I have a confession: I find it hard to order a pumpkin spice latte. Recently, with the crisp Midwestern autumn air in my lungs, I walked into my favorite local coffee shop and I knew the moment had come. I was craving that pumpkin flavored seasonal beverage, which means I would have to order it, wait for it to be made, and then actually be the person to pick it up from the counter when the barista would loudly announce its title to the whole shop.
All of this consternation stems from a notion in my head that men don’t drink pumpkin spice lattes. Where my perception of a gender-based stigma around a coffee beverage came from is anyone’s guess, but it started an interesting reflective process around things that dominant culture says men shouldn’t do. I recalled a favorite Ted talk of mine, Tony Porter’s A Call to Men, where he explains a box in which our society puts men and tells them that they should not show emotion, except anger. Men should not be passive, weak, or show fear. Men should not let the opportunity to step up, take charge, and lead pass them by, nor should they stray from these rigid norms of manhood.
The interesting thing about this list is that many items relate closely with some of the central tenets and competencies required for our work in student affairs. Student affairs professionals are helpers; we are trained to navigate emotions, know ourselves, understand how our students develop, and help them do so. These skills require comfort around emotion and an exercising of empathy. For a man to be in the field of student affairs means to step outside of the man box. Porter points out that to take that step out of the box requires confronting the fear of doing so, which sounds awfully similar to another call to action that’s very present in our field right now— being vulnerable.
Some have dubbed her a student affairs sage, but for me Brene Brown and her writing around vulnerability, shame, and daring greatly is more like a reminder about why I feel uncomfortable ordering a pumpkin spice latte. Vulnerability flies in the face of the man box, the regimented masculine must-haves that I’ve happily subscribed to for most of my life. The juxtaposition of our field’s enthusiasm for encouraging the practice of vulnerability and society’s box of masculine norms came to life for me in my first year as a graduate resident director where I was male head of hall for an intentionally female community.
Being the only male in that space, I thought that by conveying emotion and my credentials as a man who “gets it” when it comes to feeling would validate my position. On top of that, I made bulletin boards and other crafts that Pinterest would have paid me to put on the internet. In retrospect, it’s clear that I thought it would be better to guard my discomfort around my position by appearing to be more feminine, which was a coping mechanism for the shame and fear I held around potentially failing as a male head of hall for an all-female community. At the same time, I was held to competing standards by others, especially (and not surprisingly) parents. One woman called me weak; another asked if I had a sister because she was afraid I would not be able to handle the emotions of living with all women as a man. One father excused me from helping carry a carpet on move-in day noting that because the carpet was large, he would need a “strong guy” to help move it, another joked that living with 160 women “must be a dream come true.” This list goes on and reminds me that, as a man in student affairs, others hold me to competing standards around performing my gender—those dictated by my job and those posited by what society holds men to be.
The funny thing is that I bought in and held myself to those same competing standards. Even in desperately trying to break out of the man box through a crafting rampage and cupcakes, I was still hostage to the guilt I felt about not being manly enough to succeed without those things. Then there was guilt because I actually enjoyed them—baking is, after all, both therapeutic and delicious. What’s even funnier is that I didn’t have to do any of that stuff to be successful, I just needed to be me. My staff, though appreciative of the cupcakes and immaculate bulletin boards, did not need a male head of hall that acted or subscribed to a certain way of being, a certain color palette, or a certain way of navigating emotion. They simply needed a hall director. I learned that they were looking for authenticity and vulnerability. They were looking for me, and I was hiding in my man box and needed to figure a way out. I made the decision to share with them how much of a challenge the year had been up to that point. I was open with my concerns about my identity in the space, and I was upfront about my shortcomings. I had trembling hands, broke a sweat, and nearly cried, but I got the words out, and in doing so took a big step out of my box and into our profession.
So what does all this mean? It means that even though I struggle ordering pumpkin spice lattes, I do it anyway because I enjoy the flavor. It means that as a man in a field where gender issues are often at the forefront of justice and equity conversations, I have to include my voice and perspective. It means that I, because of my male identity, hold a lot of privilege that has a negative effect on everyone, even myself. It means that letting that privilege remain unchallenged and accepted as normal perpetuates the box in which dominant masculinity can place me in, which is harmful to both others and me and my work. At the same time, I’ve learned that I can use my awareness of the box and my explorations of what that box means for being a man in our society for educational purposes to help others understand more about themselves and this tricky thing we call gender. Doing so requires openness, it requires stepping out of that box, and it requires vulnerability.
For me, being a man in student affairs has taught me the value in the bravery it takes to be open about my masculinity. That does not make being vulnerable easy, nor does it make stepping out of the man box any more comfortable, but I think that highlights exactly why vulnerability and the knowing of yourself is an ongoing practice, and in many ways a professional responsibility. Students need professionals to be their best selves regardless of gender, and I think it’s especially important for men in our field to champion what healthy masculinity looks like for the collegians we work with. Only then can we all start to move forward toward dismantling the man box and remedying some of the many social ills that accompany it.
> BONUS <
Podcast With Becca Obergefell on Women in Student Affairs