. No smiling, except at a woman – and no homosexuality at all. When we all found out that Rock Hudson was gay, that changed attitudes. Act Up, the gay activist movement, also helped to change attitudes.

For Black men – I am one – changing ideas of masculinity came from watching and listening to Prince, Michael Jackson and others. Today, I find that being myself, open, funny, friendly and kind is the way to go. Masculinity is defined by each individual. Not by consensus.
Reg Brookins, US

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For me, masculinity represents strength not just physically, but mentally and emotionally. It is being there for your partner on their worst days and supporting in a way that allows them to know you are their rock. It also represents showing weakness at times, because even muscle fatigue after extended use.

My father’s generation had significantly more machismo where men were confined to a box where they were not allowed to show any form of weakness. Our generation is now trying to break that paradigm so that it’s OK to show our weaknesses.

I hope [boys today] have a better understanding of what is actually a weakness in men, which is not lack of muscle, height, intelligence, penis size or confidence. But instead it is arrogance, pride and selfishness.
Luis Gonzalez Anguiar, US

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Masculinity is about the one who protects and who provides. The one who opens jars, climbs ladders, kills bugs and defends his family with his own life.

I hope my sons understand that there is within them a unique set of skills and instincts that make them invaluable to the strength of a family. I hope they learn to express themselves, but also be stoic in the face of obstacles. I hope they carve out a place for themselves in the world.
Ali Vonal, US

Contributions have been edited for length and clarity

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