I’ve played a lot of traditional roles throughout my 19 years; I’ve been the angsty tween, the hard-working high school student, the sleep-through-my-classes university student. But the one role I could never quite fit into was that of a stereotypically “masculine” man.
Growing up, I was raised in a female-dominated environment. I have three sisters who I’m close with and an extremely involved mother. My father plays a very active role in my life, but we’re both simply outnumbered by my family’s female power.
My mother and sisters undoubtedly provided me with numerous qualities for which I’m extremely grateful. They taught me to express my feelings, show compassion, and stay loyal to the people I care about. And, yes, there were a few interests and mannerisms I picked up from them that I’m not sure I would’ve otherwise; my hand often gravitates to my hip in the most Jewish-motherly way possible and there was a solid five years where I could’ve told you exactly what happened on that week’s America’s Next Top Model episode.
I never saw anything wrong with the way I walked, talked or naturally gravitated to girls for friends, since they’re who I felt most comfortable with, until I started grade school.
As a kid, my physical attributes never seemed to properly align with my age. I was sizeably below-average in height for my entire childhood which, coupled with my disinterest in most sports and my high-pitched voice, made me stand out among my male peers at school.
Most of the guys I went to school with shared a selection of common traits — they all played sports together, had more male friends than female ones and didn’t discuss their feelings. I’d later learn these traits fit into an idea called “masculinity,” a term often used to tie strength to men. I didn’t possess many of these qualities — or at least not to the extent that my classmates did — so I was associated by others with “femininity,” a term often and unfortunately used to tie weakness to women.
The boys in my classes didn’t approve of my breaking of this social taboo and their disapproval was often expressed in a method I similarly wasn’t overly familiar with: aggression.
I was called “gay” as an insult for the first time at the ripe age of six. I can remember it clearer than I can most of my childhood birthdays. I didn’t know what the word meant, but I could tell by the disgust dripping from the boy’s tone that I was meant to feel offended.
It was around this time that I started playing tennis. My proficiency for the sport quickly came to surpass most other six year olds thanks to a combination of natural skill and a good work ethic.
I joined a high performance program at the age of nine. I was the youngest and smallest player by a wide margin, but I was also the fastest and most strategic. There was a strength in that — not necessarily a physical one, but a power in excelling at a sport despite having none of the usual qualities used to do so.
My tennis skills also protected me somewhat from my elementary school bullies. I was still short, squeaky and predominantly friends with girls. But I was also playing a sport at a high level, something people considered “weak” or “feminine” were apparently not typically capable of doing.
Tennis became my shield against accusations of weakness. The insults they launched continually bounced off my against-all-odds athleticism. So, people eventually stopped firing them.
With a newfound confidence coming into middle school, I made more friends, got a girlfriend and found a second family in the kids I trained with. I still had various underlying insecurities about my lack of growth and stereotypically feminine features. Even so, if no one was calling me out on them, I saw no reason to change.
But then some cracks in my love of tennis began to manifest. To play tennis at a professional level, it’s essentially required to compete in tournaments in order to attain a provincial or national ranking.
Tournaments always confused me. I trained with a group of other players but when it comes down to it, tennis is a one-on-one sport. I didn’t like having to turn against my friends the second we became “competitors.” I didn’t like seeing them lose as much as I didn’t like seeing myself not win. Still, I never voiced these concerns out of fear that my compassion would appear cowardly.
Though I settled into the practices of playing a sport I no longer loved, high school proved to be an even larger struggle.
Still missing a growth spurt, I stuck out more than ever. A quick scroll through my ex-middle-school-girlfriend’s Ask.fm account gave me a pretty clear indication of how my ninth grade peers perceived me. One “question” read: “the only guy you ever [hooked up] with is [J]osh [G]ranovsky and he doesn’t really count because he’s a fag and kind of a girl.”
I didn’t have an account of my own, so her page became a sounding board of “faggot” labellings, doubts of my heterosexuality, and degradations of my “masculinity” in any other ways their adolescent brains could muster.
My only method of defence against these comments, since I had no way to respond, was to throw myself further into tennis. I upped my training to six times a week, sometimes starting at 6:30 a.m. and ending at 10:30 p.m. My ranking rose to a peak of 49 in Ontario and 200 in Canada. I posted about my strict regimen on social media, revelling in the shock of my classmates’ comments about my “hidden manhood.”
As my commitment to tennis expanded, so did my hate for it. I still didn’t like battling my friends on court, but now I also resented missing out on after-school activities or having to leave school early to accommodate training.
Then, towards the end of tenth grade, my prayers were answered. I grew a full foot and my voice dropped an octave or two. I found the confidence to join a new friend group, gain a serious girlfriend and eventually, quit tennis. That year, I dropped my training to four days, which soon wilted to two and ultimately to none.
Finally without constant commenting about my femininity from those around me, I became more assured in my self-worth.
My social and mental stability meant I no longer needed tennis to shield me from people who thought I was “girlish.”
While I’m happy to not be the anxious, five-foot-tall kid I was when I entered high school, I wish I hadn’t needed to grow a foot to gain confidence. I wish I didn’t have to stick with a sport I hated just to feel some ounce of strength. I wish I didn’t need to wait almost two decades to truly realize I could be a man just as I am, no matter what society historically defined one as.
Now, at 19 years old and six feet tall, I can’t remember the last time someone legitimately questioned my masculinity. More importantly, I can’t remember the last time I questioned my masculinity.
I like to think it has less to do with my proportional stature and more to do with learning to define my masculinity based on what makes me feel like a man, not what everyone else thinks a man should be.
In an ideal world, sharing my story would contribute to the growing movement of dismantling what is now known as “toxic masculinity.” But I’ll still be more than satisfied if I can get just one boy to read this, realize he doesn’t have to fit into any male stereotypes, and quit tennis.
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