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A Father's Journal > Columns > A Father's Journal Index

My Real Boy
by Forrest Seymour

Nancy's been lately reading a book on circumcision. In bed, of all places. Clearly biased against the procedure, the book's preordained conclusion is illustrated graphically. I can't look at the pictures, not even a glance. Nancy's reading up to prepare for our son's inevitable questions and consternation. At nine months now, I'm used to his body and all its pudgy parts. I forget that he's the first in my family to be uncut. Our obstetrician claims the local rate is about 50-50 now, half the folks in our town electing to leave their sons whole. None the less, we expect Jakey to feel the outsider due to his intactness. Seems a shame. To date what's set our son apart from his fellow babes is not his genitalia, but his hair; long and dark, it looks like the hair of a two year old, but it's been his since birth. A while back, I cut it for the first time while he nursed and dozed. Carefully I clipped and trimmed the wispy locks, clearing them from his eyes. He looked even older then, the uneven thin ends giving way to thick bangs.

I thought then of the whole Samson and Delilah thing, the hair equals power equation. There is something paradoxically appealing about the archetype of a man deriving strength and authority from long hair, while our culture typically delegates this feature to women. I think of Delilah surreptitiously cutting Samson's hair, and his subsequent fall from grace. (I know this story only from dim memories of the movie version with Victor Mature as Samson, a role he must have felt destined for ever since he took that name).

And I think of the struggles over male hair length that our culture went through in the 60s and 70s. I myself wore my hair way long back then well after it fell out of fashion. From time to time it truly felt like a radical, and sometimes dangerous, thing to do. I keep a tattered picture ID card from those days and use it from time to time still, whenever I need to buy credibility with skeptical teens. In these unfettered adolescent minds, because I once wore my hair to the middle of my back, I have more authority. See, the hair equal power equation still works.

Emily, our five year old, asked the other day why mensrooms don't provide private stalls for the urinals. A brilliant question I'd never thought to ask.

"I don't know," I told her. "Ask the folks who build them."

Hey architects: Why aren't men afforded the same degree of privacy for number one as number two? Is it just efficient use of space, or is there some greater underlying meaning here? What about locker rooms? Having spent little if any time in women's locker rooms, I cannot verify this, but I recall from youth discussions with girls who swore that their locker room had showers in stalls! We boys had to learn to shower naked together from the word go. The story I hear is that women don't even walk around naked in their locker rooms. What is the origin and purpose of this discrepancy in our society's morés?

Lately, when I go to our local gym, I've been experimenting with modesty. Rather than feel like I have to walk around from shower to locker swaying in the wind, I now wrap myself in a towel. This is liberating in a strange sort of way. In the past I've felt that there was something important about being naked with a bunch of guys I don't know, though I've never been exactly sure why. Men's locker rooms (like "mensrooms") are one of the few places left where you can be pretty darn sure there are only going to be other men about. A couple of times I've found myself in locker rooms thickly populated with college or professional athletes, and this can be a heady experience; the testosterone was practically palpable. Though not small, I felt dwarfed by these walls of muscle and grit. It was both frightening and comforting.

So there is something powerful about this getting naked with strangers thing, about group showers, about public urinals, about steamy saunas packed with the first string. Call it gender bonding; we come to feel fond and proud of our sex.

Yes, that is the light side, Luke. Now it is time to look at the dark side.

By requiring these public displays of our bodies, our bodies become in part public property. Feminists have long understood this. Like most oppression of males this is hard to see because our society's oppression of women is so obvious and omnipresent. But this form of male oppression is no less insidious.

It has to do with preparing men to protect the tribe, to become warriors at a moment's notice, to give up their bodies to protect the status quo. It is a constant threat in men's lives that they may be called upon to fight, whether in a bar or in a war, often without notice. We prepare men to be warriors by mustering them like the military in gym class, so they get comfortable with following orders; by glorifying the culture of guns, so they won't hesitate to use them when asked; by forcing them together at close quarters and naked, so the deprivations of war will feel comfortable; by mocking them for their long or expressive hair styles, to train them to conform; and by cutting of the tips of their dicks, to demonstrate their subservience. I never said it was going to be pretty, but these are some graphic illustrations of our society's purpose that we must at least glance at from time to time.

My Jakey shows a certain tendency towards what a less careful observer might call typically boy behaviors. I know from watching girls and boys that we all have the whole spectrum of both gender's attributes within us. Boys may tend towards one general set of such behaviors, and girls another, but this applies only to the whole; individuals can and do exhibit it all from time to time. Still, a bit of biology and a large dose of culture teach us early what feelings and behaviors are OK in public, based on our genitals.

As a parent to both genders I'm happy at any opportunity to subvert this dominant paradigm. I'm proud of my daughter when she is aggressive, and tell her so; and I hope to feel the same when my son is gentle with his friends.

Still I myself can feel pretty aggressive when I hear people speak blithely of circumcision, when they mock a neo-punker's hairdo, when they shake their head about a violent boy-kid and say smiling, "he's a real boy."

"What about the rest of us?" I want to ask.

"Will my son have to be violent to be considered a real boy? Will he have to drive drunk to become a real man? Will he be forced to register for the draft? Will he be mocked for being uncircumcised? For being normal?"

Yes, Grasshopper, it is true. These poor judgments will be made, and many more. Gentle boys are mutated by our bizarre culture into violent thugs every minute. As parents of these fragile flowers we must nurture them with what we know to be healthy; love, pride, acceptance, an open mind, and some shelter from the storms. I'm excited, and not a little afraid, to learn who my baby-Jake blossoms into. And yet whoever he becomes, however odd, or normal, he will still always be my real boy.

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