“I am no less a man because I may weep openly. I am no less a man because I fear. I am no less a man because I am mentally ill. I am no less a man because, only i get to decide what it means for me to be a man. I will not be defined by a label. Instead, I choose to define the labels applied to me.”
– Shawn Henfling, writer.
When it comes to talking about men and their mental health, it is a topic that is not discussed too often or even openly due to the stigma attached to it. While researching about men and their gender role, I came across the main traits or characteristics that are considered to be typical, according to the system. They were honesty and morality, followed by financial success, ambition, leadership, strength and toughness. But when it comes to kind, polite and nurturing characteristics, except a few percentages, not many believe that those traits are very “masculine”.
When speaking about men, we are talking about the socially constructed gender identity, and when we talk about masculinity, we are referring to the behavior and culture associated with men. Masculinity is a specific pattern of social behaviors or practices that is linked with ideals about how men should behave. The most common factor of masculinity is the connection of manhood with dominance and toughness.
As socially, culturally and historically constructed identities, boys and men learn “proper” gender roles heeding to the masculine expectations of their given society. This means that starting from early childhood and well beyond, men are repeatedly conditioned to repress their emotions. They are taught to distance themselves from femininity, to be tough and aggressive, avoid or hide any vulnerabilities and when they are nice, display empathy, express sadness or exhibit modesty, they are proclaimed to be feminists.
Aside from these external sources, family and friends play a major part in teaching boys as well as young men the “traditional” gender roles. Colloquialisms like “boys don’t cry” and “man up”, are some ways of relaying the message that as a member of a certain gender, their behavior is profoundly shaped by rigid social and cultural expectations related to masculinity. These are the norms that have been deeply inculcated in all of us, and these values stem from centuries of patriarchy, which has been dictating the way they should live their lives. The patriarchy that systematically oppresses and marginalises women and people with other identities, also subjugates men.
Although there is intersectionality to the experience of masculinity, such as class, race, ability, sexual orientation and gender; men, in general, are still expected to conform to the standards set by the system, and if these expectations are not fulfilled, one might be subjected to discrimination or ridicule. These discriminations are used to police the boundaries of what is acceptable, appearance and behavior wise, for boys and men.
For instance, men in India follow what is prescribed to them by the society. Many young men unquestioningly emulate what their fathers and elder men in their families and communities do.
Patriarchy lays unsaid rules on what boys and men could, and couldn’t, do. To give you an idea, a young man shared that he enjoyed cooking but his family frowned upon it until he rationalised it for them by saying that he will require this skill in order to survive once he began to live alone for higher studies and for work.
In another interaction, young married men in rural Maharashtra shared how there was opposition from within the family at first, when they started helping their wives with the household work. The biggest objection they faced was from their parents.
Patriarchy has made men conform to the distress of being a leader. The traditional view on masculinity suggests that men should be the head of their households by providing financially for the family and making important family decisions. They are provided with privileges which are often invisible to them as they have been normalized. However, for those with marginalized masculinities, these privileges operate in a different way as they hold at least one subjugated identity. For instance, men have the ability to take up social space in a room but when it comes men of color, men with disabilities, transmen and queer men, this privilege may not necessarily sustain.
Men and Mental Health
Patriarchy often makes men feel that they need to be self resilient and providers for their loved ones, hence, it’s not acceptable to express emotions. This behavior of the “heroic male” is often represented in popular cultures as fearless, resourceful, stoic and facing adversity alone. These characteristics came to become masculine because womxn were not allowed or were ashamed to express them. Ideal male behaviour became a carefully selected and conditioned normative. There is no denying that men experience this shame too when they show emotional vulnerability.
These ideas become intergenerational, where the “males” of the family are, more than often, emotionally distant, who rarely, if ever, cry or express sentiments externally. The way these adults behave may become the unconscious model for their child’s behavior.
Moreover, these ideas make it difficult to acknowledge emotions which percolates to converting their sadness and vulnerability into emotions like anger or pride, feelings which are more socially accepted for them to experience. For instance, a father grieving the loss of a child to a car accident may turn his sadness into anger directed towards the other driver involved in the accident. The father feels like it’s easier to be angry than to cry. It becomes easier to show anger than admit hurt.
The pressure to uphold this image of being “man enough” and having everything “under control” is real.
There is also an association between masculinity and violence. This is because boys are made to internalize masculinity during adolescence, which becomes a breeding ground for aggression. For many years men have been told to “fight like a man”. A man who rejects these ideas and offers peace is rarely made visible. Figuring out solutions becomes their go to mechanism. Fear becomes a driving force to protect themselves from emotional vulnerability.
Toxic Masculinity, more than often goes unnoticed due to the normativity of its nature. It is unseen because it is taken to be the norm and not thought about unless in opposition to something else. There have always been attempts to work with boys and young men as agents in deconstructing forms of patriarchy, preventing violence and discrimination; and because of these ingrained and complicated norms and the discomfort in discussing them, to change them requires long term and consistent work with boys and men.
The sorrow in men having to hide their core because of external oppressive structures is systemic brutality. It is violence against their tenderness, gentleness and humanity.
Everyone needs a safe space to express their emotions openly, it is such a core part of human experience and existence. The inner lives of these men that are engulfed and bound by norms need a safe haven. When we co create these spaces allowing the ideas of patriarchy to break, we open doors to social reform. We allow humanity to take a stand.
This post is written by our writer and psychology student Insha Fatima