Growing up and manning up

// 5 June 2016

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This month, our guest bloggers are several A level students, coordinated by their teacher. They tweet @msnotmrsormiss

SS is 17 and studies sociology, English literature and psychology.

The adolescent years see the vital transition between boy and man. It is the bridge where the holy grail of manhood ahead is revered and the looming history of boyhood behind is terrifying. But why do I care? Why do we feel like we can’t be boys at such a tender age; we don’t have the responsibilities of a man, so why should we behave like one? The pressure to be masculine is a growing issue of severe detriment to teenagers who can’t fill the criteria of men, but aren’t societally allowed to be boys anymore.

As a schoolboy who has spent all of his adolescent years in single sex education, there is no place where the pressure to be masculine is felt more than in the changing rooms. Crowds of people gather round the overdeveloped 13-year-old proudly yielding his first chest hair. Meanwhile the underdeveloped 13-year-old is cowering in the corner, dressing himself as quickly as possible. I can remember the days where I stood in the bathroom for hours on end, searching with the greatest endeavour just to find a lone armpit hair.

Masculinity is about more than physical appearance, however. After the introduction of girls to the Sixth Form at my school, it has become apparent that the girls want to try harder, while the boys enjoy peacocking and make light of failure. Is this seen as more manly than success? Who says that the straight A* student isn’t manly, just because he holds what is seen as a feminine value by caring about grades and more academic pursuits. I worry that men are set up for failure due to this harmful positioning of masculinity.

There are more serious issues at hand. Although men are often overlooked as being victims of poor mental health, almost 50% of men have experienced some form of depression at some point in their life and have self-reported to be less likely to seek help and confide in others, as this is not “manly”. This presumably contributes to the fact that male suicide rates are increasing, accounting for 78% of all suicides in the UK. The pressure to be masculine is growing, and once a boy becomes a man the pressure on men to be manly is even greater.

The key agent to this pressure is the media. The portrayal of the perfect man in the media is a chiselled, tanned, muscle-stacked Adonis, who also happens to have millions in the bank and isn’t left short in the nether regions. This image is not only unrealistic but absurd. When I look at myself in the mirror and see nothing of the sorts, I never used to care. When did the drastic change occur that I didn’t feel good enough? I am a very headstrong and happy individual, but I have still been affected.

And it’s not just me. In 2012, a study found that almost 6% of male adolescents admitted to using steroids and 10.5% of these admitted to using some other muscle-enhancing substance. Boys are being pressured to reach unrealistic goals and become men, before they are ready to do so.

I see terrible discrimination in society by gender, race, ethnicity and class. I appreciate that changes need to occur. Like most people, I have no idea how to achieve this, but I believe it needs to be an inclusive effort. In many ways, I come from a position of privilege, but I believe I can still be involved and contribute to creating a fairer society. Although some believe that men don’t have a place in the feminist movement, I disagree and hope that we can be part of it. It is vital that feminism is led by women, but I fail to see the harm in synergy, working together to achieve equality, and working equally in advancing a critical movement in society.

This is especially true when realising that boys and men are negatively impacted in a society that treats girls and women differently and places gendered expectations on us all. Now that I am growing up and gradually becoming a part of adult society, armpit hair aside, I know the crisis of masculinity is getting worse and can no longer be ignored.

The photo, by Matthew Hurst, is a closeup of a man’s armpit, with hair. It is used under a creative commons licence.

Comments From You

Jackie Bather // Posted 17 June 2016 at 12:25 pm

It is very interesting to read a male perspective, on the issues related to adolescence. As someone who attended a girls-only school until the age of fourteen, after which the school became co-educational, I am aware of the dramatic alterations in the atmosphere, which may transpire, in such an environment. I think that it is fair to say, that boys mature at a slower rate than girls, both emotionally and psychologically, which creates tension when the same age groups are in classrooms together. Certainly, I was very much aware that the boys in my sixth form were kicking footballs around the playground in the lunch breaks, while the girls were sitting on benches, discussing boyfriends, clothes, emotional issues and relationships in general.

When boys are young, for example, around six years old, they are happy to be seen holding other boys hands in public, in the same manner that girls will. For evidence of this, observe any infant school group when they are out in the community on a visit somewhere and the teachers are walking around with the school party. By the age of eleven, most boys will not do this anymore, therefore they have absorbed ideas of masculinity from the environment, which renders this behaviour obsolete and ‘uncool’. However, whilst girls, too, may have abandoned the hand-holding to a large extent, they can be seen to be more generally tactile than boys. This is by the age of eleven. Something has happened in the intervening years to the boys, to alter their behaviour.

The comments concerning the high rate of male suicides are correct. I do not know if the figure quoted (78%) is precise, as there is no reference given, which supports this but I would have no problem accepting this statistic, generally. I used to work in the field of mental health and it was frequently observed that men were more reluctant to seek out help, such as approaching their G.P.’s, when they developed symptoms of mental ill-health, eg depression and anxiety. Women are more likely to seek out assistance, which corresponds with their willingness to discuss emotional, psychological or relationship problems, with other women. My experiences inform me, that boys/men do not have these conversations with other boys/men and therefore a support network does not exist, to the same extent. They are alone with their anxieties, which probably contributes to the higher suicide rate.

I was impressed with your thoughts on feminism and whether men boys/men should be involved in the struggle for equality. It is true that radical feminists do not want any male involvement in the campaign, as the privilege which men have long enjoyed continues in society today. It is difficult for women to ‘sleep with the enemy’ whilst struggling to be free from the same group. However, some feminists believe that genuine equality can only develop, if men who are empathetic to our cause join with us. Men who are violent to women can stay away, as can those men who have ideas of superiority or control. Even so, there are younger groups of men emerging, who want to reject the old battleground positions and want to join with women, to create a fairer society. Feminism can set men free from the rigid constrictions, which they currently endure, on a daily basis. Women need more men to realise this.

I think your article raised a number of issues, which are worthy of more debate and it is highly commendable that you are thinking of these, at the age of seventeen. The boys I was at school with would not have given such matters any airtime at all. Some of these boys went on to become lawyers, doctors and businessmen working in blue-chip companies. They are still as clueless today !

Jackie Bather // Posted 17 June 2016 at 6:48 pm

To avoid receiving writs through the post, I should like to add that all the above comments are my own opinion solely and I do not have any specific individuals in mind, with regard to the final paragraph of my comments. Thank you !

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