by Nathalie Herzog-Petropaki & Danai Rossalidis
What does it mean to be a man? What does it mean to be masculine enough? In these times, it seems more urgent than ever to ask ourselves this question and to rethink and change the definition of masculinity. That’s why, in the spirit of today’s International Men’s Day, we want to throw all stereotypes and norms around masculinity overboard. It’s time to create a space for a discussion about men’s mental health and what it has to do with feminism.
So, what does it mean to be a man?
When we think of a “man”, the image of the classic stereotype comes to mind: a tall, strong and confident person, who drinks beer while arguing about football or politics. We think of the charismatic movie hero who rescues the girl from everything and everybody. And we think of the powerful macho, who smokes cigars in a suit and plays the leading role in every series.
But are really all men like this? Of course, they are not. But our society has formed rules and definitions on how a man should be and what masculinity means. Men are therefore forced to live up to this standard, because there is nothing worse than not being “man enough”.
Defining “masculinity” at all, implies a binary gender distinction in our society. This means that everything that is not masculine is automatically considered feminine. This gender separation is based on a binary way of thinking that is deeply anchored in everyone’s mind. When we think of the origins of binary thinking, numerous images come to mind: Adam and Eve, Yin and Yang or the myth of the spherical humans from Plato’s Symposium. As a common feature, they are all pairs of opposites that form a unity. In line with this reasoning, one thing (in this case masculinity) can only be identified by its distinction from the other (in this case femininity). Therefore, the man is reduced to his “masculine” characteristics and deprived of all “female” traits.
What does this mean for men’s mental health?
Since society tells us that feminine is the opposite of masculine men must either reject embodying any of these feminine qualities or face rejection within society itself. Clearly, they face a conflict between how they should be and how they actually are. In psychological terms this is called a cognitive dissonance, meaning an unpleasant feeling, a mental discomfort that comes from holding two conflicting beliefs, values or attitudes. People have a tendency to fight against this inconsistency, between what they believe and how they behave, to reduce this discomfort and restore balance. In other words, one can say that men are publicly playing their social role,.whilst on the inside much more is going on under the surface.
Men’s mental health is affected by the high pressure to meet societal expectations of what a man is supposed to be. Since society expects men to do everything on their own, they are less likely to express their emotions, ask for help or reach out to someone. And all that just because of the fear of being not “man enough”. For example, men are told not to cry and be strong, which leads to them often suppressing their emotions. This is a form of emotion regulation, which is not bad if you do it once or twice but if you are consistently suppressing your emotions, this will immediately influence your mental wellbeing in form of stress, depression or substance abuse. This all leads to the fact that men have poorer health habits than women and a higher suicide rate.
As we all know the stigma around mental health issues and psychotherapy is still very present in society. This is true particularly for men, because first they are faced with being considered “less of a man” if they need someone’s help and secondly, because they often struggle to express their emotions.
Additionally, men tend to have competitive relationships with other men. It doesn’t matter if it is a family member, friend or a work colleague. Competition and trying to be better than others leaves no space to talk about insecurities and struggles. But this circle of not talking about your feelings is actually very easy to break. It just needs one man to speak out about his struggles or ask a friend for help. The others will immediately understand that they are not the only ones with insecurities and struggles. They will feel less alone and see that others also find it exhausting too to be “man enough” all the time. We need to give men space and room to express themselves and urgently normalize it in our society.
“The man” doesn’t exist
Lastly, it is not realistic to think that there is only one right form of masculinity. Many studies have shown that only a few men fit this social form of masculinity. However, one of the biggest problems remains that most boys are still raised to think that this type of masculinity is the only right one. This kind of socialization of boys in patriarchal societies is defined as “toxic masculinity” and harms boys and men the most. We all know the phrase “Boys will be boys”. This phrase often justifies everything some men do and is still used way too often. It is time to stop justifying all questionable behavior, because in the end, boys will be what society as a whole teaches them to be.
It is up to us to break all stigma around what it means to be a man. Being a man should become a fluid concept that can take on many different forms. We owe this not only to ourselves but also to our future sons and daughters. That is why we would like to continue the discussion about masculinity and mental health until each and every one of us dares to be an active part of it. It is essential that men begin to open up to each other. All it takes is one man, to be brave enough and stand up for other men and hopefully change competitive locker room talks into meaningful conversations.
All it takes is one man, one single domino piece to tip everything over.
And yes, we know we are two women writing this article on men and that the reaction to it might be different if it would come from a man’s point of view. So, we’re leaving it up to our male readers to be brave enough to tell us and others what they think, to send this article to another man and be the change!