Art by Leslie Lee

Eldon Whitehead
07 October 2023
Over the summer, I sought refuge amongst the burnt umber bark of the Humboldt Redwoods from which I fondly hail as my first home. I took the drive along the Pacific Northwestern coast, seeking a sense of nostalgia I yearned for, a remembrance of boyhood and bittersweet recollections of the past. When I stopped at a rest area for a quick cigarette, I found it all in a way I never could have foreseen.

A deep purple Pontiac GTO Judge pulled into the spot next to my car and out stepped a man donning a thick black jacket and a long denim skirt. The bright yellow geometric CAT of the Caterpillar logo on his jacket shone confidently against the arboreal surroundings of the freeway; my mind catapulted to the summer after 5th grade. I remembered fumbling for greasy tools as both my dad and uncle engaged in battle with a beaten up truck engine. My uncle wore a sun-faded black jacket with the very same logo, covered in grime and dirt from years of logging. Seeing that jacket amongst the trees called that memory forward in such a vivid way that I almost failed to notice what accompanied it– a long indigo denim skirt and lace socks resting in a pair of Doc’s. It struck me then that besides the nostalgia I had been hunting, something else had come to mind. The man emitted a sense of masculinity, beautifully so and in a way I deeply admired.

I had to contain my laughter at the thought of my uncle utterly confused by the jacket being used as anything other than a durable means to an end. I imagined his shocked expression morphing into a scowl when the realization set in that he’d have to dish out far more money now than he ever had to for something like a work jacket. I pictured his attempts at synthesizing the idea of a manly skirt and white lace socks within the trends of his formative years; accepting but never truly understanding, his mind binded by chains of precedence.

My amusement faded quickly, replaced by an unsettling consideration of what constitutes masculinity. I found myself in crisis, as if my platform of identity had just been made unstable. I could not fathom why this seemingly disjointed and contradictory portrayal of manhood felt so wonderfully complete to me. My crisis slowly unraveled as I considered all the ways in which the appearance of masculinity has been dissected, sewn back together, and expanded. For many, the historical limitations of the masculine appearance do no justice to the truth of manhood. For many, this amalgamation of the traditional and the modern portrayed by the man at the rest area is the most complete portrait of manhood that could be achieved.

One who wishes to emulate manhood in their appearance finds themself today at the culminating precipice of years of challenging the one-dimensional male appearance. In recent years, freedom has been fought for (and is still fought) to express oneself as a holistic man; a man who is more than the toxicity of his father and the judgment of his brothers. A man who is no longer distinguished only by his labor, but by his creative self. A man who no longer must shun his own beauty and femininity, all while still retaining his masculinity amongst his embracing of the unconventional.

From carpenter pants to corsets, a diversity in the ways men express themselves outwardly has arisen. The narrow, monolithic version of man has been condemned in favor of a multifaceted man who healthily acknowledges dialectic tensions within himself. The modern day man is encouraged to traverse the intersection between opposing forces within himself and to find security in their identity by doing so. Masculinity and femininity now seek to be interwoven; the ruggedness of boyhood must no longer extinguish a man’s gentleness and sensitivity. Instead, we have bore witness to a renaissance of free expression for men, with a plethora of norm-breaking styles rising in popularity and a general acceptance of appearances which embrace multiple sides of one’s person. Experimental and traditionally feminine-perceived clothing items have seen a surge in popularity with men. Even non-traditional clothing proportions (like crop tops) have become commonplace within modern masculine fashion trends. These progressive rejections of traditional masculinity encourage men to comfortably champion aspects of the self which they likely would have repressed at other points in history. This progressive movement comes in a contradictory tandem with a return to certain traditional styles for men; vintage masculine fashion trends have resurfaced and spiked in popularity with things like workwear which implicate a unique, modern version of masculine conservatism.

These concurrent trends propose a new idea of masculine – one that gives power to opposing forces which naturally clash. Some choose to dedicate their masculine presentation entirely to one sect or mode, but many have found that they prefer a combination of these expansive approaches to appearance. Perhaps the phenomenon of masculinity’s new nature is best explained as something akin to cubism. The masculine styles and appearance of present modernity are fractured and lacking in cohesiveness in a way that echoes cubist technique; multiple perspectives of the different aspects of masculinity are combined in a way that may be discordant, but seeks to accommodate vastly different interpretations under one, all-encompassing canvas of masculinity.

It is here that I find my crisis from the rest area resolved, and my sudden question of what makes myself–or anyone, really– masculine is answered. I realize that I face the same crisis that the man in the purple Pontiac faced: to combine these disunified standards and styles to be a wholly unified masculine self. A crisis which upends preconceptions and brings every aspect of one’s identity into question; a crisis which drags forth a truth which rides the currents of contradiction and fragmentation, of conformity and expression, and most importantly–a truth of the self.