It's been some thirty years since the beginning of the women's movement of the 70s and 80s that brought with it a tsunami of dramatic cultural and social change. Women not only redefined themselves beyond the restricted and limited role of housewife, but also challenged social mores of sexual discrimination, gaining for themselves legal, economic, educational and social rights and opportunities. As a result of the women's movement, many men in the United States similarly began to question their own experience as men. Discussions from what being a "man" truly meant to men's rights within the court system (with regards to divorce and child custody) became prevalent. Thirty years later, however, and into the 21st century, where are we as men? How have we grown in our understanding of what it is to be a man? Recent research, statistics, books and articles on masculinity would suggest not much, not much at all.
Despite the advances of medicine in the last few decades, according to national statistics, men, particularly men of color, are still dying some five to seven years earlier when compared to the death rate of women. According to researcher, Will H. Courtney, men have higher death rates for all 15 leading causes of death, such as heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, HIV / AIDS and chronic liver disease. Many men believe they are healthier than they really are, and so they engage in high-risk behaviors leading to higher health related problems. Men also generally seek health care less often than women, thus reducing the chances of an early diagnosis of potential health problems. Statistics also reveal that men have higher rates of death by accidents, homicide and suicide.
The high rate of suicide by men, experts believe, is due largely to undiagnosed and untreated depression. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, some six million men suffer from depression, a number that may even be higher when you take into account those men who may suffer secretly. Underlying male depression is the growing belief that many men who suffer the condition feel pressure to not express themselves for fear of being seen as less than manly. Researchers have come to identify this male experience as "male stress", "gender-related stress", or "masculine stress". The often used warrior maxims, "What does not kill you makes you stronger", "Suck it up, and" Deal with it "are examples of this traditional male exhortation to ignore pain. Supporting this view, Terrance Real writes in his book , I Do not Want to Talk about it, depression carries with it a "double stain" for men, "the stigma of mental illness and also the stigma of 'feminine emotionality'". to seek help, therefore, let alone admit to the need for help, is contrary to the code of masculinity.
Men and Feelings
Men are generally socialized to believe that being a "real man" involves not only being physically strong, but emotionally strong as well. A lesson learned as early as infancy. In a Rutgers University study, male infants were found to be more emotionally expressive than female babies, but discouraged to express their unhappiness by their parent and, instead, encouraged to express happiness (Pam Gelman in BabyZone.com, Raising Boys: Parenting Beyond Male Stereotypes). William Pollack, Ph. D., in his book, Real Boys , written in 1998, described how he had "countless sessions with adult men who shared painful memories about being shamed as children for not being 'manly' enough, for not being 'like other boys'' '. Similarly, today, family therapist, Linda Longo-Lockspeiser, LCSW, comes across this "male stress" among the men in her practice. in a recent interview, she described how many of her male clients who presented with "anxiety and depression "can only describe initially their" anger and frustration "over their experiences, a much more acceptable norm of self-expression for men. What eventually becomes obvious in therapy, however, is that underlying their anger and frustration" lies terrible fears about being seen as weak or inadequate "as a man. Our general male culture has clear guidelines about feelings and masculinity; any feelings of vulnerability: fear, sadness, loneliness or helplessness is unacceptable. A real man is self-reliant, acts, rather than feels, is logical and practical in his approach to life. Unfortunately, it is a primitive wisdom that has created irrational standards for boys and men to measure up to.
Alcohol Abuse as a Way of Coping
In a recent study, conducted by the Yale University of School of Medicine, results indicate that when men become upset, they have a higher likelihood to turn to alcohol than women as a way to cope. Why the difference? Reflecting on the findings of the study, Tara Chaplin, associate professor at Yale believes "there is greater societal acceptance of 'emotionality' particularly sadness and anxiety, in women than in men." In other words, women are allowed and expected to express their feelings of vulnerability, where as men are not. According to the Health Alliance Plan website, hap.org, "Men are five times more likely than women to have a problem with alcohol abuse." In fact, they identify one of the risk factors associated with alcohol abuse and alcoholism as "being male". Current military reports appear to support these findings. According to the Naval Health Research Center, many veterans (more men than women) returning home from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are turning to alcohol as a way of coping with the lingering stress of their combat experiences.
The Male Dilemma
For Terrance Real, "There is a terrible collusion in our society", a "cultural cover-up about depression in men". Its dominant influence perpetuates a Marlboro-man image in which men are indifferent to their pain and suffering. Dave Kindlon, in his book, Raising Cane, similarly maintains this point of view, when he describes most men and boys as being "emotionally miseducated" and kept from their "inner world", learning quickly that "he must hide his feelings and silence his fears ".
25 years ago, Donald H. Bell, in his book, Being A Man, described traditional male images as "unworkable and unrealistic" and exhorted men to "surrender" them if they are to live healthy and fulfilled lives. But how do we begin? I propose that such an endeavor must first take into account several points:
- Traditional masculinity is a social construct and not a fixed universal reality.
- Men must appreciate the current unhealthy meanings attached to traditional masculinity, and how it may be directly related to health disparities affecting men, especially men of color.
- Traditional masculinity contributes to stress and relationship problems. Therefore,
- "Men need to change their belief system about masculinity". *
- A new vision of healthy and responsible models of masculinity need to be constructed.
- Many men are changing. And "many men want to change and are changing in ways to make their lives healthier, more satisfying, and longer". *
- Men can not do it alone. We need the support of other men, and women as well.
* Men in Therapy: The Challenge of Change, Met & Pasick
While moving beyond traditional masculine norms, particularly manly emotional self-control, is no small undertaking, there are current glimmers of hope, nonetheless. Two areas in which this is evident is in the anti-sexist movement, in which Jackson Katz (best known for his documentary Tough Guise) and Byron Hurt (best known for his film, Hip Hop: Beyond Rhythm and Rhymes) are leaders, and the fatherhood movement. Both movements make a strong appeal for the need for men to move beyond traditional male images not only for their benefit, but for their families and society. Both movements suggest healthier models of masculinity that men can adopt and have adopted already in their lives. Finally, both movements are having a gradual, but steady impact in which men are beginning to re-evaluate these traditional male standards and how it is incompatible to living a truly authentic life.
Perhaps we men needed thirty years to get to this very point in order to both understand and appreciate what's at stake for us. Let us hope, however, that it will not take another thirty years for us to get where we need to arrive. Given the cost masculinity is incurring, sooner, rather than later would be best.