The last time I cried, I was a freshman in high school. It was my first season on the track team, and I had set ambitious goals for myself. For months, I had been approaching the 5:00 mile mark. Several of my teammates had already broken the barrier, and I added extra miles to my runs on weekends or before school. This was how I could prove to myself and my team that I was tough and strong. That I had what it took to be a great runner.

At a mid-April meet, I felt ready. I started fast, pushed through and finished strong. My final time: 5:03. In my post-race gloom, I approached some of the freshman sprinters who were chatting after their races. To be honest, I can’t even remember what they said – some stupid joke, I’m sure – but I told them to shut up, turned around and walked away with tears falling down my face. I was devastated.

As anyone who has ever done cross country or track can tell you, running is hard. It tests your limits, exhausts you physically and forces you to ignore signals of pain to push harder. With those characteristics in mind, my teammates made it very clear that, in order to succeed, I needed to “grow a pair.” I couldn’t “be a pussy.” The aggressive, primitive, visceral act of racing required a strict adherence to masculinity.

I hit 4:54 at a time trial the next month. Since then, not a single tear has left my eyes. Disregarding pain, focusing on constant improvement and emphasizing physical strength, I started “Manning up.”


“My coaches would always tell us to not feel sorry for ourselves and to be tough. I can’t be too mad at them because they were preparing us for the realm of life that we lived in,” SESP junior Anthony Pierce says, recounting his time playing football in the Chicago Public League. “It was a lot of, ‘You need to man up, be tough, don’t make excuses, just get through it.’” Pierce grew up in the Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. His definition of masculinity was shaped by the need to protect himself and those around him. He had to ensure he projected an image of strength and toughness, showing others that he was not to be messed with.

“I’ve always been highly emotional, highly emotional, like very sensitive actually, but nobody was gonna ever find out,” Pierce says. “I definitely had a mask, like a really, really tough crust.” Growing up in the southwest suburbs of Chicago, just an hour away from Northwestern, I was also exposed to a pretty rigid idea of what it meant to be a man, albeit in a very different environment. I played with Matchbox cars and Tonka trucks, dug up worms in my backyard and played baseball in the park with friends. The people around me, both friends and family, always encouraged me to be myself. At the same time, they worked hard to ensure that “myself” followed societal guidelines – to make sure I was a normal boy. Born and raised in Alabama, Weinberg senior Benjamin Kraft was brought up in a culture that also had a rigid definition of manhood. One of the first times he remembers breaking the mold of “masculinity” was in middle school gym.

“I remember distinctly in eighth grade we were playing badminton in gym,” Kraft says. “They played Lady Gaga’s ‘Just Dance’ and I was like, ‘You know what, fuck it, I like this song, I don’t care who knows it.’”

Kraft realized he had been repressing his enjoyment because of a societally imposed definition of masculinity, one that told him which artists he should and shouldn’t listen to.

“I’ve always enjoyed Lady Gaga, Erin McCarley, Sara Bareilles, not traditionally super masculine artists, so I think for me that was kind of a big step,” Kraft says.

Weinberg senior Dan Loizzo, former president of Men Against Rape and Sexual Assault (MARS), entered college with an idea of masculinity heavily shaped by whiteness and heteronormativity. From a grandfather who grew up helping out on a farm to a deeply-rooted Irish drinking culture, the men surrounding Loizzo were “set in their ways.”

“All the different things you’ll hear in the dominant narrative of masculinity of the man as the provider, the woman stays home,” Loizzo says. “That’s kind of how I grew up, just like the story I always heard and how it was supposed to go.”

Growing up in a place surrounded by a group of mostly white, straight, cisgender, able-bodied, upper-middle class young men, I heard a similar narrative. Running with my team was like a petri dish, toxic beliefs left to grow unchecked. Our coaches did their best to rein in the worst of this behavior when they were around, policing homophobic slurs and misogynistic remarks, but when we were alone, the comments mushroomed.


The different masculine characteristics Pierce, Kraft, Loizzo and I learned growing up play into a dominant narrative that presents a very narrow view of how to be a man. That view devalues the lives of many men, especially queer men. Weinberg junior Pedro Alvarado grew up with a father who embodied a “very toxic masculinity.” He only began to create his own identity when he was able to break out of the one created for him.

“My parents split up when I was a freshman in high school, and I lived with my mom and only saw my dad every other weekend or so,” Alvarado says. “I think just separating myself from that – and senior year of high school is when I started coming out, slash becoming more comfortable in my body and who I am – is when I started to recognize the issues that came about in this masculine identity.”

As he finished high school, Alvarado grew more comfortable accepting his queerness. He began to depart from the ideal of who he was supposed to be in favor of who he really was.

