I turned 40 not so long ago, and turning 40 felt like a big deal because a) everyone tells you that it’s a big deal, and b) I remember my dad turning 40 (I was 13 at the time) and thinking what a real man he was. Just pure guy, 100 per cent bloke. The patriarch, the provider, the professional. He was good at cricket, he was authoritative, he was everything a man should be. He was 40, and he encapsulated ‘dadness’.
Now I’m 40, and I’m also a dad. Only my mirror reflects back something less certain, less overtly masculine, less blokeish. I’m a patriarch but only in a biological sense; I’m a provider but so is my wife; my professionalism is only in a freelance capacity; and I gave up team sports long ago. This immediately provides me with two realisations: the first being that our expectations of masculinity might have shifted somewhat in the last 27 years, and also that my dad was probably blagging it anyway. As the generation gap has narrowed between us and I’ve got to know him better, some of those early traits, I can wholeheartedly conclude, were projections. He’s shy and kind, and he works hard, but a macho man, he is not.
Whatever overtly masculine vibes I saw him to be giving off had been fed to me. Fed by various suppositions that were nurtured in my head, passed down through the generations, and then passed through a basic set of childish filters. Because I saw him only in ‘dad’ terms, all I saw were the traits that dads were supposed to have. But the more we talk and reminisce now, the more he alludes to his uncertainty and insecurity as a young father, and I can see that I wasn’t looking for nuance (why would I? I was 13) – I was painting the world with broad brush strokes. My son, only a toddler, probably looks at me and sees the same embodiment of man too (or at least I hope he does).
I suppose the lesson here being that ‘masculinity’ in its most draconian sense isn’t something that’s easy (or even possible) to live up to. It’s long been absurdly defined as something stoical, successful, strong. Few of these traits honestly point towards the reality of being a man. Even the archetypes of brave soldiers coming home from battle belie a hidden truth of generations surely crippled by post-traumatic stress, numbed by war. For every Gazza scoring an iconic goal against Scotland, there are thousands more Gazzas looking lost and bewildered in the street. And as I lie on the beach during the summer, feeling the soft curves of my Rubenesque dadbod, I note that I am now operating in stark contrast to the hordes of younger guys who have succumbed to a social trend that requires normal people with normal jobs to have Olympian bodies. What the hell is that all about?
“Work was always the central way men could define themselves, their identity depended on it,” suggests sociologist Robert Proni. “Now, with the feminisation of the workplace, you could argue that there is more pressure to express masculinity through body image.”
Yes, whatever it is to be a man in 2017, it all looks quite complicated and contradictory to me – gentle and sensitive but also beefy and strong, self-confident and go-getting yet humble – so I thought I’d go in search of some answers. I wanted to know why men are reportedly having greater struggles with their mental health than ever before. I wanted to know if there really was a ‘crisis of masculinity’ like everyone seems to think there is. And, above and beyond everything else, I just wanted to find out if it’s OK to be inadequate, if it’s fine to be unheroic, if it’s no problem to like yourself in spite of all of the things you’re seemingly getting wrong?
There was quite a lot to get through.
“I’m not sure that the strong and silent stereotype for men holds true anymore,” starts masculinity expert, author and journalist Mark Simpson. “They perhaps don’t always express themselves in the same way as women, but that doesn’t mean they don’t express themselves. Perhaps people need to listen more.”
Mental health, certainly amongst guys, seems to be on the social agenda in a big way, with men talking about it on a bigger platform. Footballer Rio Ferdinand has opened up about his panic and anxiety; rapper Stormzy has also talked about his battle with depression. Even the Royal Family – notorious for centuries of oil paintings depicting them as noble warriors (or, at least, as better looking than they are) – have entered the debate. Princes Harry and William, the latter a near-cert for future King of England, have taken to encouraging the nation’s menfolk to address their inner struggles and to tackle mental health head on. This, it has to be said, can only be applauded, because the topic of depression has long been an absurd taboo, seemingly viewed as a sign of weakness.
However, the statistics tell a story of a society struggling to do battle with its demons. In the last couple of years, it’s been reported that suicide is now the biggest killer of men under 50 in the UK. Anxiety, depression and eating disorders have also skyrocketed over 600 per cent in younger men over the last decade.
It’s impossible to say whether this is the result of a ‘crisis of masculinity’ – a phrase that seems to be wheeled out every so often at our convenience – or whether men are simply finding it easier to be open and, as a result, the reported cases are causing a spike in the stats. Whatever the underlying reason, you can’t ignore that men are becoming humanised in a way that makes for shocking reading, but also in a way that can ultimately benefit not just men, but everyone. Because once age-old notions of men being one way, and women being another, are finally laid to rest, society can edge closer to total equality. In my research, it was even suggested that any male ‘crisis’ might simply be down to men being required to give up their privilege, and having to reprogram their outlook.
“Masculinity has been in crisis forever, but I don’t believe that masculinity is ‘in crisis’ today,” agrees Simpson. “On the contrary, it’s probably in less crisis than it has ever been before – masculinity has been liberated by a metrosexual revolution, from oppressive and impossible expectations of what ‘being a man’ is.”
