I have never taken a gender studies course or a course on feminism. Up until recently I have never looked into these subjects or even really had a conversation about them. When I thought of feminists and gender studies majors an image of a woman with a short haircut yelling about how horrible men are would pop into my head. Where did this image come from? I’m not sure exactly, possibly something on television or a meme. Whatever the origin was, it was an image that stuck in my head and caused me to dismiss and ignore anything coming from someone who said they considered themselves a feminist.

Then recent events changed my perception, highlighting a couple things. The first being the importance of approaching new ideas in an open-minded way and working past potential negative initial reactions to come to an objective conclusion. The second is that when trying to open someone up to a new idea one must be non-judgmental and undeniably on the side of the person they are trying to help. Both of these things were of the utmost importance in helping me to open up to ideas I had been closed off to for most of my life and it all started with an article on ball kicking.

I came across an article by Lisa Wade, PhD called “Why don’t men kick each other in the balls.” My initial response was to get defensive. It hit on a nerve and not in a comfortable way. My second thought was to email Lisa and tell her how I felt about what she wrote. I told her things that I would never say in person and I did it under an anonymous email account because I was worried how she would react. To my surprise she thanked me for my email and assured me that other men had been emailing her saying they had a lot of the same feelings. She even asked to use my email in a follow-up article.

From there we continued to email back and forth. I told her about my insecurities about never being strong enough and how it bothered me when people where stronger than me in any way, especially if they were women. This was hard to admit to her. And to myself, too. And I asked for advice on how to overcome this. One of the things she suggested was that I do some reading on masculinity and she told me that feminists had been working on these issues for awhile. Her email read that “feminists have spent a lot of time writing about how hard it is to be a man in a world that tells men that they’re supposed to be dominant.”  The titles she mentioned after didn’t sound like anything I would normally even consider looking into.

Though she never said it specifically, it was obvious at this point that Lisa was a feminist. Usually I would have considered this a red flag but here is the thing. She didn’t fit the stereotypical image that had been ingrained in my mind. First of all, based on her profile picture, she didn’t have short hair. Second, and far more important, was that there wasn’t a single point in time where I felt judged by her. She never called me a misogynist or made me feel bad that I had these thoughts. She was consistently helpful and reassuring. So, feeling good about our interactions I decided to take her advice and do some reading about what some feminists had to say about masculinity.

A couple of the first terms that I came across were “toxic masculinity” and “fragile masculinity.” My reaction to both terms at first was “yep I knew it”: this was just going to be a bunch of blaming men for everything and saying we are weak. I had also read articles in the past that interpreted these terms this way. I decided to continue reading, though, if only to confirm my original beliefs.

Once again I was surprised. I began to realize they weren’t attacking men but simply pointing out how some of our beliefs about masculinity could lead to negative consequences. As I thought about it, I could think of multiple examples of how the term toxic masculinity could apply to my life, times I have hurt myself trying to prove to myself or others that I was strong, tough, and fearless. Is this because I am a man and grew up in a culture that teaches that men are supposed to be strong, tough, and fearless? I think it’s at least a factor.

The term fragile masculinity explained why the original article I read bothered me. She said that allowing hits below the belt in fight “would add up to less time looking powerful and more time looking pitiful.” The word pitiful especially stuck in my head. It also explained why I had a problem with the term “fragile masculinity” in the first place. The idea that someone could combine the word fragile with anything to do with men was certainly unacceptable, right? What I realized though is that these terms weren’t meant to hurt or insult men, but to help them become aware of what may cause some of the unwanted feelings and behaviors that men like me have so that they can be addressed. Maybe by realizing this it could help me recognize I don’t have to be invincible and then maybe I wouldn’t be bothered as much when it was pointed out that I am not invincible or when my invincibility is challenged.

What became obvious to me through my experience thus far is that these people who call themselves “feminist” are trying to help women as well as men, including me. The negative image in my mind was not the norm and while it may exist somewhere it certainly isn’t representative of all feminists. Like so many other groups or ideas that get a bad reputation, it’s a result of the most extreme versions getting the most attention and the negative stereotypes that are pushed.

Of course, I should have realized this from the beginning. After all, according to a quick Google search feminism is defined as “the advocacy of women’s rights on the basis of the equality of the sexes.” Of course this sounds very reasonable and I knew this before but I still would never have accepted the title of “feminist.” I think this is for a couple reasons. One, I think I was worried that by calling myself a feminist it would mean I was more feminine or would be seen as more feminine (fragile masculinity at play, methinks). Second, I felt like it was a strict set of beliefs and that I had to agree with everything feminists say, including the negative stereotypical one I had in my head. According to another piece of writing by Lisa Wade:

Feminism is not just a social movement, it’s a cultural idea. Like any cultural idea, what it really is is contested by different interest groups in society who put forward their own interpretation and try to undermine the interpretations of others.

What this says is that feminism isn’t a strict set of beliefs that all feminists have to agree on. Of course feminists can and do disagree with each other on various issues. At the end of the day, the core value, from what I can tell, is “equality.”

So, my hope is that maybe someone who reads this and has a negative image in their head of what a feminist is will take a second to look into what they have to say and try to see how, even if you don’t agree with what they are saying, their intentions are likely to be helpful. Also, if you’re trying to open someone up to a new idea or belief, I’d suggest not judging and instead being understanding. After all, I think most people already believe equality is awesome even if they don’t consider themselves feminists. All they have to do is be convinced that equality is all feminism is about. If feminists are all about equality and equality is awesome then based on the transitive property the only conclusion left to come to is that Feminists are Awesome!