I was standing by the elevator of my building, recovering from a hotly contested game of cricket, when I felt a hand cup my chest. “Man booooooooooobs!”
It was a routine teen-dude taunt. I was a short, chubby 12-year-old, and one of the slightly bigger, fitter boys had made me his target for the moment. The group of lanky, sweaty boys around us didn’t bat an eyelid. A few offered perfunctory laughs, and then, in all probability, forgot. I couldn’t.
As soon as I reached my room, I got in front of the mirror, newly aware of chunks of fat. Newly inadequate.
To this day, twelve years later, I hunch my shoulders to hide the fat on my chest. It doesn’t matter that it’s not there anymore. Following the revelation that I was plumper and shorter than other boys my age, more reasons for inadequacy followed quickly.
When my classmates were sporting noticeable – and, by adolescent standards, glorious – tufts on their chins and upper lips, I was hot on an expedition to find the first strand of facial hair willing to grace my face. (It has remained a largely futile quest.) Relatives who barely knew me felt compelled to note that I would look “smart” if I added a few inches to my height. Classmates casually commented about how my clean upper lip made me look like a little girl.
When we played “one side takes their shirts off” football matches, my chest was a shiny bullseye for mockery. All in all, India’s rigid definition of masculinity was hard to miss. And once you see it, you see it everywhere. To begin with, look at mainstream Bollywood’s lead actors – bulging biceps, 6-packs popping out of skintight shirts.
It isn’t a recent fad either. Right from Amitabh Bachchan and Shashi Kapoor playing the “angry young man” in the ‘70s, some of the biggest heroes of the past four decades have all matched one version of manliness: big, strong, broad, tall. And it isn’t restricted to physical traits. The characters they play tell a matching story –– that a “real man” can beat people up, get the girl, protect everyone. He doesn’t cry and he doesn’t depend and, even when he’s hurt, he doesn’t hurt.
He’s dependable. Watch any insurance or automobile or home paint ad. While ads for Surf Excel and Bournvita show a woman nurturing the fam (a whole other problem in itself), these ones target the man of the house by portraying his ideal: breadwinning, rational, dependable. (The very annoying refrain “My daddy stroooongesttt!” just popped into my head, sorry it’s now in yours.)
Advertisers know that the Indian man’s aspiration to being a Masculine Stoic Manly Man is so strong, it’s the quickest way to get him to spend money. Similarly, politicians know it’s the quickest way to get his vote – how else can we explain our nationwide emphasis on Modi’s chest size? But these pressures exist even closer to home than films, ads, and our Prime Minister’s 56-inch pride and joy.
As young boys, we’re told that boys don’t cry. Rote nahi. On the playground, any minor altercation can turn into a show of one’s masculinity. If you shy away from a fight, you can count yourself lucky to not be called anything worse than “pansy” for the next few days. In portrayals of relationships, we see that even when you’re cold, you suck it up and give the girl your jacket. And at the dinner table at home, we see our parents enacting what we’re supposed to grow up to become.
My father was taught that a man is supposed to uncomplainingly get a job, provide for a family, and be the rock upon which his spouse and children lead a content life. These were the values passed on to him from his father. So he passed them on to me. Man up, grow a pair, be a man – be strong.
Even more subliminally, we’re taught a definition of masculinity via the language we hear around us. Man up, grow a pair, be a man – these instructions all mean the same thing. Be strong. (Remember when, in Dil Chahta Hai, Akash tells Samir to stand up for himself via the specific instruction, “Mard ban”?)
On the flip-side, look at language for weakness: crying like a girl, being a pussy, chudiyaan pehenna. We live surrounded by the messaging that a man’s worth is directly tied to his abilities, physical and emotional, to provide and protect. And, for some reason, these abilities are tied to a specific body-type and a specific disposition.
So although my self-doubt grew through adolescence with each casual remark and passing comment about my beardlessness or height, I never admitted the feelings of inadequacy to anyone. To do so would make me weak. It would make me a “pussy” – the symbol of femininity, the most scathing indictment a man can earn.
Because a short, chubby, chikna man is a weakling. And a short, chubby, chikna man who’s also emotional and vulnerable isn’t a man at all. So, quietly, I’d spend hours upon man-hours squinting at the bathroom mirror, checking if my moustache was any closer to connecting to my chin.
I ate less than I should’ve been, skipping meals to get skinny faster. I shaved more than I should’ve been, hoping the razor would draw forth hairs that weren’t there. Embarrassed and confused by what I was feeling, I thought that no one else could possibly understand what I was going through, let alone help. I began to believe that the only person who could get me out of this was myself.
The first step was recognising that the problem wasn’t within me. I began to notice the many external cues that are built to make men feel inadequate. To stop seeing myself as the failure, I had to first question the standards for success. I also began to notice who suffers most at the hands of such dangerously defined manhood: women, of course.
Too often, it’s dudes hell-bent on proving their masculinity by “getting the girl” who end up disregarding whether the girl wants to be got. It’s dudes hell-bent on “providing for the family” who believe that the woman has as rigid a role: to cook and clean and stay at home for that family.
When we accept that gender roles and expectations are set in stone for ourselves, we end up enforcing them on others too. I began to learn how toxic it is to subscribe to these definitions. Of course, the awareness hasn’t been a fix-all. There are still days I feel inadequate.
But I did, over time, stop blaming myself. And then, eventually, even laugh about “manliness” (and my lack thereof). I joke about my deplorable sideburns and concave biceps. I stopped checking the mirror for fresh stubble, stopped wondering how everyone else saw me, stopped needing validation externally and began to seek it from myself.
This has been life-changing. (For instance, I now order chicken biryani without pausing to lament my impossible quest for 6-pack abs.) I’m feeling freer, but chances are that there millions of young boys today on playgrounds around the country, hiding the same feelings of inadequacy that I once did. I wish they didn’t have to. Because honestly, the idea that your worth is determined by physical strength and emotional stoicism is laughably archaic.
For those young boys, I hope our society eventually comes around to the awareness that manliness is an externally constructed expectation. When it gets hard, I hope those young boys will feel OK crying, admitting their struggles, and asking for help. I hope they won’t feel the pressure to “man up” and hazard this journey alone like I did.
And while we wait on the world to change, at least we’ll save a goddamn fortune on shaving products.