I am Canadian, North American born and raised. This past semester I studied abroad in the Netherlands among people from all over Europe and, maybe it’s the inner journalist in me, I couldn’t help but constantly compare my home culture with the one I was immersed in. One aspect of culture that instantly caught my eye was the differences between genders, specifically in terms of masculinity and beauty.
I am used to testosterone fuelled, meat-loving, football playing, muscled, North American men. For myself, all of these traits have become a definition of a “manly man.” However, what defined a “man” in the Netherlands is far from this. Little things would trigger this realization for me, like the tight bright clothing some men would wear or their comfort and ease with jokes about sexuality.
One of the biggest realizations for me however, was when a group of my European male friends took part in the school dance show…voluntarily. It wasn’t because their girlfriends wanted them to or that they lost a bet, it was because they genuinely enjoyed dancing. Their mentality was why not partake in something I love as opposed to will this hurt my masculinity? In North America, men are ashamed to take part in something that is considered feminine. When I heard that my male friends were at first doing the dance show my immediate reaction was: Why? Isn’t that sad? We are programmed to believe that certain activities are feminine and in turn make a man less masculine.
In Europe, or at least from what I experienced in the Netherlands and from interacting with other International Europeans on campus, this is not the case. The fact that these men took part in something stereotypically feminine showed their comfort with their masculinity and therefore in turn made them more masculine. In North America, men assuming feminine-characterized roles instantly have their sexuality questioned. My exchange experience taught me that gender stereotypes have to be destroyed so that people can truly be free.
In terms of women, I was fascinated with the notion of beauty. What made a woman beautiful was not based on physical features or materialistic possessions, but rather how natural and real they were. A typical night out for North American women consists of little clothing, a whole lot of makeup, and perfectly done hair.
My North American friends and I were given a rude awakening when we first went to the campus bar in the Netherlands dressed this way. I was shocked to discover that if you go out like this in Europe, you are instantly pinpointed as a North American. Girls in the Netherlands seldom do their hair, they wear little to no makeup, and dress in casual clothing. This laid-back approach to appearance is what makes them beautiful. Of course I am not saying that men in the Netherlands don’t appreciate the universal stereotypes of beautiful or “hot”. However, beauty was more attributed to the natural simplicity of a woman. I slowly found myself being weaned off my daily makeup and hair rituals and feeling more confident in my appearance and myself than I had ever been before. There is something to be said for living in a culture where being the closest thing to the REAL you is more beautiful than any amount of makeup or hair.
I am by no means saying that all of Europe is this way, however, from what I experienced and witnessed in the Netherlands made me believe that this is what the 21st century should be about. It is qualities like enjoying to dance or personality above appearance that define an individual, not how “manly” or “beautiful” they are. I never realized how much being comfortable with ourselves is dependent on the culture we live in until now. It is time for a change.