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To Truly Understand The Nature Of Toxic Masculinity, It Helps To Wear A Crop Top

Even when you aren't surprised by the results of a social experiment, you can still learn a lot from it.

Daniel Brickhouse | May 1, 2018

Last semester I engaged in a project that ventured into the topic of toxic masculinity, which comes about when the narrow, traditional understanding of masculinity restricts men’s self-image and ability to relate to others.  I hoped to challenge this dynamic by wearing a crop top and a flower crown every day for a month. This project helped open my eyes to the way our society really views masculinity.

Masculinity has a very strict and rigid system about it. Day in and day out,  men are pressured by society to perform a macho, tough guy image that blocks out all forms of emotion and non-traditional self-expression. So how would one go about subverting this toxic, restrictive system?

Clothing choices are one obvious way to do so. We as a society think of clothes as the epitome of self-expression. The way we dress and what we wear says a lot about what we like. Since mainstream society encourages conformity in everyday social settings, unusual forms of self-expression are likely to be met with opposition no matter the form. So it came as no surprise that wearing a crop top and a flower crown around VCU’s campus was met with many awkward glances. Sometimes, people avoided eye contact altogether.

But what was it people were specifically reacting to? First, let’s take a look at crop tops and what  they represent in the conversation around masculinity. They’re a different look on a man compared to the clothing people typically expect to see men wearing. They expose the midriff rather than covering the entire torso. When we as a society think about men’s ways of expressing masculinity through removal of clothing, we think of men taking off their shirts and exposing  their entire upper body — something generally done to show off their bodies.

Think of a movie featuring a young actor widely regarded as attractive, such as Channing Tatum, or Zac Efron. Chances are they’ll take off their shirts at some point. After all, shirtlessness sells. As Anne Peterson stated in the Buzzfeed article One Hundred Years of Men Taking Off Their Shirts, “A set of unwritten rules established themselves: A guy could be shirtless on a men’s magazine if it was to show off ‘healthy’ living or if a woman was clinging to him; a guy ‘caught’ in the act of taking off his shirt (Ashton Kutcher, Mark Wahlberg) was declaring his transition to sex symbol. It could be used to declare an otherwise uninteresting star worth your attention, or reassert the masculinity when it had come into question; on very rare occasions, and only if the star was a comedian, it could be wielded as a punchline.”

It’s perfectly okay for a man to walk around with his shirt off — indeed, as Peterson points out, it sometimes has positive connotations. However, any woman who tried to walk around with her shirt off would meet instant disapproval. She’d quickly get in trouble for public nudity, due to the open revelation of her breasts. Crop tops, which allow for a woman to cool off by not wearing a full shirt, but also to remain within society’s guidelines by keeping her breasts covered, have become a sort of compromised solution for this double standard.

Therefore, crop tops are more associated in today’s society with women. Even when women wear them, crop tops are sometimes still frowned upon. A 2014 article in HerCampus is one of many that delivers do’s and don’ts for wearing crop tops. In TheOdysseyOnline, writer Ashley Brackett stated, “Girls are being judged based on what they wear and not by the personality they portray. Women are getting the message that showing off their body is either wrong or the only way they will become successful in this messed up world.”

For a man to wear one, exposing just half of his upper body, gives a softer touch to masculinity, just through wearing what is generally seen as a feminine piece of clothing. However, when men display or show any type of liking towards something feminine, it threatens the patriarchal masculinity mindset, which says that men need to be strong and unemotional in everything they do.  When men threaten this mindset, mainstream society quickly deems them “emasculated.” But does this softer view take away from masculinity, or just add another way to look at it? This is the question my project was intended to answer.

Social categorization is the reason we see a man wearing a crop top differently than a man in a more traditionally masculine outfit.  As explained in ScienceDirect, “Social categorization is the process by which people categorize themselves and others into differentiated groups.” Once people saw me in a crop top, they quickly and instinctively tried to place me into a group that made sense to them. This crop top immediately made people question my sexuality. Consistently some of my closest friends and those outside of my friend group — hell, even my parents — were swearing up and down I had to be gay at this point. That’s when I realized that we associate things we don’t necessarily like or agree with into categories that we’re already uncomfortable with. Judging and dismissing any transgression of mainstream gender roles — such as a man wearing a crop top — helps people make sense  of their dislike for those things.

But is there really anything wrong with that transgression? To say that opinions on my clothing choices, made as part of the experiment, were divided would be an understatement. Many men in particular didn’t like idea of the crop tops and flower crowns until I started defending myself.  Most of the time I responded with a very simple question: Why? Once you ask people to contemplate why things are the way they are, you can get them to think about their own unquestioned views, and whether they really withstand rational scrutiny.

The project accomplished everything I initially intended for it to do and more. Not only did I get people around VCU to consider and discuss the topic of masculinity, in a sense it helped me find myself as well. It helped me find something I really passionate about, and have a strong love for.

Before coming into VCU, I didn’t have a strong sense of what I truly cared about. The crop top project helped me gain massive amounts of confidence, and learn to view myself more positively. It showed me that I really care about gender and its role in society, and the positive and negative aspects we attribute to the feminine and the masculine. Gender issues are on the forefront of almost anything that inspires me now. It’s funny, because even though the project is over now, I still wear crop tops. They kind of grew on me, and now they have a pretty special place in my heart.