What Does It Mean to Be Masculine? Spark Men Weigh In

grant kanak spark magazine lights masculinity

Do you remember how you were when you were a child? You were at ease in your own skin, with stars in your eyes, and weren’t afraid to cry when you needed to. You felt like you could do anything, be anything. The world was your oyster.

Here’s a little secret: this inner child in you is still alive and awakens every time you truly open up to someone that cares, someone that is soft with you and helps your heart breathe a little easier. This inner child thanks you, silently, when you allow yourself to be vulnerable. With vulnerability, you can be free — raw and thriving in your truest form.

As we grow older, we not only get trapped in society, but also within ourselves, or better, the idea we have of ourselves. In a world full of labels and social constructs, we are forced to fit in a box, a category. Except we cannot ever truly be categorized, for we are too vast, boundless and intricately woven to ever be generalized.

Gender is one construct by which we blindly abide by, without even realizing it, because it has become so ingrained in our society. Boys have to be “tough” and “loud” and “strong,” while girls have to be “soft” and “delicate” and “sensitive.” As if sensitivity and strength are mutually exclusive… Boys aren’t supposed to cry — because in our world, crying is a sign of weakness. As if owning up to your emotions and truly embracing them is a sign of anything but strength. 

I was fortunate enough to be able to sit down and interview four dynamic men that are a part of Spark Magazine — to learn about their take on masculinity, vulnerability, and how to stay grounded and true to yourself in this misguided and biased world. 

The first question I asked was simple: “What does vulnerability mean to you?”

Jade Fabello, the Writing Director of Spark, told me something that really struck a chord. He said, “While it can sound like a contradiction —  to me, vulnerability is the ultimate state of security. The world will pull you in all sorts of directions, if you have the ability to be free of those constraints, I highly recommend you do so. I am of the belief that you cannot yourself be vulnerable if you are not open and receptive to the vulnerability of others.”

This really sheds light on an intriguing question: what really would we be without our sensitivity? Without our sensitivity, we lose our sense of empathy, our ability to make connections with others and our longing to dream. Sensitivity is the essence of life because it allows us to experience the person we are, fully. 

grant kanak spark magazine lights masculinity

Aiden Park, the Editor-in-Chief of Spark, says something similar, “Being vulnerable, to me, means being completely honest. It means letting every feeling hit you.” In a world that shuns away from feelings, liberating yourself by embracing each emotion is a rebellious act, especially being a man. And one that is so worth it!

My second question was a little loaded: “What does being a man mean to you?” Grant C Kanak, one of Spark’s models, weighs in on his journey: “As a cisgender man, I believe that being a man used to be something that involved sculpting one’s identity to follow in the footsteps of their father or in the image of ‘manly men,’ (unemotional Mr. Tough Guys), but times are changing. The borders and rules that produced men with toxic habits of emotional expression have fallen and a new generation of men are beginning to emerge. Men that are able to express themselves more freely and blur the strict lines of masculinity and femininity.”

grant kanak spark magazine lights masculinity

And this brings up an amazing point: blurring the lines of masculinity and femininity is so necessary and a step forward to indeed evolve as a society — a society in which we can all embrace ourselves without having the pressure to adhere to labels.

William Gonzales, also a model at Spark, believes masculinity has to do with self-acceptance: “To me, being a man means owning every aspect of who you are. Concepts of masculinity are complex and inconsistent across cultures and societies, so I feel that traditional definitions, especially in a western context, can be very subjective. There is strength in vulnerability, and that’s true, no matter who you are. Socio-cultural norms place such a heavy emphasis on mental toughness for men, but that’s so unnatural and can lead to mental health problems. Human beings are made to feel emotions; I feel that to be a man is to be unafraid of that.” At the end of the day — male, female, whatever you want to call it; we’re all doing the best we can, with whatever we have.

“I’ve always felt that when men have creative pursuits it can make people uncomfortable, but in the fashion world that judgment isn’t there. We are encouraged to pursue self-expression and to try new things, and that’s something that I feel is important for all men to do,” says Grant. 

