November 26, 2020

The Biggest Lie we Tell our Boys.


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*Author’s Note: Trigger warning! The following article deals with suicide, and may be distressing to some readers.

“Seeking help does not make one weak—it makes one smart.” ~ Dr. Amanda Craig


I was recently involved in a minor Twitter spat.

I posted an image supporting International Men’s Day, and someone I’d never met took offense, accusing me of being sexist. They—with a great deal of justification—pointed out that men didn’t need a day especially assigned to them; as the world is effectively a patriarchy, every day was International Men’s Day.

I told them that, sadly, they were correct; the world is unquestionably male-dominated, and, in most fields, the advantage my gender holds is grossly unfair. That glass ceiling is still in place.

I hope that astonishing role models such as New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Arden, will enable us all to smash it into pieces in the coming years, and help us to move away from living in a real-life version of The Handmaid’s Tale and not closer toward it. As the father to two daughters, I dearly want equality—for them.

However, those are my future hopes: at present, gender equality is rife. I do not dispute this in the slightest.

And my support of Men’s Day does not mean I am, in any way, seeking to keep that status quo in place. Furthermore, I am quite able to be in favor of this occasion, and also want gender equality. I don’t have to pick one side; I am easily able to support both simultaneously.

But, International Men’s Day had a special meaning for me, I informed my digital-questioner.

I supported it because it wasn’t really about men per se; it was about men’s mental health. And, in particular, why men find it so hard to say, “help.”

And, if you think that’s a conversation we don’t need to have, then—honestly—do you really know so, so little about this issue?

Educate me, they replied.

It’s a topic we really (really) do need to be discussing, because males die by suicide three to four times more often than females do. The ability to reach out when emotionally drowning seems an almost impossible ask for my sex. And we need to be exploring why, because it’s costing lives that might be saved.

I’m supporting International Men’s Day because it might open that discussion up. And then they said:

Why don’t you all just grow a pair, and man up?

And that, my friends, is exactly why I do support International Men’s Day. Because of toxic, invalidating, antiquated garbage like “grow a pair” and “man up.”

It’s phrases like that which cause men to not seek help.

It’s beliefs like those that make young boys move through childhood believing that any difficulty they’re experiencing can be solved by just “putting on their big boy pants” and “toughing it out.”

It’s words like those that leave teenage boys with the idea that crying is effeminate, weak, and “girly.”

It’s ideas like those that force young men to struggle “manfully” on because silent fortitude is masculinity in action.

It’s concepts like those that leave middle-aged men—who suddenly find themselves burnt-out, lost, and lonely—believing they are intrinsically flawed and somehow a failure if they can’t match the breadwinning abilities of their own father.

It’s phrases like those that leave elderly men cocooned in a shroud of loneliness because “real men don’t moan; proper men just get with it.”

Words such as “grow a pair” and “man up” lock my gender into an unhelpful, toxic, outdated idea of masculinity that means many, many of them would rather take their own lives than just say help.

And we need to be teaching them that not only is all of that wrong, but that it’s okay to say, “I’m struggling.” We need to be telling them that it’s not a sign of weakness or failure to cry. Or feel low. Or to be lonely. Or to have a mind that goes wrong. Or to have bad days.

Or to need therapy or medication.

Or to struggle with friends, family, or your partner. Or your boss.

Or even just your own emotions.

That we are not any less of a man if we battle depression or anxiety. Or an eating disorder. Or body dysphoria.

Or wrestle with unresolved trauma.

Or struggle with your sexuality.

It’s okay to not be perfect and screw up, to not have all the answers, to not be able to fix a car, or hunt, or fish, or anything else that used to be considered the epitome of masculinity.

It’s okay to ask for help.

That’s what we should be telling men, especially our boys: “open up” not “man up.” We should be encouraging them to share what is troubling them, not asking them to ignore it and soldier on. We should be trying to foster a generation of emotionally literate young men who don’t bury their feelings, but express them. Because if we don’t, those shocking suicide statistics will never come down.

Asking for help takes true courage. That’s bravery. That’s a million times more manly than the opposite.

I asked for help and it was the single bravest, smartest, manliest thing I ever did. Because it—literally—saved me.

That’s what we should be teaching our boys.

And, for as long as there are people who are content to throw around toxic junk like “grow a pair” and “man up,” we’ll need International Men’s Day. And I’ll continue to support it.

My Twitter adversary didn’t reply. They just blocked me, which was entirely their prerogative. I was tempted to try and reply with an ironic “man up;” after all, it’s hardly brave to simply run away from an argument when you don’t get the answers you want. But, the fact that that expression even crossed my own mind is testament to how deeply such ideas have seeped their way in to the collective consciousness. 

We’ve got a very long way still to go.

A long way until everyone learns it’s not only okay to ask for help, but that it’s also the right thing to do.

So, please, don’t tell someone to “man up.”

Encourage them to seek support. Tell them to open up. And then listen to them.

“Research shows that men are far less likely to wear masks because they don’t want to look vulnerable. Pretty much in line with men being more reluctant to go to the doctor about a mental health problem. Imagine how many more lives could be saved if we men developed the strength to be vulnerable.”  ~ Matt Haig


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