What does it mean to “be a man” in 2017? Everywhere we look, there are narrow stereotypes of what it means to be masculine. Harmful examples of toxic masculinity abound. Traditionally, men are tough. They never show weakness. And they certainly never ask for help. But in reality, these stereotypes often hold men back from being their truest, best selves.
How can young men avoid the pressures to conform to one singular definition of masculinity?
John Legend has some ideas. At a recent round table discussion about inclusive masculinity, he opened up about his own journey through adolescence and learning to be his most authentic self.
The panel was part of AXE’s Find Your Magic initiative. It also included masculinity expert Carlos Andrés Gómez, LGBTQ advocate Hunter Klugkist, and a current high school sophomore.
For Legend, music was a huge influence in helping him be confident in who he was at a young age.
“I was a nerd and I loved music. For me, music was the thing that made me feel like I could be myself, and gave me the joy that I wanted to feel,” Legend said. “Art has given me that self-expression and that joy that I wanted in life, and helped me in all other facets — develop more confidence, develop more connection with people. It was really an awesome thing for me.”
He also said that his dad set a great example of what it meant to “be a man,” so to speak. When Legend was a kid, his father held a traditionally masculine job working in a factory. We know that jobs aren’t gendered, but our culture still tends to cling onto assigned stereotypes. At home, Legend’s dad pursued creative interests — like playing music, painting, and carving — and encouraged his children to do the same. A job does not define your identity.
“I think we had an example of someone who wasn’t performing necessarily with a strict definition of what a man was supposed to be. During the day, he was doing the manly factory job, and then at home he was making his own suits, and painting, and drawing. The fact that we were always taught to love art and encouraged to express ourselves artistically helped me figure out who I wanted to be in life and how to be my best self.”
As part of the Find Your Magic initiative, Legend works to expand the definition of masculinity to be more inclusive.
“We live in a society oftentimes where it’s so suffocating, this really narrow definition of what masculinity looks like. This entire Find Your Magic initiative is all about trying to open that up,” said Gomez, who moderated the discussion. “The idea is to try to free us to be our fullest, best, most authentic selves, and not the person we feel like we have to be or the person we should be.”
Legend agreed, emphasizing that there’s no one strict way to define masculinity.
“I think the whole idea is that there is no one definition [of masculinity],” Legend said. “We feel like there’s a prescription for how we have healthy relationships that are based on our gender roles. The whole idea is for us to think about how we play with those definitions and play with those restrictions and find what’s right for us individually, and for us as couples, and as friends, and as partners in life as we try to figure out who we want to be and how we want to live together.”
The 15-year-old high school student opened up about his experiences with bullies. Then, he thanked Legend for setting a broader example of what it means to be a man.
“When older people that boys look up to make it okay to be your true authentic self, operating beyond the concept of gender, other people follow suit,” the student said. “It gives people like me — especially kids who use silence as a defense mechanism, and people who shut themselves off because they don’t think other people are prepared for them — when you do stuff like that, it gives us permission to be ourselves and to know that that’s masculine enough for anything or anyone.”
Legend is glad he can be a role model and advocate for young men everywhere.
“I think it’s important for those of us who have more social capital to use it [for good],” Legend said. “We as artists, if we’re being honest and truthful, we have an opportunity to really help people think about who they are.”
Legend’s words are so profound and insightful. We thank him for breaking cycles of toxic masculinity and championing a more inclusive idea of what it means to be a man.