So what are we left with? A society where men are being alleviated of (or stripped of, depending on your outlook) their old purported responsibilities. It’s no longer set in stone that you must be the breadwinner; you are no longer required to hunt and gather; you are allowed to feel weak, or unhappy; you have permission to share your innermost workings. You are not the king of your castle. Instead, you are a cog in a much bigger machine than you, sharing all of the duties and responsibilities that come with it, and you’re allowed to identify as a child of the universe – lost, uncertain and imperfect. Now, this all might sound a bit negative, but from where I’m sitting, it’s brilliant. The freedom to embrace your inadequacies and to aspire to something other than being respected and stoical? Bring it on.
“Truth is, nobody knows what being a man involves today, and that’s actually rather good news, not a cue for ominous music and scary statistics,” continues Simpson. “Most of the ideas about masculinity, back when we all knew what it was, were prohibitions: not sensitive, not gay, not passive, not girly, not good with colours. Repression was an essential part of old-school masculinity, including the part of it that everyone misses: self-sacrifice, strength and stoicism.”
“Essentially, being a man was sold as a form of heroism – a ‘man’ was a heroic ideal, something almost impossible to embody. That isn’t to say that everything is hunky-dory now, but on the whole things are a lot better – we can actually talk about men’s ‘failings’ and problems now.”
Another area that has shifted markedly since my dad turned 40 back in 1988 is that there wasn’t any social media then. In the same way I wasn’t privy to my father’s inner workings, neither was I tuned into his brand ideals – he didn’t have a preferred Instagram filter and, in general, you didn’t see men on holiday turning their disposable cameras around and sucking in their cheeks and puffing out their chests.
In fact, when I look back at the men that defined masculinity around that time – Sean Connery, Tom Selleck, Harrison Ford, Mel Gibson, Bruce Willis, Bruce Springsteen – they weren’t sculpted and shaven, they weren’t particularly shredded. Instead, that absurd subsection of muscularity was left to the Stallones and Schwarzeneggers, who were far from the norm. They were the exceptions, something to be exhibited rather than aspired towards. Skip to now, where everyone from boyband members to reality stars to A-Listers like Ryan Gosling and even Justin Beiber are seemingly expected to have Adonis bodies that tell a story of a lifetime spent in the gym. Add to that the occasional gigantic beard and the epidemic propensity towards getting multiple tattoos, and you start to wonder if these things might have a deeper message, that they might be totems of a lost masculinity (but that’s a whole different feature). A desperate lunge towards validation as ‘men’.
“In terms of body image, any shift can be related to the consumer culture of today,” says Proni, who lectures at Kingston University, London. “The commodification of our bodies – the cultural emphasis on youthfulness, desire and pleasure – this doesn’t just apply to men, the media images for all of us are now woven into the fabric of our daily life. And unfortunately, this notion that we are all responsible for ourselves can lead to depression, confusion and anxiety in men. Instead of finding ourselves, we lose ourselves.”
Indeed, in the quest for validation and approval, it seems that many more men are going under the knife – presumably in a bid to provide the world with the fantasy version of their masculine selves they would urge you, and probably themselves, to buy into.
“I’ve always had a high proportion of male patients in my practice,” says cosmetic surgeon Dr Jonquille Chantrey. “But there are definitely more men attending now than ever before. Their top reason for coming is to ‘look less tired’, but lots of them are also interested in non-surgical body contouring procedures to get rid of stubborn fat that won’t shift, even with their gruelling workout regimes.
“The pressures to look a certain way have been there for some time in terms of body appearance and grooming, but it’s quickly transgressing into face and health – most of the men we treat work hard to keep up their fitness, which can [ironically] make them look gaunt and haggard.”
“Modern men definitely feel pressure to be looked at and ‘liked’,” continues Simpson. “But that’s because we live in a hyper-visual, social media culture. I don’t think this is necessarily bad. It’s good that men no longer look, and women are no longer simply looked at. Men have discovered the desire to be desired – which was always at the heart of metrosexuality. It’s no longer something just for gays and girls.”
So, all of this would suggest that, with the diminishing gender divide, men are now essentially experiencing the same pressures to look a certain way that have been dogging women forever. The patriarchy is dying, the shoe (or heel) is on the other foot. Masculinity is reshaping itself, and presumably, some men have been left feeling confused, exposed, discombobulated and uncertain about their place in the world.
But don’t confuse this as anything other than positive. Men have been shackled by old notions of masculinity for way too long, forever urged to be part of a gang, or to fit into tired stereotypes. Now we can be honest, open, and complex individuals – we can unashamedly (or ashamedly, it’s up to you) be ourselves. We can dress how we want, we can be candid about our desire to become better people, healthier people, and we can even be truthful about the things that make us feel inadequate. We’re basically Eminem at the end of 8 Mile, listing our faults in a bid to become glorious and triumphant. And the nicest part is that we can now work on becoming truly brotherly with one another in a way that women have been supporting one another for years.
“Self-confidence is more powerful when it comes from a healthy inner perspective,” says Dr Chantrey.
I’ll drink to that.