The New Self-Help

What Becoming a Man Showed Me About a World Designed for Men

Every day, I was rewarded for behavior that I was previously punished for

Book jacket for Amateur: A True Story About What Makes a Man by Thomas Page McBee
Book jacket for Amateur: A True Story About What Makes a Man by Thomas Page McBee

This story is part of The New Self-Help: 21 Books for a Better You in the 21st Century.

When I first began injecting testosterone, I clocked the changes primarily in aesthetic terms: the T-shirt that now fit me, the graceful curl of biceps, the glorious sprinkle of a beard. I loved being a man; I loved having a body.

Those first few years of testosterone injections coincided with a period of anxious headlines about men in economic turmoil. Post-recession, surges in suicides, drug addiction, and even beards were all blamed on a broader insecurity about the massive loss of jobs and the shake-up of male-led households after the crash. It was dubbed a global “masculinity crisis,” its hallmark behaviors deemed “toxic.” It was, according to a 2010 cover story in The Atlantic, “the end of men.”

But I was only beginning: A man born at 30, with a body that reveals a truth about being human that is rarely examined. The more I felt at home in my body, the more uncomfortable I became with what was expected of it. I couldn’t shake the idea that this “masculinity crisis” reflected something important and terrifying about what we talk about when we talk about men. All men. A story about masculinity we all have been taught to believe.

It was around that time that I began reading the psychologist Carl Jung, who, after World War II, long consumed by the question of what made people evil or complicit in evil, settled on a single, elegant explanation. He believed that ostracizing any aspect of the human experience, however ugly, created a “shadow” of our rejected bits that we drag behind us. If we do not see that the shadow belongs to us, we project it onto others, both individually and as a culture. To face and own what most disturbs you about yourself, Jung believed, is among the central moral tasks of being human.

To make change, you have to pay attention. The fight against toxic masculinity begins with yourself.

Before injecting testosterone, my beardless, androgynous body was troubling, unprofessional. I was once explicitly asked not to meet with important clients at my nonprofit job, as the very sight of me might “send the wrong message.” I never hardballed a salary negotiation. And I wasn’t ever hired, as I would be years later, for my “potential.”

I could pinpoint the exact turn: Six months into my transition, testosterone made my voice low. Really low. So low that I was almost impossible to hear in a loud bar or a cacophonous meeting unless I spoke at a ragged near-shout.

But when I did talk, people didn’t just listen; they leaned in. They kept their eyes focused on my mouth or down at their hands, as if to rid themselves of any distraction beyond my powerful words. The first time I spoke up in a meeting, in my newly quiet baritone, I noticed the sudden, focused attention, and was so uncomfortable I found myself unable to finish the sentence. I learned then that I had stepped into a new order of things: Everyone in the room, men and women alike, waited for me to open my mouth.

It wasn’t long after I adopted my new role that disturbing patterns came into focus. I kept a tally of how often I tried to get my points across in meetings — a practice I’d honed aggressively in my “before” body that had a different impact now. Whom did I talk over more often? Women, at a rate of three to one. Even worse, as I assessed myself honestly, I saw the many subtle ways I took men just a little more seriously. I was quicker to respond to their emails and messages, more concerned with their perceptions, and more swayed by their arguments. Regardless of my before body, I had still somehow inherited a bias common to a lot of men.

Understanding how this bias operates in the workplace means knowing that it often seems innocuous, according to Caroline Simard, a researcher at Stanford. She and her colleague Shelley Correll analyzed 200 performance reviews within the same large technology company and found that women were more likely than men (57% to 43%) to receive what the researchers termed “vague praise” — feedback not tied to any actual business outcome (“you had a great year”). Men were more likely to receive praise connected to their actual contribution to the company. Performance reviews may seem like a relatively benign, bureaucratic measure, but Simard told me they are a powerful indicator of a cluster of similar biases that, taken together, hold women back.

Surely, generally, this behavior is not conscious — which is precisely the problem. “Even when we think we can evaluate rationally,” Simard said, “bias leads us to errors in judgment.” These “errors in decision-making” result in the thousands of subtle behaviors performed unquestioningly by almost everyone of every gender. The reach of such bias was troubling and pervasive, but as clear to me as the awful new way I found I could silence rooms that day at work. Since my transition, I viscerally felt that the world was designed just for me.

At the very least, I received a lot on credit. My voice was just the start. I loved my work and — like many people in my age group — finally found a professional groove in my thirties, when I understood more about who I was. But that wasn’t all. The friction between my body and the world around me was gone. Being a man was easy in exactly the places not being one had been hard.

Every day, I was rewarded for behavior that I was previously punished for: standing up for my ideals, pushing back, being fluent in complex power dynamics, and strategically — and visibly — taking credit. When I proved myself, just once, it tended to stick. “We assign more credibility and expertise to men,” Simard said. And by “we” she means all of us. Harvard University researchers designed a test to gauge your personal inclination toward bias. If you’re anything like me, you’ll also fail it.

I didn’t know until I was a man how to pretend to know more than I did, how to behave as if I were an expert when I was a beginner. But I did not have to know. My conditioning began the day I silenced a room just by opening my mouth.

From Amateur: A True Story About What Makes a Man by Thomas Page McBee. Copyright2018 by Thomas Page McBee. Reprinted by permission of Scribner, an Imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Writer exploring the relationship between gender, culture, and history. Most recent book: Amateur (Scribner). Essays/reporting: NYT, The Atlantic, GQ, more.

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