{{{“As a queer person in general, by definition, you’re just the blurring of the boundaries between dichotomies,” Alvarado says. “I think that’s probably the biggest thing for me, becoming more comfortable in my femininity and learning that’s not a bad thing at all.”}}}

Northwestern’s culture allowed Alvarado to better define the framework in which he views his identity. An important part of his Northwestern experience has been the Burlesque show; he performed in the show his sophomore year and was a director this year. “Burlesque in general [is] just this empowering performance of one’s body, whatever identities that body holds,” Alvarado says. “In the process, you’re naked with a lot of people; not that you necessarily had animosity towards other bodies, but just learning that, as corny as it sounds, everyone’s beautiful in their own way.”

In fourth grade, at 75 pounds, Weinberg freshman Adam Davies was hauling seed bags two-thirds his body weight across the family farm. He has always seen hard work as a part of his identity, but didn’t associate it with his masculinity until recently. Davies, a transgender man, also disrupts traditional ideas of manhood. “I guess my masculinity has always been different,” Davies says. “It comes from the fact that I get to pick and choose what I want out of masculinity, so I get to pick and choose the good things, like the hard work that I got from my father and being honorable and respectable and sticking up for other people and using my privilege to help other people.”

His most influential role model, his father, had demonstrated the dominance and disrespect that characterize a toxic ideal of masculinity, but he says he still learned a lot from him. “You don’t have to base your masculinity off of the toxic things that your parents or role model did,” Davies says. “You can base your masculinity off the positive things that they did, and then go from there.”

Masculinity can offer a blueprint for who a young man is supposed to be, but by nature, it’s also unattainable and contradictory, says Paul Ang, coordinator of men’s engagement for CARE.

“Everybody up to a certain age, or all ages, is really trying to figure out who they are,” Ang says. “You’re supposed to want to work with your hands and work hard, but you’re also supposed to be a millionaire banker – those things don’t line up.”

Those fault lines are where some men start to question the model. Pierce has reexamined the role of the masculine ideal in shaping his personality. “I have to reconsider the things that cause me to want to be the person I want to be,” Pierce says. “Some of those things I still really, really value, like the protective part or the person who cares about their family, but other details about my masculinity I have to second guess.”


There are two essential players in the process of constructing a dominant masculinity: those who create a toxic ingroup environment, which varies across race, class, nationality, etc., and those who are complicit in its existence. In order to see real change, it’s not just the former group that needs to change; all men need to recognize the roots of societal definitions of masculinity and work to define their personal identities around their own values. At NU, I have heard far more voices than I did back home. Looking back, I see how the uncomfortable environment created by the loudest members of my team was a result of a rigid definition of masculinity. I also see it was reinforced by the people, myself included, who didn’t make meaningful efforts to change it.

“Maybe those certain people who are the most stereotypically masculine, they act and enforce masculinity in very specific ways, but I also think that the people who are maybe not challenging that masculinity are still somewhat ascribing to that in whatever ways they’re choosing to,” Ang says. “I think they still have a part to play in it.”

At Northwestern, Kraft joined NÜ Men, a cohort of Northwestern men who gather each quarter to talk candidly about masculinity. The group allowed him to challenge his beliefs about what it meant to be a man.

“To be able to be vulnerable with other men was a very unique experience to me, because traditionally all of my friends had been female,” Kraft says. “Really having these discussions about what masculinity looks like, discussions that I’ve had over and over with my female friends but rarely ever had with a man – now all of a sudden I’m having all of these with a group of 10 other men – was a really, really cool experience.”

Part of what makes NÜ Men so effective is it encourages vulnerability. Ang says one-on-one discussions and honest, open group sessions are far more substantial and poignant than arguments or witty comments.

“I think any time you put a person in a position to feel shame, that does nothing productive in terms of them learning from that experience or listening to you in a meaningful way,” Ang says. “For men to see other men taking risks and taking chances, essentially having people give them permission to act in ways that are not stereotypically masculine, that’s pretty powerful.”

Men like Alvarado and Davies aren’t responsible for teaching others how to be better men. But by existing authentically and being who they are, they offer peers another model of how to be a man. “Society as a whole is in a really tough place right now, because there’s such a divide between different places across the country and different views on masculinity,” Davies says. “I’m optimistic, but it’s gonna take a lot of work, and the people that are gonna have to put in the work is men.”

After being exposed to many ways of “being a man,” Loizzo realizes the ideal he learned as a boy isn’t the whole picture. “I think masculinity is different for each and every person,” Loizzo says. “At the end of the day, as long as I’m comfortable with the person I am, that’s what masculinity is to me.”