Movember lessons about being men

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It's Movember: the wonderful time of year when people are encouraged to grow out their flavour savers and soup strainers to raise awareness and money in aid of men's health.

Bearded man (Pexels/Pixabay)The Movember Foundation has a clear goal: stop men dying too young. The foundation aims, in particular, to reduce preventable deaths resulting from prostate cancer, testicular cancer and suicide.

While the goal is noble, Movember is also a sad reminder of a truth not universally acknowledged: men are often our own worst enemies. We know that women tend to live about half a decade longer than men and while there are some biological factors that influence life expectancy, they do not entirely explain the gap. Rather, many risk factors for preventable death in cisgender men come from pressure to perform the role of a 'real man' in our society.

There is a template for masculinity in our culture that goes like this: Men are strong and self-sufficient (both physically and emotionally). They power through pain and injury, and they take risks without care for whether they are putting their health in danger. Emotions are to be repressed and unexpressed, with the exceptions of anger, lust and jealousy. In this framework, the process of growing from a boy into a man is one where the soft edges are cut away and hardened scar tissue is left.

These messages aren't explicitly taught in a state-mandated masculinity class, but boys are often told to 'toughen up' or 'man up' when they display vulnerability. This is policed by peers and adults (usually male), through name-calling or social exclusion. After all, you wouldn't want to be called a 'girl' or, perhaps even worse, 'gay'!

In a masculinity where conceding the discomfort and pain of sickness is framed as a moral weakness, is it any wonder that men are significantly more likely to avoid or delay a doctor's visit? Testicular and prostate cancer — two of the three Movember Foundation focus issues — have extremely good prognoses if caught early on. Unfortunately, visiting a medical professional is generally a prerequisite for early diagnosis. Our pride is getting in the way.

The same goes for mental health. The fact that men are discouraged from talking about and processing their feelings in healthy ways means that they are vastly over-represented in suicide statistics. Men are also more prone to resort to physical violence than women, which leads to injury and death. Like with physical health, help is frequently not sought for these problems until it is too late.

 

"This isn't about weakening or coddling men. Rather it is about promoting an authentic and self-aware strength, where men know their limits and know when to ask for help."

 

On each of the Movember Foundation's cause pages, the first step in helping men overcome the identified health issue is some form of education. This includes instigating broader attitudinal changes; to truly support the goal of stopping men dying too young we must work to address the underlying social stigma towards seeking help. The men I know are very good at growing a moustache and raising money, but very few take the next step and openly challenge the stigma.

So, how do we do this? The first step for everyone is to check our own behaviour. Many of us have spent our lives immersed in a culture that shames men for showing vulnerability. As a result, too many of us (myself included) have internalised behaviours that enforce the expected form of masculinity. Instead of telling men to eat a teaspoon of cement every time they are struggling, we should encourage positive coping behaviour. This might involve going to a medical professional, talking to friends, or even just taking it easy for a bit. We can also authentically check in on our male friends and respond to their distress with compassion, not scorn.

Another major step is for men to take ownership of this problem and model positive behaviour for each other. Particularly, the way we model masculinity to young boys is important (as seen in research regarding drinking and driving). This one is trickier than the first step because it involves a bit of risk on the part of men, who face derision and scorn for going against the grain. Subsequently, it will not be possible or safe for all men to do this. However, if we are in a place where we can use our position to promote healthier ideals for men, then we have a social obligation to do so.

Finally, we can have explicit discussions with boys and men about their views on gender. Much of this self-defeating behaviour is normalised to the point where it is effectively invisible. In cultures where uncritical acceptance is the norm, the only way to break the cycle is to draw attention to the flaws of the status quo.

This detrimental stereotype of masculinity is what people are referring to when they talk about 'toxic masculinity'. It's toxic because it kills insidiously; it's a way to perform the role of 'man' that kills because it is built on a foundation of maladjusted coping mechanisms, violence, and dangerous risk-taking. This isn't, as some conservative commentators might suggest, about weakening or coddling men. Rather it is about promoting an authentic and self-aware strength, where men know their limits and know when to ask for help.

The news isn't all bad, as societal attitudes are slowly changing. But the problem of toxic masculinity is widespread and pervasive. In having this discussion it's also important to acknowledge the even worse life expectancy for LGBTQ+ and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men, who have their own range of unique issues that intersect with those of men in the gender, sexual and racial majority.

So go ahead and grow your mo'! And while you cultivate your luscious new cookie duster, take the time to have those challenging conversations with your mates and lead by example.

 

 

Tim HuttonTim Hutton is a high school teacher and occasional freelance writer. His ramblings can be found over at www.mrhutton.com.

Main image: Pexels/Pixabay

Topic tags: Tim Hutton, Movember, masculinity, feminism

 

 

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Existing comments

Thanks Tim, good points that we need to be reminded of so often. My "Mo" gets me into interesting conversations with other men. Yesterday a bus stop a much younger man looked up at me and asked "Are you Billy Connolly"? Our conversation was brief but it was enriched with humour and the intimacy of comparing our facial decor. I think we have also crossed some cultural barriers on masculine intimacy that are nurturing. As a young bloke in Geelong I rarely if ever hugged mates. yet today I look around and marvel at the ease of physical intimacy that young men often share when greeting each other. Much of this happens in the awareness of bromance as acknowledging the role of intimacy in a healthy masculinity. As a senior male I am keen to explore my role as a mentor. I usually wear a hat that is wrapped in the Aboriginal colours of black, yellow and red. It is not unusual for me to be called "Uncle" by the young Aboriginal and Torres Strait islanders on the streets of Brisbane. More "Mo" power to us!!!
Tony Robertson | 27 November 2018


Thanks Tim, great article.
Claire | 06 December 2018


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