“Please Daddy!!” the words that make most fathers crack. In my case, it was my seven-year-old daughter pleading excitedly, bouncing around the room like Tigger out of Winnie The Pooh. It was nail painting time and wouldn’t it be great if Daddy painted his nails too?! I apprehensively looked at the utter thrill and excitement in her eyes and I instantly knew I was done for; how could I say no to that?
At this moment I became truly aware of my internal monologue; “I’m a middle age guy, yes I’m a more liberal type of person but painting my nails?! I couldn’t possibly paint my nails, that’s women’s business!”
After this initial reaction, the voice slowly started to change and formed into a very clear inner inquiry; “Why the hell can’t I paint my nails?”
The Man Box
I first heard the term ‘the Man Box’ on a TED talk by Tony Porter called A Call to Men. Tony explains ‘the Man Box’ as a metaphorical container, into which society has put all our cultural beliefs of what it means to be an archetypal man. In our contemporary patriarchal western society, ‘real’ men are generally expected to be strong, fearless, courageous, dominating and reserved with emotions.
This programming starts from a very early age. The Man Box culture dictates that boys are taught to be emotionally reserved, brave, stoic and competitive. Those qualities seen as more feminine such as expressing emotions, crying or being vulnerable are typically discouraged. The rules are blindly enforced, with those who do not toe the line, often being labelled as ‘soft,’ ‘gay’ or are scolded, “not to be a girl.” The unfortunate reality is that these behaviours are not inherent to boys; they are not born this way. Instead, this is what boys are taught and conditioned to believe.
As many boys grow physically into men, there is often peer pressure to prove their place in the Man Box culture by acting out these taught behaviours. Teenage boys particularly, can act with bravado and begin to accentuate immature masculine traits.
By the time men fully mature physically, these behaviours become ingrained and unquestioned, in turn ensuring the continuation of this patriarchal culture dominated by false masculine power and male privilege. So deep is this programming, that the majority don’t question whether this way serves their deepest needs or authentic self. The results of this perpetuating culture are plainly seen throughout society.
Fortunately, many men are awakening to question society’s current expectations of what it means to be a man and starting to challenge this Man Box culture with a passionate feeling that it’s time for a radical rethink. My purple nails certainly gave me a lot to think about.
The Colour Purple
The experience of painting our nails together was both magical and innocent, but while dropping my daughter at school the following morning, I found it hard not to get distracted by the strange presence of the bright purple nail polish.
I usually grab a quick coffee on my way to work from the same place. It was at this point that the innocent playtime with my daughter turned into my own personal social experiment. The barista when taking my order, smiling and with a little sparkle in her eyes, greets me with, “Morning, ah wow, I love your nails!”. This reaction quickly became the pattern of my interactions with most women for the next few days. I was told how the colour suited me, how it matched what I was wearing, and how it’s great to see a man with painted nails. At the very least the reaction I got from women was a curious smile.
The reaction I got from men was somewhat different. A silent appraisal at best, but mostly a look of startled confusion. The confusion that, here’s a man, a generally ‘normal’ manly looking man who’s not doing what our culture expects a ‘normal’ man to do. I had unwittingly challenged the rules of The Man Box. I was intrigued.
Give a man a fire and he’s warm for a day, but set fire to him and he’s warm for the rest of his life. – Terry Pratchett
Journey of Discovery
The past few years for me have been an immense journey of discovery. As with many men in these times, I’ve grappled with the question of what it means to be a modern man. In the era of, #MeToo, ‘toxic masculinity’, angry white men and predominantly male World leaders, many men are, willingly or unwillingly, having to recalibrate.
This has not been an easy process. As with many men of my generation I grew up with the familiar catchphrases filling my subconscious, ‘be a man,’ ‘real men don’t cry,’ ‘you’re acting like a little girl,’ ‘don’t be a sissy,’ and many more. I was also constantly surrounded by misogynistic locker room talk that focused on somebody’s latest conquest and the commonplace objectification of women. Homophobic derogatory slurs and putdowns where unleashed if any man did not conform to this code of conduct.
Obviously, it has taken time to go through the inner process of slowly deconstructing my learned beliefs of what it means to be a man. This has been an evolution rather than a revolution. As I slowly chipped away, it astounded me just how much I sold myself short. For years I excelled at playing the stoic and reserved male. I literally could not cry and saw this as a good thing. I hated dancing, frowned at overly public displays of affection or vulnerability, and tried my hardest to look like a ‘normal’ guy. But underneath this public facade, I was angry and felt very much out of step with the world, not to mention light years away from my authentic self. I would project this anger on to people around me, especially the women in my life, as if it was somehow their fault. I wallowed in being the victim, not realising I was perpetuating the causes of my own suffering.
A Healthy Masculinity
The transformation point for me was getting into yoga and meditation in my late twenties. Through these practices, I slowly started to become more aware of my body, my emotional state, and awaken to the possibility of a different way of being. In this new environment, I met other guys who had also started questioning their place in the world as men. They gave me the signposts towards starting to find a new, more balanced and connected way of being a true man. Including an understanding of the nuances and many facets of a more mature and healthy form of masculinity.
I now regularly sit in a group circle with other men and have discovered the power of being vulnerable and expressing my deepest emotions. I have learned it’s okay to cry, it’s okay to feel overwhelmed or to be scared, these emotions are all part of the fabric of my life. I’ve also learned about the beauty of being gentle, soft and compassionate. Mostly, I have let go of feeling that I have to be and act a certain way. Now, I can show up authentically: first, simply as a human being and secondly, as my own version of a man. I recognise that I have ultimate sovereignty and responsibility for myself.
Time for a New Colour
It’s now a couple of weeks since my daughter harmlessly painted my nails. Such a simple act that could be taboo for many men wasn’t even noticed by a seven-year-old girl. In her beautiful, untainted innocence, she simply wanted to share a moment of fun and connection with her daddy.
Some of the purple polish is still there but it’s starting to look a little sad, faded and chipped around the edges. My daughter has suggested it’s time to repaint my nails in a new colour, maybe silver glitter. I couldn’t help but smile as I reflected on the resonance of her statement. It’s time for our notion of a man to try on new colours. Our Man Box culture is ready for its makeover.
Finding a new culture for men should not be focused on ‘fixing’ our traditional gender binary view of masculinity, but coming from the deeper perspective that we are all first and foremost human beings. Whatever gender we may identify with, we all have the capacity to be vulnerable and express our deepest emotions. We all have the potential and responsibility to show up in a more conscious, connected, empowered and authentic way.
It’s from this starting point, as we evolve into a more conscious way of being and grow deeper capacities for an authentic connection with Self, that we will better realise it is possible for us to choose those facets, both masculine and feminine, that we wish to embrace as more conscious people in the world.
I’m off to redo my nails now. My daughter is ready and bouncing with joy. This man is showing up for his daughter, for diversity and inclusion. I’m a little bit wiser, a lot softer and let’s face it … a whole lot more colourful.
Do you have a journey to share about transformation, and how you started showing up in a new way in the world? Are you a man that has started to break out of the box? Please let us know in the comments below.