Aiden believes that there are a few misguided stereotypes attached with working in fashion: “Fashion is usually considered to be such a feminine thing. That’s not true. We have so many forms of art — like sculpture and painting, but they aren’t said to be only done by women. Men can be a part of the creation of fashion just as much as women.”

Aiden opens up about his experience writing poetry — “It’s hard for me to be vulnerable sometimes. For example, I’m currently in a poetry reading class, and it’s hard for me to share my poetry because it’s so personal. But I guess you have to allow yourself to be open and free. Being vulnerable is being open to criticism and putting your guard down. You have to have the mindset that you’re in it to improve.” He’s right. Every single step we take, even if it’s in the wrong direction, does help us to learn something about ourselves. I then asked them about their thoughts on being a man in the fashion world.

“I’ve always felt that when men have creative pursuits it can make people uncomfortable, but in the fashion world that judgment isn’t there. We are encouraged to pursue self-expression and to try new things, and that’s something that I feel is important for all men to do,” says Grant. 

Aiden believes that there are a few misguided stereotypes attached with working in fashion: “Fashion is usually considered to be such a feminine thing. That’s not true. We have so many forms of art — like sculpture and painting, but they aren’t said to be only done by women. Men can be a part of the creation of fashion just as much as women.”

While gender is most definitely a social construct, everything, at the end of the day, is what we make it out to be. We blame society for restricting us, but we forget that we make up a part of society too. It’s up to us to foster change by simply broadening our perception. One step at a time. 

My absolute favorite question I saved for last: “How do you express your emotions in a world so against men emoting?”

Jade professed, “Life is too hard and too wild for me to bottle up and not deal with my emotions. I journal and reflect a lot and work to utilize and maintain support systems available to me. Being open and honest with myself and the world is an emotional necessity to me if I want to have any chance of not crumbling under life’s agitations.”

William, too, believes in having time for oneself and devoting it to something you love: “Writing, playing the piano, drawing… Self-expression is extremely important. It can be so easy to get lost within yourself sometimes, and at times we need something that helps us come back to the surface.”

Aiden, on the other hand, believes in breaking the stereotype and crying — letting it all out. He says, “Being emotional is so important. I love crying in a movie. I love being able to just have a good cry once in a while. But I also believe it’s essential to know how to balance out being logical and emotional.” 

My conversations with these boys hit close to home and reminded me of the beauty of being in a community like Spark, and of course, UT Austin. As humans, we are blessed with the ability to connect with each other, beyond surface level. Each and every one of us is living a grand adventure; a life pregnant with highs and lows, with every day holding a different challenge. What really helps is to remember how each of us is so beautifully, tenderly, imperfectly human.  And of course, to never forget how immense each one of us is — our vast expanse of minds and hearts, allowing us to feel all these emotions and thus experience all these different dimensions of the universe! As Bukowski once said, “You have to die a few times before you can really live.” So here’s to embracing each storm, and taking from it the lightening of experience and the thunder of strength. In the face of emotional deaths (as Bukowski so well put) — it’s up to us to plant seeds on our graves so that when spring arrives, we can truly bloom and live free.

Let us awaken that inner child in each of us; the inner child that finds it so easy to unleash his soft, empathetic and vulnerable side. That child who is reading this right now and smiling so big on the inside. •

by Niti Majethia

Photography by Alma Zamora

Hair and Makeup: Rebekah Heidel

Stylist: Nikita Kalyana

Models: Jade Fabello, Aiden Park, Grant Christopher Kanak, William Gonzales

Niti Majethia is a third-year rhetoric and writing student from Mumbai, India. Besides writing for media and doing spoken word shows, Niti has a deep passion for puns, ranch dressing, cupcakes, butter chicken and puppies. If needed, you can find her unapologetically overeating at the nearest Sprinkles shop or binge-watching Netflix till her eyes fall out.

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