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Is masculinity defined below the waist?

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There’s a moment.  For many of us, it happens in junior high: We find ourselves in a locker room surrounded by other guys, our thumbs under the waistband of our boxers or briefs, summoning the courage to push them down. 

We tell ourselves to keep our eyes down.  Don’t look around.  And yet…we can’t help it.  In furtive glances, we realize for the first time that all men are indeed not created equal.  We breathe a sigh of relief as we notice some smaller than ourselves, but our eyes widen at that one guy…you know the one I’m talking about.

Few moments in a young man’s life define us more than this moment.  It’s something we remember, and unconsciously revisit every time we push those boxers down for the rest of our lives.

In her new book, Manhood: The Bare Reality, photographer Laura Dodsworth exposes one of the most private parts of a man’s life in a way we’ve not seen before, and it’s a journey every man should take. 

A follow up to her popular Bare Reality which featured photographs of 100 women’s breasts and testimonials by those women about their life experiences and what it means to be female in today’s world, Manhood puts the men on display.  The dedicated photographer photographed 100 men’s penises and asked those men what it means to be a man, how they define their masculinity, and what role their penis has played in their identity.

It was a massive undertaking, and a journey the photographer never thought she would take.  SDGLN had the opportunity to speak to Dodsworth about this important book and what both she and her subjects learned about themselves on this incredible journey.

“I actually surprised myself that I wanted to do Manhood,” Dodsworth admits.  “Bare Reality was my response to the great patriarchy of the world.  I felt like breasts had been stolen from us, packaged as something sexier, and sold back to us.  So I had these amazing, mind blowing conversations with women while reclaiming our breasts.”

The book was a huge success and shortly after its release, it occurred to the photographer that she had no idea what men’s stories were.  There seemed to be a huge gap in men’s narratives that were never discussed, and she found she needed to delve into that blank space to determine what was there.

After the photographic subject of her first book, it was a natural leap to using the penis as a focal point for her discussions with these men, and she found it opened a door that she never expected.

“In England, we call it a manhood,” she says.  “It seemed like the correct place to start from to talk about being a man.”

After putting out feelers for men who would be interested in taking part in the project, she soon found herself immersed in stories she never imagined hearing.

As the men related tales of abuse and feelings of inadequacy, cancer survival and addiction, depression and thoughts of suicide, Dodsworth realized that not only had there been a blank space in the story of men, but that the stories that quietly filled that space had a real hunger to be heard.

She also began to recognize elements that mirrored her previous work, especially when one of her interviewees said, “I’ve chased the idea of being a man all my life”.  The quote not only echoed her own search for what it meant to be a woman, but also brought into focus how very alike we are as men and women in our insecurities.

“I think what I’ve ultimately come to believe,” she explained, “is that there is no gender.  There’s no masculine; there’s no feminine.  It’s ideology.  It’s culture.  We’re learning a great deal about this from the trans community, I believe.”

Inevitably, our conversation turned to size.  Men in the gay community have an almost unhealthy obsession with the subject.  We are prone to equate larger size with virility and grant those genetically blessed individuals a kind of free pass even when it turns out they’re not very good in the bedroom.  At least he was huge, right?

Meanwhile, it has created a complex among men of smaller size in our community, and it’s no wonder why.  In a culture of hookup apps where the first question is about size and an average sized penis is no longer considered acceptable, the prospect of connection seems daunting at the best of times and insurmountable at others.

As a gay man on the shy side of average, myself, I have had more than my share of experiences where men have suddenly remembered something pressing they had to do when the time to undress arrived, or even worse the couple of guys who have actually pointed and laughed while shaking their heads and walking out of my bedroom.

It is, unfortunately, an acceptable form of body shaming, and it’s no wonder that the subject of size was a theme in Manhood.

“I was surprised by how many men were worried about size and how much it’s bled into all aspects of their lives,” the photographer said.

Interestingly enough, however, she was able to draw a direct comparison again to issues she uncovered with women and the size of their breasts.

Specifically, on either side of the aisle, average size had very little effect on men and women’s lives.  However, if breast or penis size went too far in one direction or the other, the subject felt a host of insecurities that influenced their interactions with others.

The truly sad part was that there seemed no clear solution to these issues, but after multiple years chronicling stories of both men and women, Dodsworth feels she might have a starting point.

“Everyone wants to love and be loved.  It sounds obvious.  It sounds cheesy, but it’s true,” Dodsworth insists.  “We all want to love and be loved.  I that the sharing of stories aids that.  There’s healing there.  If you can’t find love for the person sitting across from you then the world is in trouble.  It has to start there.”

It’s a simple message, but in a world where conflict waits around every corner, we seem to be as far from embracing it as we’ve ever been.

In times like these, we must look to artists like Laura Dodsworth.  They are the pathfinders to commonality.

Manhood: The Bare Reality is currently listed for pre-order on Amazon with a release date of September.