Writers across Redbrick have come together to share their experiences with male mental health and male body image issues in a climate where men aren’t encouraged to talk about their struggles
‘We need to normalise different physiques, body shapes and men talking about their mental health issues’
Mental health and body positivity are difficult topics to discuss as a man. In our culture, there has been a perceived strength from shutting off emotions and being outwardly tough. It took me a long time to open up about my mental health and insecurities, mentally and physically. Even now, it sometimes feels very difficult to have the confidence to state my insecurities due to a feeling of judgement in the society we live in.
Opening up about mental and physical problems is difficult because of the ideas surrounding masculinity. Simply crying or doing anything that does not perform the role of masculinity feels penalised in our society. It is a stressful environment to be in because there is a pressure to perform a role and to not cross a boundary. Unfortunately, this causes so many men to bottle up their emotions with a fear of shame. In no way should it be acceptable to live in a society where men discussing their mental and physical struggles is looked down upon!
We all know what the stereotype of a ‘perfect man’ looks like. Big biceps; a six pack; good hair; being over six foot. Just knowing that these common stereotypes exist shows why men like myself can be very self-conscious about body image. Television shows such as Love Island further problematise body image for men, as most of the cast have many of the same physical features discussed a moment ago. It can have severe negative effects being constantly surrounded by these portrayals. Overall, we need to normalise different physiques, body shapes and men talking about their insecurities and mental health issues. Nobody should have to suffer alone, yet we live in a society where men are seen as weak for bravely seeking help.
‘My own feelings of grief felt invalidated…I had to be the strong one’
The passing of my father seven years ago was the first time my mental health took a hit. It is a generally accepted fact that men do not usually talk about their feelings, and now suddenly I was placed in a position where everyone was asking me about mine. In Panjabi culture, the passing of my father immediately made me the ‘man of the house,’ despite the fact that I was the youngest person in the house. To me, this invalidated my own feelings of grief as I was immediately put on a pedestal by everyone else; I had to be the strong one. This, coupled with my school’s poor handling of the matter only increased my isolation. However, although it took two years, I finally felt ready to talk about it, and wanted to talk about it for myself. I never felt judged for eventually taking myself to counselling, and I think this is a worry for some men. For me I felt quite empowered, as I was seeking help for myself to better myself. When you need help, I think it is important to be a little selfish and recognise that you deserve some time to have your own outlet. Men should not care about what other people think about them speaking about their mental health, but for some this is easier said than done. I think that you just have to remember that with time, things will get better. When looking back now, I allow myself to recognise that my father’s passing was incredibly difficult and also acknowledge how valuable it was for myself to recognise my own mental health and talk to someone. I now draw strength from it, as it is, and never was, something to be ashamed of.
‘Dating sites contribute to societal low self-esteem felt by men’
There is no such height as five-foot eleven and a half. No, I’m not denying the existence of people whose heights sit exactly between five foot eleven and six foot, but most people who say they are, are not. Whether it be on dating sites or in the flesh, men know that most people don’t walk around with a tape measure, so will never be called up on it or proved wrong.
It is not clear why men claim to be on the cusp of six foot so regularly. The men who say this are often five-nine or five-ten: by no means short. It’s probably the same reason why Tom Cruise often stands on a box when filming with his male (and female) co-stars. We are biologically conditioned to compete for a mate, for food and for survival – but the only benefit of being taller is the ability to reach the top shelf at the supermarket. And saying you’re taller than you are can’t help you with that.
Guys don’t want to admit they’re insecure about anything – especially things that put their masculinity in doubt. But all lying about your height confirms is an inexorable discomfort in your own skin.
I know what you’re thinking: ‘problem solved! A sarcastic writer has told me what I’m doing is pointless so I’m going to stop!’ Of course, this is not the case. Male insecurity is not a problem isolated to dating sites but is endemic of societal low self-esteem felt by men. No magic wand is going to be waved to solve the problem, but stressing the irrelevance of height when guys are insecure can help on the individual level. Trust me, I’m five-foot eleven and a half.
‘The stress of being too thin gets overlooked’
Body image issues are typically associated with fears of being overweight. For men, though, the opposite can also be threatening. The traditional association of masculinity with physical strength creates pressure not to be too skinny, especially amongst younger men, but it rarely gets talked about.
The pseudo-necessity to put on muscle can be dangerously consuming. Throughout my teenage and university years, I have witnessed boys put their bodies under excruciating strain in the gym, force down obscene amounts of chicken, and try every fitness fad going. All just to be big and strong.
