Today, November 19, is International Men’s Day.
Yes, I know – in our culture, every day can feel like international men’s day. And yet, while it would be easy to denigrate the need for a day that celebrates all things male, delve a little deeper, and perhaps it’s not such an outlandish idea.
International Men’s Day, after all, celebrates the positive value men bring to the world, their families and communities. The aim is to highlight positive male role models, and to raise awareness of men’s wellbeing. And given male suicide reached a two-decade high in England and Wales this year, the 2020 theme of ‘better health for men and boys’ has arguably never been more critical.
The health of men and boys has been at the forefront of my mind for some time now, particularly as I read research by Futurelearn and the University of Glasgow, released last week, that found a staggering 12 million Brits do not believe toxic masculinity to be a problem in modern day society.
My new rhyming children’s book, How Frank Helped Hank, tackles this very subject. And since its publication last month, I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been asked ‘but what does toxic masculinity actually mean?’
In short, toxic masculinity is a term used to describe the societal expectations placed on boys and men – expectations that can have a damaging impact on them and, as a consequence, on girls and women. It’s the outdated idea that there are traditional male gender roles, and that men should behave in a certain way to live up to them.
Think, in particular, of the way we portray strong men. The manly kind. The boys’ boys. From a young age we tell our boys to ‘man up’ in order to become strong. We say to them, ‘don’t cry like a girl’. We belittle them if they ‘throw like a girl’ or ‘run like a girl’. We throw around the word ‘girl’ (or other more offensively graphic variations) as a derogatory term, intended to make fun of the boy or man on the receiving end.
At its base level, I find it bizarre that in the year 2020 we still expect people to behave in a certain way. But this societal tick also has more serious implications.
Masculinity and emotion
In the UK, one of the biggest causes of death for men under the age of 45 is suicide. CALM, the Campaign Against Living Miserably, states that every week in the UK, 125 people take their own life. Three quarters of these suicides are male. These numbers are shockingly high, and they’re not just numbers. They’re people. So, just what is it that makes boys and men more vulnerable in this way?
CALM lists three key societal pressures that are damaging to the boys and men who live under them. The pressure to be a winner that leaves them more vulnerable to feeling like the opposite. The need to look strong that can leave them feeling ashamed of showing any signs of (perceived) weakness. And the pressure to appear in control of themselves and their lives at all times, which leaves them less likely to ask for help when required.
It’s not a massive leap from there to understand how a childhood of being told to ‘man up’ can negatively impact on a man’s ability to access and express his emotions. Clearly, we need to change the messages that our boys receive, so they don’t feel too embarrassed, or weak, to ask for assistance when it’s so sorely needed.
But while toxic masculinity impacts massively on the lives, and happiness, of boys and men, what many fail to recognise is that it can be equally damaging for girls and women.
If you repeatedly tell a boy that he does something ‘like a girl’, using the expression to change his behaviour or to mock him, both the boy in question, and any boys or girls within earshot, internalise the idea that doing something ‘like a girl’ is bad.
To the girls internalising this message, the take home is often an unconscious belief that to be a girl is to be less than. This is how we become ‘the other sex’, second in line to boys. For the boys who hear it, the message is the same – girls are somehow less than they are. There’s not much room for boys and girls to grow up viewing each other as equals if they are raised surrounded by such unconscious bias.
And if boys are learning that behaving like a girl is bad, what happens when they like something that historically has been the preserve of girls? For some time now, we’ve encouraged our girls to climb trees, ride bikes, enjoy sports or immerse themselves in STEM at school. And while during my childhood, we may have referred to such girls as ‘tomboys’, today we rightly celebrate progress that sees girls having every opportunity that boys have.
But what if a boy enjoys, say, playing with dolls, or ballet dancing? If he has heard often enough that he has to stop being like a girl, at best he will hide his true feelings, likes and dislikes. He may deliberately act in a more ‘boyish’ way to persuade his peers that he’s not ‘girly’, and he may internalise any shame he feels for liking something that you’ve made fun of. At worst, this shame might lead him to mock other boys, or to take out his frustrations on the girls he sees being able to make the choices he can’t. Shame him enough, and he might never show his feelings again, or choose to hide them with aggression to prove how ‘manly’ he is.
It’s easy to see how all of this has a negative impact on everyone around him.
Equality for all
None of this is to say that it’s not frustrating to hear men belittle the need for an International Women’s Day, or even for the continuity of the feminist movement. But when we react instinctively against the need for an International Men’s Day, we’re guilty of the same thing.
Our boys, as our girls, deserve the chance to grow up to be whatever they want to be, whether that’s a builder or a ballet dancer. And if one day a year, we stop and take stock of the barriers we’re putting in the way of that, then the outcome can only be positive.
The boys we raise today will be 50 per cent of the society of tomorrow – it is up to us to determine whether we raise a generation of emotionally articulate adults, or we allow harmful patriarchal structures to perpetuate.
So today, I’d warmly encourage you to hug your boys. To dance with them in the kitchen. To celebrate men of every mould with them, as long as that mould is kind, and to teach them to be themselves in all their glory. Because toxic masculinity is damaging to boys and men, sure. But it’s pretty rubbish for girls and women too. And when we fail to recognise it, no one wins.