I’ve invited Christianity Today editorial intern, Samuel Ogles, to take us on a journey into masculinity, feminism, and Speedo bathing suits. For those following our Read-Along (Join us here), Samuel will provide a welcome break from our hard work of grieving well.
I’ve already enjoyed Samuel’s writing on mental illness. I hope you resonate, as I did with the hurdles we must all face in becoming whole and human.
One year ago I bought a Speedo swimsuit. Even though it’s not a classic Speedo design and actually looks more like a pair of boxer-briefs, it’s safe to say that it’s the most revealing piece of clothing I’ve ever worn. I bought it because I swim laps a couple times a week and it’s comfortable. I bought it because it is 20 times more resistant to chlorine than a regular swimsuit. I bought it because I liked the color. And perhaps most importantly, I bought it because I’m a feminist, and I’m aware that guys who wear speedos are challenging American masculinity.
Last summer I wore that Speedo in front of other people for the first time at a public beach in conservative Holland, Michigan. I got a few playful comments from my friends about how much skin I was showing. I got even more stares from strangers. But something about it felt liberating for me. I think that something was a small step in reclaiming who I am and can choose to be rather than what men are supposed to cover up.
I’m not saying that there aren’t true categories or that gender is meaningless. But I know that I have had a lot of difficulties in my life trying to fit what I was told my gender should look or act or be like. I was taught by myriad outside influences growing up that there was a manly ideal for me. I desperately needed to figure out how to become that Man. But I was never taught to ask if I would be happy or fulfilled once that happened.
I remember being in a school musical in the 4th grade. I loved music and performing, in large part because I was good at it. The 1st graders were putting on a musical called Cockadoodle Dandy, and they needed an older boy to play the title rooster character. I was flattered because I was musical and it felt good to be chosen for the role, but as I walked down the school hallways wearing orange tights, distinctly remember hoping that nobody I really cared about would see me. Wearing tights was a “girl thing,” after all (though people like Henry VIII didn’t think so), and I already felt self-conscious doing something so non-manly as dancing and singing. I remember that feeling 17 years later.
I also remember a day in 7th grade biology when the teacher left the room and the big kid, the bully, decided I was more interesting than our assignment. I remember the emotional (and physical) trauma of getting kicked in the groin—hard—in front of the whole class and being ashamed that I couldn’t hold back the tears. I started crying because of the gut-crashing pain; I kept crying because of the emotional embarrassment. I’d cried in public, and boys weren’t supposed to do that. From then on, I resolved to get a handle on this emotionally-vulnerable-weak-crying-girly thing. I really wanted to become Man-Sam. And you know what? It worked.
By college, I could truthfully say, “I haven’t cried in years.” I came to wear it as a badge of honor. I was never exceptionally athletic or assertive or any number of other adjectives that boys are supposed to attain as they turn into men, but I at least had this emotional dam firmly in place. Like a muscle, I could flex my suppressus emotionus maximus and no tears would reach my eyes.
But then my grandfather died. I’d grown up with him, and we were close. I loved him more than I can say. I desperately wanted to cry the day I got the news or at the funeral or even just remembering him later, but no tears came. I didn’t grow up hearing that tears could be a sign of how strong a love was. Instead, I had successfully built a barrier around those feelings and “weaknesses,” and I couldn’t access them even when I needed to. I had gotten what I wanted and attained a level of Man-Sam. But I didn’t feel like an actualized person. I had shut off a part of my humanity, of who I was, in order to meet some mold that all boys are told to meet to be a man. Yet I didn’t feel like a true man created in the image of God. I felt more like a robot—someone following a scripted program rather than their divine agency. (A recent Salon article poignantly tells how the narrative for men being unemotional, autonomous pillars of unfeeling leaves men both unhealthy and unhappy.)
In the HBO series John Adams, Paul Giamatti (who plays the title character) gives a rousing speech at the Continental Congress urging a declaration of independence. He argues that they are on the eve of revolution and that their unique position should not be squandered. “How few of the human race have ever had an opportunity of choosing a system of government for themselves and their children,” he says. In 2014, we may not be in a unique position to determine how we want to be politically governed, but I do think that we’re in a unique position to determine how we want gender roles to be defined. We need not only be subject to culture; we are able to shape it.
We may be one of the first generations in the history of the world to determine what we want gender roles to look like. Rather than have knee-jerk reactions over change (like when Twitter erupts with backlash after Marvel Comics announces that an entirely fictional superhero character–Thor–will be recast as female) shouldn’t we examine with at least a modicum of self-reflection the ways in which our narratives around gender are limiting?
Swimsuits are a great example. Most people have strong feelings about what is or isn’t appropriate, yet we have a long, well documented history of just how dependent on culture the appropriateness, stylishness, acceptability, and the swimsuit are.
Last year, Jessica Rey’s famous presentation on the perils of bikinis and the need for modesty made quite a splash, and leading Christian voices continue to weigh in on modesty in a larger, secular culture. But Rey’s own presentation admits that “appropriate” swimsuits have run the gamut from itsy-bitsy bikinis to near full-body coverings. Feminism, for me, is the recognition of certain narratives around gender and showing them for what they are: cultural. Sometimes what is culturally permitted is helpful. Sometimes it’s not. Have you ever thought, as I have, that the culture-changing work of feminism is simply dangerous?
I took that step in college and soon identified that very often our notions of gender roles are much more tied to 1950s advertisements than to divine decree. I guess in small ways, I’m choosing to make a change and choosing how I define manhood for myself. My definition of masculinity still includes plenty of ‘typical’ norms associated with being male, but it’s not limited by them. It has the space for dancing and singing. My masculinity has the space for the emotional freedom to cry. My masculinity has the space for wearing a Speedo, not because I have a “ripped” body (someone recently compared my physique to that of Toy Story’s Woody) but because for me, wearing a Speedo is practical and liberating and makes me feel good about myself. I don’t look to an external ideal on which to model my behavior; I define my own masculinity from within. Christ is a central model for that. Christ never shied from breaking gender norms that were harmful or untrue because he was guided by the interior Spirit. So many of us desperately want to be happy with who we are and to have that same interior source of self-worth. Unfortunately when most of us look in the mirror we only see ourselves in the negative, we see someone who is inadequate when stacked up against external definitions of worth–skinny, muscular, talented, likeable, successful, valuable, “spiritual,” or human. Those external “ideals” are offer anything but a chance to become fully human.
I am not trying to say that the message of feminism is primarily for men; it isn’t. There are so many wonderful and informed female voices speaking on the issue. (Two of my favorites are Sarah Bessey and Rachel Held Evans.) For my part, I can only offer one male, Christian feminist’s perspective. Whether you have taken a side in the Christian debate over being egalitarian or complementarian or not, feminism can speak to you. Feminism doesn’t mean a complete jettison of the concepts of male and female, men and women, but rather a reevaluation of the limits of those concepts. How are they helpful and how are they harmful? How do they shackle us and how do they create the freedom space to be who God created each of us to be? I identify as a feminist not because I have those answers, but because I am determined to ask the questions and find more holistic definitions. And my prayer is that in your more honest moments, you may be ready to ask some of those questions, too.
Samuel is an ecumenical Christian bridging evangelical and Catholic camps. He is also a student at The Living School for Action and Contemplation located in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He loves flannel, burgers, baby-holding, and finding excuses to laugh. He currently lives in “the evangelical Vatican”–Wheaton, Illinois. Follow Samuel @ or check out his blog.