Of course, it is not that simple. We all have different genetics and it is during adolescence, when we are perhaps most self-conscious, that the variety is most striking. For every slight teenage boy, there is another of the same age who has finished puberty by 13 and resembles a man in school uniform. The latter individual is often framed as proof that anyone can ‘get big’ when, in reality, the majority cannot safely attain such a physique.
Like any body image fear, not everyone is affected. However, the stress of being too thin gets overlooked. During my teenage years, I could have adopted the Supersize Me diet without gaining a kilogram. I went to an all-boys school. I played contact sports. Worrying about weight felt natural, even if calling someone ‘skinny’ was deemed far less offensive than calling them ‘fat’. When you did speak out, a typical response would emphasise how lots of people dream of being slim, so you should feel lucky. Yet this problem is very real. It may be the inverse of more documented body image worries, but the consequences can be no less unhealthy.
For men to discuss their bodies more openly, we must start treating all issues as equally valid.
‘We need a new masculinity’
I think the most important take away from understanding men’s mental health is that gender roles and patriarchy are bad for all genders. It is the same set of false beliefs that produces the gender pay gap, and the objectification and under-representation of women that also produces the high rates of male suicide. Many men I have spoken to about this issue become defensive when I bring up the term ‘toxic masculinity’, as if it were some kind of attack on manhood itself, but this comes from a misunderstanding about what we mean by the term. We don’t mean that it is toxic to be masculine; hold fire on your ‘not all men’ comments. We mean that dominant gendered roles and upbringing can produce behaviour in men that is harmful to themselves as well as others. The intense pressure upon men to be assertive, rational and powerful is at odds with the natural human condition. Things will not always go your way; you will make errors and power is not a path to happiness.
Men need an environment that fosters their emotional sensitivity if they are going to help themselves, and a patriarchal system is not going to create that environment. The expectation of the assertive, rational, powerful man is one that does not ask for help when they are struggling; one whose emotional range is limited to anger and one that does not cry. We need healthier male role models to make this better, as well as challenging the stigma around men expressing their emotions. In the fight for both gender equality and better mental health for men, we need a new masculinity.
‘All the bad that has come before is not in the past’
To understand and tackle my own mental health and the struggles which come with that, as a man in the seemingly deteriorating society we have before us, there is one very crucial thing I’ve had to learn. That is, that mental health is not an event or even a time-limited thing. I have found that since secondary school up to my day-to-day life at university, it is very tempting to try to section off feelings and questions and attach them to a particular time in my life. What is key, is the understanding that it is constant, all the bad that has come before is not in the past, or it doesn’t have to be, it is what feeds every struggle I have had since. Today’s feelings were born out of feeling self-conscious of my body when I was 15 and are the emotions that fuel my ability to recognise the bad and face it, and talk about it now, at the age of 21.
I went from one extreme to the other, from obese to counting calories and never seeing the end in sight even when I saw my slim frame in the mirror. It is not about holding onto the negative feelings in the past and allowing them to hang over me. Rather, they have helped me to accept that they are emotions easily stigmatised in the face of constant toxic masculinity and unrealistic presentations of male physicality in the media and wider culture. From the confrontation and sharing of my perceptions with people around me, whilst I am far from being completely free of these worries, I have been able to begin enjoying the bits of life which are more important than having ‘too many’ beers and panicking about taking my top off at the beach.
‘I remain hopeful as more men speak out we will break down these expectations of ‘masculinity’ and progress will be made’
Mental Health sometimes feels like an impossible reality to get right. The pressure to be happy, to be successful, and to ultimately be better is a process that unfortunately coincides with the inevitable failure of appeasing societies expectations on men. I say this with Wentworth Millers testimony at the 2013 ‘Human Rights Campaign’ in mind, where he said that when growing up, “Everyday was a test and there were a thousand ways to fail” in relation to the test of ‘fading’ into what was seen as ‘normal’ and acting as was ‘required’ by the toxic masculinity that is interwoven in society. For example, after running this term I was met with ‘harmless criticisms’ over the way I run. Although this is something that has not affected me deeply, it made me think about the way a label and judgement is applied to everything we do, even when this means partaking in an activity to better ourselves. This irony concludes the struggle amongst men to not only fulfil societal expectations and stereotypes, but also project them onto others, meaning that a vicious cycle is sustained in which mental health becomes a taboo topic as men fail to seek help against the constraints of embodying masculinity. In spite of this, the awareness and commitment to mental health over the last 5 years is a positive contribution to attacking the stigma, as I remain hopeful that as more men such as Wentworth Miller speak out against the narrative of ‘masculinity’ that still exists, we will break down these expectations and progress will be made.
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