Men’s Gender Identity over 10 Years – Wearing a Mask, Discovery, and Integrity

I’ve conducted 10 years of interviews on men’s identity development. I initially interviewed the participants when they were in college about what it meant to them to be a man, what influenced that, and how it changed over time. Five years later, I interviewed them again in their mid-20s. And just this summer, as they are in their early 30s, I interviewed them again. What has already emerged is how their central tasks as men has evolved over this time from wearing a mask to discovery to integrity.

College Men – Finding Out How They Are Not Good Enough and Wearing a Mask to Cover Up

In the initial study participants were clear about how society expected them to behave as college men. However, each of them felt that they couldn’t live up to those expectations. They each had what they thought was their own little secret. They would careful whisper to me, “That doesn’t come naturally to me. So…I fake it.” They described wearing a mask or “putting my man face on” to both cover up how they weren’t good enough as men and to portray an image to others that would meet society’s expectations. This performance of masculinity had consequences for women and people of other genders, for their relationships with other men – including friends and fathers, and for themselves in sacrificing their own humanity and authenticity.

Mid-20s – Discovering Themselves as Men

In the five year follow-up study, none of the men were still in college. Their central task around gender identity now was exploration. What does it mean for me to be a man? They were dabbling in careers, romantic relationships, family connections, new and emerging social groups, and more. At this point in their lives they felt ready and eager or even necessary to figure out for themselves what being a man meant to them and they were actively exploring.

Early 30s – Integrity

In the interviews just this past summer, the central task in navigating their gender identity was integrity. They each described with good clarity how they did and did not want to be a man. They could recognize aspects of society’s expectations, also known as the traditional hegemonic definition of masculinity, that worked for them and aspects that did not. The challenge now was acting with integrity by living their own meaning of masculinity consistently. Most of them described not falling into aspects of traditional masculinity at work because at work there were professional expectations of behavior. And at home they described living with romantic partners, close roommates, and even family members who knew them so well that it didn’t make sense to try and pretend to be someone else. These people at home also knew them well enough, so a performance wouldn’t work even if they tried. However, when I asked about “third spaces,” places where they would spend time or socialize with friends, they would think and then sheepishly admit to falling right back into some of those same behaviors they had in college. Places like the golf course, bachelor parties, soccer fields, and geeky coffee shops were all described as places where they had fallen right back in. “It’s like I’m right back at the fraternity house.”

Next Steps

I’ve been reflecting on my own central tasks in my own gender identity. I’m roughly 10 years ahead of the participants, yet I see much of myself (successes, challenges, and failures) reflected in their stories. I’m eager to dig deeper and share more of their insights. I’m aiming for an academic journal article to be submitted later this spring and a full book done by the end of 2017.

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