Masculinity & Mental Health
A couple of months ago, I wrote a blog about my relationship with fitness and the gym. In it, I mentioned that one of the reasons why I didn’t enjoy going to the gym or working out was because I wasn’t doing it for me, but rather I was doing it to live up to what I thought other people expected me to look like. Since writing that article, I’ve received numerous messages and emails from guys who feel the exact same pressure to always be in shape or look a certain way because they feel it’s what’s expected of guys nowadays. It got me thinking about how the idea of masculinity and the perception of what a man should look like have changed dramatically in the last few years.
When I was a kid, the ultimate symbol of masculinity was my dad. I’ll always remember seeing him coming in from a hard day's work covered in dirt and cowsh*t and thinking what a real man he was. He was the patriarch of the family; the provider, the authority and – in my eyes – everything a man should be. When I grew up, I got to know my dad a lot better and I discovered that he was actually a very kind, shy and sensitive person, but that didn’t diminish his masculinity in any way. I’m sure when my dad was growing up he shared some of the same feelings of uncertainty and insecurity as I did and do, but I’d imagine the circumstances were very different. He grew up in much simpler times, when the idea of what it meant to be a man was a lot less complicated and contradictory to what it is now.
The idea of what a man should be has evolved to a stage where there is an even greater emphasis on image than ever before. We now live in the age of social media where we no longer have to wonder what our friends or celebrities or even complete strangers are up to on any given day; there’s a good chance that they’ll post a photo or a video showing us. I doubt our dads went on holidays thinking about the Instagram photo opportunities or asking for photos to be taken again because the lighting was unflattering to their abs! In fact, if you go back even twenty years and look at some of the men that defined masculinity, you’ll find names like Mel Gibson, Bruce Willis and Harrison Ford who were far from shredded. Muscularity was a market cornered by and left to the likes of Arnold and Stallone, and they were more the exception than the rule. Now, gym culture is thriving and a significant portion of males in the media - from social media to acting to advertising - are often seen with lean, muscular physiques. Everyone from Ben Affleck to Justin Bieber to the cast of Love Island now seemingly have Adonis bodies, placing unrealistic pressure and expectations on your average Joe who has college/a job/kids/all of these and doesn’t have the time to train.
This hyper-visual, social media age has led to guys feeling more and more pressure to be looked at and liked. It mirrors the unrealistic body image expectations that have historically been placed upon women; the idea that you must look a certain way or be super skinny, often influenced by models or celebrities. Higher numbers of men are suffering from eating disorders (a 600% increase in the last ten years) and in their quest for validation and approval, it appears higher numbers of men are going under the surgeon's knife in a bid to attain and maintain that picture-perfect Insta-ready, fantasy version of what’s now seen as masculine.
This might all seem a little absurd to some, but the reality is that masculinity continues to re-shape itself and the current construct is leaving some men feeling confused, exposed and uncertain about their place in the world. Mental health is a topic that’s quite rightly at the forefront in 2018. More and more guys are accepting that it’s OK to not be okay and the days of being the strong, silent type are coming to an end. People like The Rock, Ryan Reynolds and Prince Harry now speak openly about their struggles with depression and anxiety, and it’s something to be applauded and encouraged, because the idea that these topics are taboo in 2018 is truly ridiculous. Sadly, the statistics still paint a worrying picture and the fact that we still see the amazing people involved with Limerick Suicide Watch carrying out their duties tells us that there’s still a lot of work to be done.
The message I want to convey here is that in much the same way as it’s OK not to be okay, it’s also OK not to look like an Instagram model. Some might say that’s easy for me to say, but I have huge insecurities and I’ve had to work hard through counselling to own them and accept my flaws, and even that is an ongoing struggle. The perception of what a man should be has continued to evolve, but it’s not all negative. Long gone are the shackles of old notions of masculinity like having to be the breadwinner or not being allowed to show vulnerability. Now, guys can dress how they want and be truthful about how they’re feeling without looking weak - try calling The Rock weak for opening up about his depression - and the best part is that we can do this in a brotherly way by encouraging each other instead of feeling that we are all competing for a place on Love Island 2019. It’s OK to not look like the guys on your Instagram feed and it’s no problem to like yourself in spite of everything you’re being told and shown that you're not.