Given what I do for a living, I suppose it isn’t a surprise that I put a lot of time and energy into talking about sex and gender. But when I stop to think about it, I’m sure that I probably would have ended up doing that anyway. See, in some ways, I’m not like most of the men you see in the world (or at least, in US culture). I’m rather dainty. And moving through the world, I find myself coming up against gender dynamics in some pretty interesting ways.
What do I mean by dainty? When I’m around the sorts of guys to fit (or pretend they fit) in the Act Like a Man Box, I sometimes feel like a cat in a room of dogs. In fact, if I were a feline, I’d be the sort of cat who keeps his white tummy fur immaculately clean and washes immediately after getting dirty. I own and use power tools and don’t mind getting messy when I’m working on a project. I just like to get clean as soon as I’m done. I’m not really metrosexual, since I don’t use a lot of product or shop much, but when I’m stressed out, trimming my goatee always makes me feel better. I’m very specific about the things I like to do and to eat (you can take that as finicky, if you like). I like to be comfortable and I get cranky if the weather gets too hot or sticky. I get sunburned easily, but sunblock makes my skin break out so I wear hats or carry a parasol if I’ll be out in the sun. I’m sensitive to my emotions and I’m often attuned to the emotions of the people around me. In another place and time, I’d probably have ended up as a dandy. But here and now, I’m dainty.
It’s an interesting thing, walking through the world as a dainty man. It doesn’t occur to me to fluff my fur when other men try to figure out who’s more of a man, which seems to confuse them a lot. It isn’t that I choose to not do it- I almost never realize it when they try to start something. I once had a really obnoxious neighbor who played loud music at 2 in the morning. One time, when I confronted him about it, he kept attempting to pick a fight with me and seemed genuinely startled when I didn’t respond the way he expected. And it wasn’t until the next morning that I understood what he had been trying to do. My partner, on the other hand, nearly decked him.
When I was in my late teens and early 20’s, I was much more androgynous in appearance. I had long, curly, blond hair and no matter how I wore it, a lot of people would think I was a woman when they saw me from behind. I was a bit of a hippie fairy boy, although I never really fit in with that crowd since I didn’t see patchouli as a substitute for bathing. At the time, I felt some ambivalence about my daintiness, mostly because I hadn’t yet settled into it or found a whole circle of friends and communities who enjoyed it.
As I got older, my physical presentation became more stereotypically masculine. My hair fell out (so I started shaving my head), I gained muscle mass and body hair, and I grew into a different person. Over time, my mixed feelings about my daintiness dissipated. Perhaps that was because I came to trust that my partner appreciated it. Maybe it was moving to the San Francisco area and finding lots of people who see gender as something to play with instead of a prison. Looking less androgynous played into that, as well. I found that the more masculine I looked, the more I wanted to play with different clothes, glitter, makeup, and drag. Having a lot of friends in the Burning Man crowd also contributed to that. When you’ve seen a huge, muscular guy dressed in hot pink leggings and a lace top, you realize that playing dress up is simply fun. I took some time to explore my beliefs and feelings about my masculinity and my relationship to it. And I stopped caring so much about what other people think about my gender and my daintiness. It’s been an interesting journey and it isn’t over yet.
Being a dainty man leads to some interesting experiences. It’s fascinating to see all of the advertising and media representations of men and masculinity from this perspective. I won’t say that it’s from the sidelines because there are quite a few ways in which masculinity does resonate for me- I’m not a complete outsider. But when so much of it is predicated on assumptions that simply don’t work for me, it’s a different view. It really does sometimes feel like being a cat in a dog’s world. I have no interest in many of the products or services that are marketed towards men. The advertisements for big hamburgers, big trucks, and Axe bodyspray miss me entirely.
I’ve also found that as my male friends and acquaintances have gotten older, their responses to my daintiness have changed. When I (and they) were 25, there was quite a bit more jockeying for position in the masculinity hierarchy and when I didn’t engage with that, their reactions would range from confused to downright hostile. Fifteen years later, more of the men I know have stopped trying to prove their masculinity as much. It’s still there, but it’s mellowed a bit. Granted, my choice in friends has also changed, so there’s a selection bias at work. But even when I’m introduced to some random guy through a mutual friend or through work, there’s much less of a negative reaction. Is that because I look more masculine than I used to? Is it that they’ve stopped caring as much? Who knows?
In a way, I’m kind of amazed that I never got beat up or such when I was a kid. After all, a lot of boys will attack the outsider, especially if he doesn’t fit the standard model of masculinity. I sometimes wonder if part of why it didn’t happen was because there really was no masculine status to be gained from it. It also helped that I could fight with my words- sarcasm became my armor for a few years, until I learned that I didn’t actually need it. And I know that there were times when I just confused the heck out of other boys. When a cat wanders up to a dog, says hello, and doesn’t seem to be scared, the dog will often simply accept it. It’s the running away that triggers the chase. Since I usually was pretty friendly, maybe it just never occurred to anyone to try to chase me. After all, I’m a lover, not a fighter. 🙂
There isn’t much in the way of role models for dainty men, at least in this century. In the queer world, there are queens, nellies and fairies, but I don’t really fit in there. But in the end, I suppose it doesn’t really matter. Just give me a comfy spot in the shade to myself and I’ll be just fine.