Words by Rochelle Kirkham | @RochelleKirkham
“Do you bloody want to fight?” Dave had stumbled and knocked a guy after a couple of drinks at a house party. He apologised straight away, “I’m so sorry dude,” but found himself scared stiff in the face of hostility. Dave looked to his good friend Paul, and the words trickled from his mouth, “do you want to fight him?” Partygoers rushed outside to watch the tussle like a pack of eager school-kids. Dave remained in the unfamiliar house alone, too ashamed to walk out there. Embarrassed and self conscious, he thought, “am I even a real man?”
Comedian and breakfast radio host Dave Thornton describes gender expectations as “befuddling”.
“The thing is for a guy when you have a fight, your gender is on the line,” he says.
“If there is a physical challenge, everyone is like, c’mon man up, mate.”
“You know that as a dude if you don’t man up to this you lose your gender,” Thornton says.
Social constructions of masculinity create pressure for men to prove and reprove the very fact they are men. The dominant conceptions of masculinity as power, strength, aggressive sexuality, control, and invincibility are unhealthy and the pressures placed on men to fulfil it can be harmful to their mental health and wellbeing.
RMIT Psychology of Gender course co-ordinator Mervyn Jackson recognises parents play a significant role in building gender stereotypes. He says a study of a family on a playground showed parents are often more nurturing and caring with their daughters and more willing to offer them help than their sons. The son was told to “try harder” when he asked for help. “The way parents treat their children follows them all the way through life,” Jackson says.
Boys are expected to ignore or downplay their emotional needs and wants from a young age. Blokes tell their mates to “grow some balls”, fathers tell their sons to “man up” and brothers say “don’t be a pussy”. Every day young boys and men are encouraged not to be weak, scared, emotional, caring, comforting or thoughtful, and are made to feel their gender is on the line if they are.
When my brother was six years old he asked Mum why we couldn’t have a man’s meal for dinner. She had served up quiche and salad. “What is a man’s meal, Thomas?” she asked. “Aw, just some steak and chips, mum.”
A guy ordered a vanilla chai latte at my work. His friend looked at me and joked it was “very manly” to drink chai. The remaining guys at the table ordered Cokes and beers. “Cancel the chai latte,” he said as I was about to leave the table, “I’ll have a Coke instead.” It seems even drinking the ‘wrong’ beverages or eating ‘feminine’ foods can damage a sense of manhood.
Implied expectations can cause significant stress. BeyondBlue’s Policy, Research and Evaluation Leader Dr Stephan Carbone says stress is an aggravating or contributing factor to mental health issues.
BeyondBlue states on average, one in eight men will have depression and one in five men will experience anxiety at some stage in their lives. Alarmingly, 80% of suicides are by men and suicide is the leading cause of death for men under the age of 44.
“While women are more likely to experience depression and anxiety, men are less likely to talk about it
“This increases the risk of their depression or anxiety going unrecognised and untreated,” says BeyondBlue.
Former AFL player, Simon Hogan, explains he didn’t feel comfortable speaking to other men about mental health difficulties. “I guess I thought they might think I’m weak.”
Men like Hogan all over the world are suffering in silence. Many feel they should be able to cope or toughen up, they think, “I’ll deal with it, I’m a man”. But this expectation is unrealistic.
Victorian cricketer, Aaron Ayre says getting help is not a sign of weakness, but strength. “For a long time I bottled everything up and it just didn’t work.”
Dave Thornton describes problems as “shadows”. “When you decide to bring those shadows out and take them for a walk you realise they are not as big as you thought,” he says.
Dr Carbone believes helping men realise it’s okay to get help may reduce high mental health statistics.
“Challenging stereotypes and stigma surrounding both mental health and masculinity is important.”
Thornton felt gutted after a tough break up. While stopped at an intersection on his way home he was overcome with emotion. Alone in his car, he cried, until a guy with a squeegee began washing his window. He felt embarrassed to be crying in front of a stranger and begged his emotions to stop.
It’s worth reflecting how to be true to oneself in these situations, and if you feel dictated by gender stereotypes.
Contact Beyond Blue 1300 224 636, Lifeline 13 11 14, or Headspace 1800 650 890 if in need of help.