For two summers during college, I worked in a seaside shop in Old Orchard Beach. It’s long gone now and the boss was awful, but the location was unbeatable; it made for a pretty sweet gig. We sold flip-flops, tote bags and various summery accessories.

The first thing you saw walking into the store were displays of brightly patterned headbands in baskets. Kids always made a beeline for the headbands, because kids can’t resist small neon things you put on your head. And one of the worst parts of working there was seeing parents flip out when their little boys, usually under the age of 6, put the headbands on their head. Usually it was just the parents going, “Take that off, it’s for girls,” but there was at least one incident I remember where a father physically yanked it off his crying son’s head.

So the kid put a lobster headband on his head – what exactly is the problem with that? Why did parents get so upset at their young boys for putting on headbands, but not their girls?

I was thinking about the headband incidents while I was reading articles and debates about “toxic masculinity” and the ways in which it is negative. Now, a lot of guys (particularly of the gruff, older generation) seem to be upset at the idea. “What, it’s wrong to be a man now?” is the refrain. Well, hold your horses, slow your roll. There’s nothing wrong with being a man.

But,  if “being a man” means having to put down or denigrate women, if your version of “masculinity” is simply “aggressively not femininity” – there’s something wrong with that.

And again, most men might be taken aback here. Your response might be: “I would never put down women, I love women, I respect them, my wife is the most amazing woman” – and I bet you do treat individual women with respect, and I’m sure your wife is awesome.

But – let’s say your buddy decides to adopt a dog. A toy poodle, for example. One of the real tiny ones that has to wear coats all the time to survive in Maine. You might make fun of him for that. But are you laughing at him because dogs wearing jackets is inherently silly, or are you laughing because he adopted a “girly” dog and he is a man?

Imagine your son likes playing dress-up with his sister’s Barbie dolls. Do you encourage that type of quiet, creative play? Or do you take the dolls away? Why or why not?

One day at work last week, I was stocking shelves in the feminine hygiene aisle when three men in their early 30s walked by. One of them grabbed a random box of tampons and went, “Hey, Scott! Don’t forget your tampons!” They all laughed. Then the jokester made the mistake of looking me in the eye. I wasn’t laughing. (Ironically, considering the location and subject matter, I was also on my period, which meant my levels of patience were at their monthly lowest.) We were both frozen for a moment, clutching our boxes of tampons. “Ha, ha,” I said in a voice that was about three octaves higher than it usually is. He put the box of tampons right back where it belonged and scuttled away.

Stocking shelves gives you a lot of time to ponder. (In fact, it’s where I mentally draft many of these columns!) I found myself trying to figure out why three guys laughed at “Hey, Scott! Don’t forget your tampons!” Where is the humor coming from? Boiled down, the punchline seems to be basically “Ha, ha! Vaginas!” And that’s part of where the problem is.

When men get made fun of, or hassled, or derided, or beat up because they are doing something that is traditionally feminine, it sends the message that femininity is something bad. That being girly – and therefore, being a girl – is a bad thing, or at least something to be mocked. “Oh, well, it’s fine for a woman to do (insert particular activity here), but not a man.” Why? Is it because being seen as being like a woman is a bad thing for a man? (Ironically, in many situations, being seen as being “like a man” can be good for women, particularly in the workplace.) When you tell a little boy that being like a girl is bad, what message does that send to little girls?

Can you really claim to respect women if you are sending messages to men that say being like a woman is a bad thing?

Victoria Hugo-Vidal is a Maine millennial. She can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: mainemillennial

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