International Men's Day
My second nephew is due at the end of this month and I am beyond excited. I’ve already learned so much from my 5 year old nephew that I can’t wait to meet his new cousin. Despite growing up with two younger sisters, attending an all girls' school, playing on the girls’ football team at uni, and having mainly female friends, I’ve always been interested in what makes a man and how we define masculinity. This is mainly because as a woman I’m the recipient of this culture, as an auntie, colleague and girlfriend, but also because I spent 15 years working predominantly with men.Something has never felt right to me about the culture of masculinity that we have developed and this article explores some of those feelings. Moreover, as my nephews and niece grow up, as my friends’ children get older, and as I may one day have kids of my own, I am passionate about creating a new world for them, where the definition of masculine and feminine have been re-defined. We speak so much about what it is to be feminine these days, but we rarely have a conversation about what it means to be a man.I spent 15 years working in the City, London’s financial district, in insurance, consulting and banking. Most of my colleagues were male and the institutions were incredibly male. The culture was one of competition, money and success, excessive drinking, misogyny, risk taking and banter (which is actually another form of competition, just in conversational form). I’ve also been living in San Antonio, Ibiza, for 6 months, which couldn’t be more different from the suits of the City – but where this culture of masculinity was pretty much the identical.Waking UpWhilst this culture of masculinity seems not to have changed for many years, women are storming ahead. Not just in the workplace, with the encouragement to ‘lean in’, or with our support networks such as mumsnet or Everyday Sexism fighting our corner. Increasingly, women are waking up. Either through food and healthy lifestyles, and/ or through yoga and meditation, women are starting to take the journey towards a new consciousness, towards openness, vulnerability, love and compassion.In fact, my yoga philosophy teacher, Carlos Pomeda suggested that western women are in a position to lead a worldwide change of consciousness, that it is up to us to do this. Not only have we woken up to the lessons that yoga, meditation and spiritual teachings have given us, but we are also educated, financially well off, and have the legal status to do this. Which all sounds great – except that something is missing.That something is, of course, half of the human race – men. Carlos was careful to point out that women need to take our men on this journey with us. Ultimately, creating a new culture of masculinity is part of going on that journey. We may like to think of it as some esoteric exercise in humanity, but I have seen it affect people and their relationships close up. What happens when one half of a couple starts to wake up and challenge the building blocks on which their relationship was built? Because one thing is for certain, once you have started to wake up, there is no going back – so the outcome is that your partner and relationship go with you, or the relationship is likely to be on the rocks.A culture of masculinitySo what is at the heart of this culture of masculinity and how do we get it to change? Two things stand out for me. Firstly, we have a very real discouragement of men in experiencing, understanding and expressing their emotions. You cannot express that which you haven’t experienced, and so much of this culture is about numbing. When I worked in the City, the entire institution was designed to squash any emotions: long hours, addictive behaviours with money, alcohol, sex, and very real fear. Men do experience emotions, but these are squashed down so much that when they do come out, they come out as anger, stress, anxiety and depression.Secondly, Brene Brown has identified through her research that the number one cause of shame in men is being perceived as weak. When weakness is aligned to experiencing, understanding and expressing emotion, and when we manage that fear of being seen as weak with ‘being one of the boys’, then we have a multi layered problem. Moreover, building resilience to shame requires us to speak about it – but we have created a culture where speaking about emotions, let alone shame, is taboo.It mattersThe biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK is suicide. CALM (the Campaign Against Living Miserably) ran a survey which found that many men stay silent because they feel ashamed and didn’t want to talk about their feelings. Furthermore, when we do encourage men to speak up, we do so too late. Many mental health campaigns are about speaking out about depression, stress and anxiety; workplaces have schemes in place to help those with mental health issues. But I would argue that although these interventions are absolutely essential – they come too late. We need to encourage men to speak up about their emotions much, much earlier, and to able to express what they are experiencing before it develops into depression. In fact, perhaps if these things were spoken about more openly, depression would be less likely to occur.Nothing will change until we all realise that it isn’t a sign of weakness to experience feelings, let alone suffer from depression, anxiety and stress. However, when Brene Brown conducted her research into shame and men, guess who the main instigators were in making men feel shame? Guess who men really don’t want to be perceived as weak by?That’s right. Women. We may like to blame colleagues on the trading floor, or building site, or in the office, or the dads, or football coaches, or the ‘mates’. But these all pale into insignificance compared to women. I admit I was shocked by this and had to do some self-examination. It was true that I had bought into the ‘someone big and strong to care for me’ story. I asked my girlfriends if they wanted their husbands to express emotion, if their perception of them would change if they did. As one, the answer was that they want their husbands to be ‘strong’ and didn’t want anything that might challenge their perception of this.Towards a new definition1) Reclaiming strongSo in order to start to sort this out, we need a new definition of ‘strong’. Our culture encourages the Mr Darcy fantasy, of a dark and brooding man, silently seething in the corner. Swoon! Or the guy tortured by his feelings knocking back a load of whiskey at the bar. I am officially calling bullshit on this. I admit for years, I bought into that nonsense, and that its only by doing my own work that I have come to realise that this isn’t strength at all – but hiding. Hiding is for wusses! My new definition of strong includes the ability