Only a few people know this, but I have a tattoo. I got it on a stag-do. It was a stag-do of the kind I’d be uncomfortable with now: it was all aggression, misogyny, macho posturing and degrading chat up-lines. But, I had a great time. So great in fact, that I got a tattoo, emblazoned across the top of my left arm, not just as a reminder, but as a signal to others: I went on a stag-do.
I should point out that this stag-do lasted 32 years and the commemorative tattoo has been 32 years in the inking. I should also point out, of course, that this whole stag-do thing is little more than a clunky metaphor. The ‘stag-do’ is gender socialisation-the way I’ve been primed by my peers, teachers, and the media-to exhibit undesirable masculine traits that some people refer to using the umbrella term ‘toxic masculinity’. The ‘tattoo’ is the way this toxic masculinity reveals itself to me and others through my behaviours, attitudes and beliefs. Like a stag-do tattoo, my toxic masculinity is something largely embarrassing to me now-something there that I try to hide. Conversely, it’s also something that still has the ability to bring a wry smile to my face. Something that makes me feels strong, and powerful. I also have the tantalising knowledge that in certain contexts, if I bear it proudly, it would give me access to things I wouldn’t get were I to keep it hidden. Because all men have this tattoo and men can get you places. They are the inked gatekeepers of this world.
This is the first year I’ve really started to consider myself a feminist, but in becoming so, the tattoo of toxic masculinity doesn’t instantly disappear. There’s no laser in the world that could do that. It’s still there. Let me give you a few examples: I still love listening to rap music that often contains highly misogynist content. Tattoo on show. I still find myself puffing my chest up and staring aggressively at men I consider to be threats to people I care about. Tattoo on show. Only yesterday a colleague told me about a local primary school that had banned ‘The Last Showman’ from being shown in school on account of the fact that the bearded lady’s cleavage was considered sexually inappropriate. Clearly, this is ridiculous, but I explained that in my mind, because of years of watching Baywatch and reading Lad’s Magazines, for me, a woman’s cleavage had sexual connotations. Tattoo on show.
I am doing things a little differently. When I’m not in my car, rapping along to Notorious BIG boasting about his sexual exploits, I cover that tattoo up. A kid asks me if I like rap music, I’ll lie and tell them I don’t like it because of the sexist content. I also recognise that the banning of ‘The Last Showman’ on account of the bearded lady’s cleavage is yet another patriarchal attempt to police women’s bodies. And so, although I admitted that cleavage had sexual connotations for me, I recognise that it needn’t for the current generation and therefore banning this film is contributing to the problem of sexist policing of women’s bodies, rather than solving it. I now recognise that.
I am trying to get rid of this tattoo. I don’t want it anymore. This year I have spoken openly about my distaste for the programme Love Island on account of the way it perpetuates sexist stereotypes. Despite the fact that I love the show, I haven’t watched a single episode this year. This year, I have started crossing the road whenever I find myself walking on the same pavement, behind a woman walking on her own at night-time. I’ve bought copies of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s book ‘A Feminist Manifesto in 15 Suggestions’ and handed them to friends and family members. I’ve spoken and written openly about feminist issues. These things are tiny, and I want to do more, I want to have more of an impact, but I am finally trying. Really, really trying.
And trying doesn’t come without complications.
People have suffered far more than I have for the feminist cause, of course they have. I know that. But stuff like this hurts: I’ve fallen out with family members about my beliefs that there is nothing inherently different in boys and girls. Really, really fallen out. I’ve had to become something I hate: a ‘virtue-signaller’- you think I don’t recognise that being all preachy about Love Island, and yet still listening to Eminem is contradictory and hypocritical? Of course I do. Nowadays, I’m permanently questioning myself. I’m nearly always cross with myself. And sometimes I’m ashamed with myself. Like the time last week when I met a guy I knew from the the gym at the pub for the first time. We needed an extra chair so he went and asked for one from a nearby table:
“Hey sweetheart, do you mind if I borrow a chair?”
“Of course you can.”
“Ah thanks darling. Enjoy your day.”
And I just sat there, not wanting to embarrass the guy, and I didn’t pull him up on it. Shame on me, because I think referring to a woman you don’t know as sweetheart is wrong.
And then, when I don’t say something, the next time something like that happens, I feel more compelled to say something in order to atone for past failures. Last week, after the football, I was out with the lads. And by lads I mean friends I’ve known for years. Friends whom I love, friends whom I feel are falling more and more out of love with me, the less I see them, the more I get involved in all this stuff. Friends I want to love me like they used to. When one of the guys said to the waitress collecting our glasses, ‘Well helllooo there,’ I had to say something. And that doesn’t go down too well. I’m becoming the party-pooper. I used to be fun.
It’s not easy being a male feminist, but it’s a lot harder being a female feminist. I know that and I will never forget it.
However, I just need people to remember that sometimes, its uncomfortable wearing long sleeves to cover up a tattoo in hot weather.