Editor’s Note: This post is a part of What's A Man, a series exploring masculinity in India, in collaboration with Dr. Deepa Narayan. Join the conversation here!
Growing up is a hard thing to do. With most of us, there is usually a specific frame of time that we remember as the moment we knew things were changing. For me, this defining moment was the first day after the summer break in 9th grade.
I’d always been a part of a class where it was considered borderline illegal to communicate with the opposite sex, rendering the fact that I studied in a co-ed school pretty much useless. Fraternising with “the other kind” would result in anything ranging from public humiliation to being absolutely outlawed from the class bunch. This is the reason I could never muster up enough courage to even ask for a spare pen from anyone who wasn’t male. This is also why, when we had our much-awaited summer vacation, I expected things to be no different when school would later resume. Little did I know that the only thing that was going to remain consistent was the immense amount of confusion and pressure on me to align with the “men” in the class.
When school resumed, I was blissfully unaware of what the day would turn out to be like. For some reason, all the boys in the class were suddenly sporting rather inadequate facial hair and had their shirts unbuttoned so far down their chest they could use their shoelaces as replacement for shirt buttons. Suddenly everyone’s hair looked like it’d been electrocuted. But most surprisingly, I saw not one, but tens of the boys who’d earlier lead the “boycott women” movement now sitting adjacent to the girls, with odd looking smirks on their faces. All throughout, I was thinking to myself – what kind of a memo did I miss during this vacation?
I now found myself in a rather strange situation. All these years, the primary pressure on me was to make sure I wasn’t caught talking to girls, or else I’d face public humiliation, even though this seemed quite ridiculous to me.
Just when I thought I was getting the hang of the status quo, it changed. Suddenly, the cause of the pressure changed to me being the only one still dressed up like it was the 1990’s, coupled with being the only boy in class still living in the pre-summer vacation era. This made me the certified worst, the most ‘un-cool’ teenager and ensured that nobody would want to be seen with me in public. Needless to say, I rushed to the now-‘coolest’ boy in class for some much-needed life lessons. And it turned out that I had life figured out all wrong.
I learnt of love, relationships and commitment, all of which till now I had thought existed only with-in family. I learnt of dating, and how anyone out of the dating loop was yet to grow up. I learnt of how this one guy got suspended trying to “defend his girlfriend’s honour”, while his girlfriend used a spanking-new blade to etch the name of her boyfriend on her wrist. I was taught that it was okay to stare at women and.. errm..certain parts of their body, and that the only reason girls wore skirts was for us to stare at them, and that this was all normal and required if I needed to grow up and become a ‘man’.
I went home that day utterly confused and absolutely petrified. I was seeking answers to count-less unanswered questions, answers that existed somewhere outside of the world I lived in.
Unable to find solutions, I found myself at the resident bunking hub with a bunch of my friends, my hair straight up and my waistline seemingly somewhere around my knees, ogling at ‘hot girls’ and rating them on a scale of 0 to 10. At the end of the day, one of the boys turned to me and said the words I was hoping to hear after the strange school week I’d had, “You know, you’re not that big of a wuss after all!”
Alas! The world was bright again, and I was no longer referred to as a “wuss”! Guys wanted to hang out with me again, and I was assigned a girl I could ‘pursue’ to be my girlfriend. I was finally fitting in.
Let’s pause it right here.
In a matter of a few weeks, I’d gone from being a harmless teenager to a proud dirtbag. I’d gone from proud-to-be-caring, to proud-of-being-called-a-‘jerk’. What I can only call sexual harassment, save only for any actual physical contact, was being made the norm and young boys were welcoming this norm all in the hopes of “manning up”.
Surprisingly enough, it all seemed to work for me. But through all of this, something felt wrong. I felt like I was being pressured to be a certain kind of ‘man’, just not myself. In an attempt to legitimize my supposed gender identity, I had unknowingly lost touch with what it felt like to really be me.
Many of you may connect with this story on a personal level. Not because it’s intriguing, but because it’s ‘real’. It’s what happens to so many of us, mostly without us having the faintest idea that it is actually happening. The process of evolution from kids to self-proclaimed all-knowing-yet-clueless-‘meninists’ is so seamless that we don’t even realise when it changes us. Now that I’ve painted a picture for you, I leave you with a question: Do you think my story could’ve ended differently had my influences not been an adrenalinally-and-hormonally charged bunch of teenagers, but a level-headed voice of reason not afraid to speak to me about issues I obviously strived to find answers to?
I urge you to reflect.
Disclaimer: The views presented in this article are the author’s, and do not necessarily represent the views of UNFPA.