to experience, understand and express feelings; the ability to identify and build resilience against shame; the ability to be vulnerable and open; to understand how and why we numb; to prioritise good self care, physically, mentally and emotionally - and also not to be afraid to ask for help. Asking for help is critical. Brene Brown has discovered in her research that if we have formed the view, even sub consciously, that not asking for help is ‘strong’, then when anyone does ask for help, we will perceive them as weak, whether it’s ourselves or someone else.2) The role of womenThis is important when women look at changing their perception of men. Why don’t we want to see men showing their vulnerability, or expressing emotions, or asking for help? What is it that we need from them that we are not getting from ourselves, and why do we feel so frightened that this will be taken away if men are not traditionally ‘strong’? Changing the definition of masculinity is partly our job too as our perceptions damage those we love, as well as ourselves. For example, the concept that men are ‘useless’ around the house, or with kids, or in general. This is so damaging and unfortunately, has become an idea that marketers and advertisers have now also bought into. Whilst we all, as individuals, have different strengths, characterising your husband or boyfriend as useless serves no one. It means you end up doing more work, and they kind of get a free pass – only it’s not really free, as the price of feeling that your loved one thinks you’re useless is a huge serving of shame. We need to examine these issues, be honest in our responses and do any necessary work on ourselves. Ultimately, we need to be able to set our men free from, what Brene Brown calls, a box of shame that keeps them locked in, unable to say what they truly feel.3) Safe spacesOne thing I learned from my time in the City is that men will express emotions and talk about difficult topics if they feel it’s safe to do so, and if they are encouraged. Once my colleagues knew I was taking a course in counselling and taught yoga, I had a number of male colleagues open up to me – about their stress and depression; their sadness over failing relationships; about not wanting to let their families down, financially and emotionally. These conversations typically took place in the office late at night as we worked long hours on projects, or in the pub, or once in a meeting room before the other attendees arrived. Somehow I had created a safe space for them to talk, knowing that I would listen and not judge, and yet also I was still an insider in the banking world, someone who knew the domain that they operated in. We need to encourage more of these conversations with and between men because the main way to beat shame, to beat the depression and stress, to encourage better relationships, is to improve connection.4) How to wake upIf women are getting on the consciousness journey, then as I said earlier, it’s imperative that we encourage men to join us. How might we do that? We need to look at how yoga, meditation, health and food, and fitness are marketed and perceived. Using the physicality of yoga is one way to encourage guys into the studio, even if we all know that yoga is about more than the physical asana. The success of ‘western-style’ meditation programmes such Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, show that positioned correctly, these programmes do attract many men, interested to find a new way to manage the strains of everyday life. It is all about language and positioning, and how we can encourage guys in through the door in the first place. I’ve taught yoga to many men, they liked the challenge of the strength poses, the stretching (especially as most of them already did another form of exercise), and how relaxed they felt at the end. In order to get in touch with your feelings, being comfortable with your body is a key step. Physicality, and being outside, are also key ideas in some of the other views about masculinity.5) A conversation with menFinally, we need to allow and encourage men to re-define masculinity for themselves, so that it starts to serve them better. This starts with conversations between men on what masculinity is, and what it means to be a man, and this can only happen if men have the space to talk. I know many men who are tired of the existing definition, who don't want to drink all the time, who dread the traditional stag do, who are desperate to talk and express themselves and have no place to do it. There are several people out there who are working on this, from John Kim at The Angry Therapist, with his CrossFit and motorbike, and unapologetically male approach to his ‘fucking feelings’. Then there is Chris Hardy, a coach who lives in Ibiza who has much to say on creating a new masculinity. Escape the City, an organisation which helps people change careers has been at the forefront of challenging the traditional masculine culture of our corporations, as well as providing spaces for men (and women) to talk about why they want to do something different. There are also several spiritual books about masculinity. I once read "Wild at Heart" by John Eldredge, which is an evangelical Christian book. I was ready to dislike it, but I found a lot of the messages interesting. Eldredge claims that men are bored; they fear risk, they refuse to pay attention to their deepest desires. He challenges men to return to what he characterizes as authentic masculinity without resorting to a "macho man" mentality or seeking validation in venues such as work, or in the conquest of women. I also really like what Barry Long has to say about men needing to put aside all their stuff, work, sex, money, in order to really love.The next generationWhen I look at my 5 year old nephew, I see a man in the making. He is very physical, everything from jumping on the sofa, to football practice, to swimming lessons, to play fighting with his dad. He loves being outside in the garden, or the park, or riding his bike. He has his gang of buddies – but also his close female friends too. He loves to paint and likes dancing and music. He likes his clothes and looking ‘cool’. He’s not afraid to cry, and have cuddles or tell his mum and dad if he is cross, or upset – or if there is a new girl he likes. He might not yet have the vocabulary to express all his feelings, but it’s getting there. I just hope that whatever we’ve created out in the world doesn’t take this away from him, that he can be the man he is meant to be, in every way.Disclaimer: I note that this has been written from a heterosexual perspective and does not take into account the role of masculinity in homosexual relationships between men, which is an area that interests me but that I have no experience of. Any thoughts appreciated.