It makes me wince every time I hear it. But there's a deeper consequence that comes with this phrase: we buy into it. And even though it's usually the above jerks who blurt it out, we've heard it all of our lives from people we care about, people we're close to, people we trust. Most guys are reminded of their fathers telling them not to cry and to toughen up. Sometimes it's an older sibling who threatened to kick our ass if we didn't stop being a sissy. For me, it was my baseball coach who thought he was motivating me by repeating those annoying idioms like "no pain, no gain" or "tough it out." As often, too, it was my best friends who used every name they could think of—wimp, faggot, wuss, loser, skirt, queer, pussy, gay—to make sure I buckled under their peer pressure.
Look, I've laughed about it like anybody else. But as innocent and innocuous as we may all think it is to take hits to our manhood, we'd all prefer to avoid being the target of them. So, we all do our best to follow the universal "rules" of manhood:
You know these rules because you've had to abide by them at some point in your life. According to James O'Neil, a developmental psychologist at the University of Connecticut, who has dedicated his life to studying masculinity, these are the elements of the code that defines what most men think when they think of what it means to be a man. "One of the more surprising findings," O'Neil once told me, "is how little these rules have changed."
There's another thing O'Neil has observed over the years—and something many of us secretly suspect. It's that these rules are bogus. They're a complete fraud. They're not only impossible to live up to, they're simply ridiculous.
Rather than a prescription for genuine manhood, the ideology contained in these rules is more a blueprint for a robot, a machine, an unfeeling, impervious automaton who is unburdened by such human experiences as love, pain, joy, sorrow, ecstasy, and agony. Is that your idea of a "happy place"?
So, where does that leave us? Well, many of us have grown up with an ideology of masculinity that's impossible to achieve. Then we wonder why we secretly fear that we are not measuring up—and work like crazy to try and prove to the world otherwise.
The good news is that there's another aspect of masculinity, often hidden beneath the relentless overachiever and narcissist in us all. It's better defined by how honorable, ethical, and responsible we can be. It's the part of us that's a caretaker of his family and community, and a caregiver to those he loves. It's the reliable friend, the nurturing father, and the loving, patient husband or partner. It's the man who does well by doing good. Feeling better already?
As someone who has studied the American man—his beliefs, his behaviors—for more than two decades, I've listened to thousands of younger men describe their lives and their aspirations. I've heard enough to know that too many men like you actually do lead lives of quiet desperation under the despotism of "Be a man." With that in mind, we will take the time in this space to debunk the myths of manhood and, better yet, explore how those myths affect your relationships with women, with your colleagues at work, and with your family. They play a role in everything you do, from bringing up kids to dating—even how you perform in bed. Did you get that? You'll be better in bed.
Beyond the sex talk, I'll offer practical advice on what it means to "man up" in every possible life situation. It's what you need to know to build the quiet confidence that keeps you moving forward. And, of course, it's good to keep in mind the next time someone tells you to stop being such a wimp.
Michael Kimmel is among the world's leading researchers on men and masculinity and the author of a dozen books, including Manhood in America and Guyland. He is a professor of sociology at Stony Brook University and lectures about young men in modern society all over the world.