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Woman Up: Never too late to shed wrong ideals of what makes a man

The first hobby I recall picking up as a child was origami. There was something appealing about being able to turn sheets of paper into an animal, a boat or, even better, something to annoy my older brother with, like a throwing ninja star.

TODAY senior journalist Low Youjin recall picking up origami as a child but his father said to him that what he was doing was "not manly" because “only girls do origami”.
TODAY senior journalist Low Youjin recall picking up origami as a child but his father said to him that what he was doing was "not manly" because “only girls do origami”.

The first hobby I recall picking up as a child was origami. There was something appealing about being able to turn sheets of paper into an animal, a boat or, even better, something to annoy my older brother with, like a throwing ninja star.

It was fascinating, it was satisfying, but it was also short-lived.

I vividly remember that I was busy assembling an army of origami jumping frogs and giving them names when my father walked in and asked what I was doing.

I thought it was obvious. “That’s Leonardo…,” my six-year-old self said to him, referring to the character from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon. 

In response, he said something to the effect of what I was doing was "not manly" because “only girls do origami”.

I did not understand then — and even now — why folding paper was “unmanly” but I listened to my father anyway, and stopped my hobby. I have also kept my room door closed since.

That was a prelude to how my adolescence played out: Hearing how a man should or should not behave; how a man should not cry or show emotions; how men must always be strong and so on. 

Television shows and movies that I was exposed to similarly perpetuated the idea that a real man had to be hyper masculine, like wrestlers beating each other on the head with a steel chair or like Arnold Schwarzenegger in Conan the Barbarian mouthing off things like: “Crush your enemies, see them driven before you and hear the lamentation of their women!”  

I also went to an all boys’ school where the bullying of anyone perceived to be weak or effeminate was rampant — I bullied and was bullied too. 

A TOXIC JOURNEY INTO ADULTHOOD

So it goes without saying that I grew to believe that men had to be strong and tough. Not just physically, but mentally too, and I developed a strong dislike for anyone that did not fit this ideal.

This was especially evident during my National Service (NS) days.

In one instance during my Basic Military Training, a fellow recruit started crying during a route march because he was physically exhausted and could not carry on, and I remembered joining in with the rest of the company in mocking him.

In another, I was a trainee at the School of Infantry Specialists — since renamed to Specialist Cadet School — undergoing a timed navigation exercise.

Prior to the start of the exercise, my teammates and I had agreed to take turns carrying a hefty signal set, which is a communication device, in addition to our individual equipment.

One teammate, however, slowed everyone down whenever it was his turn. He said he was tired and his shoulders ached. 

This irritated me to that point that I eventually grabbed the signal set he was carrying off his shoulders and carried it myself. Cursing him and everyone in his family, I pushed him along and told him to "man up".

These were not isolated incidents.

I was a very angry and toxic young man during my NS days, the sort that contributed to a toxic environment that some men go through during NS, which gender advocacy group Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware) touched on during an Institute of Policy Studies lecture last year.

During her talk, Aware's executive director Corinna Lim said, among other things, that the use of homophobic and misogynistic terms, as well as the constant shaming and humiliation, are forms of "toxic masculinity" perpetuated in NS.

And after years of being told that a man needs to hide his emotions, I was also unable to talk about what was troubling me.

It felt too awkward to express these feelings with my male friends but fortunately I found a female friend whom I felt comfortable enough to speak to eventually. 

Unfortunately for her though, I had years of pent-up frustrations and bottled up emotions. I became an "energy vampire", constantly overwhelming her with all my problems, which eventually soured our relationship.

Looking back, I am ashamed of how I behaved.

In fact, it took me a long period of self-reflection to get to a healthy mental and emotional state.

I was, in essence, just fumbling along towards my path to manhood and impacting the lives of others negatively along the way. 

But I also found that I was not alone after working on a piece on toxic masculinity for the Woman Up series.

As I spoke to men and fathers about the prevalence of toxic masculinity, I realised that like many other men, several did not have good male role models to look up to as they were growing up. 

FINDING THE RIGHT ROLE MODELS

This spurred one of my interviewees, Mr Kelvin Seah, to become a stay-home dad. 

Mr Seah said he and his wife decided that their two sons needed a positive male role model to feature heavily in their lives. 

As a child, he said his father's absence left a void in him that made him "crave for a male role model" to guide him through the rite of passage of becoming an adult. 

Since his father was not present for him, Mr Seah said he turned to the women in his life, as well as books and movies.   

A number of my male peers and interviewees shared their own experiences about fathers who were physically present but emotionally absent, with many wishing that they had found a good male role model earlier in life to guide them as they grew up. 

I wished the same but I am still thankful to have eventually found the right people later in life to steer me in the right direction.

It was during my working life that I met men whom I considered good role models. 

Not all of them conformed to my initial ideas of masculinity but I held them in high regard. 

One of them taught me the importance of a Chinese saying, “先做人,后做事”, which translates to mean that a person’s character is more important than his or her work.

The other men practised this saying in some form and treated everyone with respect, no matter their station or beliefs, and never abused their authority.

It took me some years to unlearn what I had been told or shown was the ideal image of masculinity.

Sometimes though, I "relapse" into my old ways but I'm glad those around hold me accountable for my behaviour. 

TO BE A BETTER MAN, JUST BE A BETTER HUMAN

What I learnt from all these roles models was that shedding my toxic masculine behaviour would not make me less of a man.

To be clear, when one addresses toxic masculinity, it is by no means a call for the cancellation of the masculine man — characteristics such as strength, assertiveness and independence are all virtues that a man should embody. 

But that does not mean other characteristics like sensitivity, vulnerability and empathy do not have a place as well.  

Perhaps, rather than think about what characteristics a man or a woman should embody, we should reframe the conversation to think about how we can all be better humans instead. 

What I also learnt from all these roles models was that it is also never too late to shed toxic masculine behaviour. 

Unlike the reservations I had about continuing my origami hobby when I was young, I did not hesitate when asked to write this column — because I know now that writing about my feelings does not make me any less of a man. 
 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Low Youjin is a senior journalist at TODAY, focusing on environment, manpower, as well as court and crime.

Related topics

Woman Up toxic masculinity Parents fathers role model

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