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Thursday, Nov 14, 2019

Why young boys should not be told to ‘man up’ | Analysis

Tell boys that being gentle or emotionally engaged isn’t a weakness, and help them before toxic attitudes solidify

analysis Updated: Oct 17, 2019 06:22 IST
Vedika Sharma
Vedika Sharma
Asking for help, demonstrating caring behaviour towards themselves and others are undermined by social attitudes that encourage the concept of the alpha male
Asking for help, demonstrating caring behaviour towards themselves and others are undermined by social attitudes that encourage the concept of the alpha male(Shutterstock)
         

According to the BBC, men are three times more likely than women to commit suicide in Australia, 3.5 times more likely in the United States, and four times more likely in Russia. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, men are less likely to seek help for mental health issues. There is also more substance use and alcohol use among males.

Why?

Material and social factors like socioeconomic status, racial discrimination, and lack of access to affordable therapy hold people of all genders back, as does our society’s stigma around mental illness. But men face unique barriers to getting support.

It often starts in early childhood. We tell boys, “boys don’t cry”. We condition boys from a very young age to not express emotions, because to express emotion is to be weak. Crying is a challenge to masculinity. They are often called out for behaviour that doesn’t match society’s definition of manhood. It might take the form of name calling (“sissy” or “weak”), being told “don’t be gay” or “you fight like a girl,” or aggression against them such as hitting, bullying, or even sexual assault. Asking for help, demonstrating compassionate and caring behaviour toward themselves and others or being expressive are undermined by social attitudes that put little value on empathy and encourages the concept of the alpha male.

According to a 2017 study, men with typically masculine traits are likely to have decreased mental health — and are even less likely to reach out for help. Researchers found that this was related to certain specific, stereotypically masculine traits. For example, men who valued self-reliance were more prone to suffer poor mental health, probably because they had difficulty seeking support. Men who valued having power over women also suffered worse mental health.

We tell boys to “man up”. We tell boys, “don’t be a sissy”. But what we’re really communicating is “don’t be female, because being a female is less”. Erroneously gendering the universal capacity for human connection as feminine and then shaming boys to see feminine as being somehow less is how we block men from the trial and error process of nurturing their capacity to forge relationships. The failure to do so can lead to a lifetime of loneliness.

Simply put, toxic masculinity means harmful stereotypes about what it means to be a man. There’s a prominent line separating masculinity from toxicity and that line is that of patriarchy. So, there we have it. Studies and facts may seem daunting, but they, in fact, offer us an opportunity to redefine masculinity and to encourage a culture where it’s all right for men to ask for help. We need to normalise men having emotions, or choosing dolls for their sons, or buying groceries, wearing pink, being overly expressive about their feelings, crying openly, breaking down, letting their wives drive, changing diapers, cleaning the house, earning less than their wives, among other things. If we can teach compassion, respect and empathy to boys at an early, foundational age, and demonstrate that being gentle, sensitive or emotionally engaged isn’t a weakness, but part of being a fully-rounded grown up man, then we’re getting the message through to them before toxic attitudes have a chance to solidify.

Vedika Sharma, 17, a former intern at Hindustan Times, is the author of Boys Will Be Better, published by Notion Press
The views expressed are personal