It’s 2019 and men have got their knickers in a right twist. For some, the sins of ‘toxic masculinity’ and macho lad culture cast a long shadow as we try to fight forward as new, better men. For others, men’s traditional roles are being stripped away and unfairly chastised by a tide of 21st-century feminism.
Whichever way you see it, the prescient question of ‘what it means to be a man’ has become a proverbial tail-chasing exercise. Men are going round and round in pursuit of the answer, prompted not just by movements such as #MeToo and other examples of men being called on their shit (as the saying goes), but also our own increasing need to examine, deconstruct, and reassemble our own sense of masculinity.
Surely there’s one thing we can agree on – that modern masculinity is a question with a million possible answers. There were male cheerleaders at this year’s Super Bowl. Chanel now sells make-up for men. That’s surely a good thing. Old-school ideas of manliness – strength, testosterone, toughness, the kind of thing that some would argue causes all the toxic behaviour and a gender imbalance – are now sharing the stage with different ideas, based on emotional intelligence or wellness.
Persistent stats tell us there is still plenty still to work out though. Men account for 75 per cent of suicides in the UK. As little as two per cent of eligible families take shared parental leave. And the recent Gillette advert targeting toxic male behaviour and asking “Is this the best a man can get?” caused a storm of gender debate.
But are traditional notions of alpha male identities really damaging? Or should old school bloke be something to be celebrated? Are we raising our sons to be good men? Or teaching them to make the same mistakes all over again? In other words, what does it really take to be a man in the modern age? We asked very different guys how to do it.
How To Be A Man: Show Empathy
Chris Hemmings is a journalist, broadcaster, and self-confessed ex-lad. He wrote the book Be A Man on the realities of macho culture and holds workshops in schools, universities and places of work to promote healthier ideas of what it means to be a man.
A lot of what my work focuses on is young boys and empathy. There are two schools of thought. The first is that biologically men have less empathy hardwired in. The second is that sociologically we de-empathise young boys. My argument is that, either way, we should teach young boys doubly hard to be empathetic.
For a long period of their lives, boys barely spend any time with men. Most single-parent families are female-led, a vast majority of teachers are female, or dads are out bringing home the bread. In the eyes of young boys, women are the caregivers, men are de facto disciplinarians. We teach boys that a caring nature isn’t a masculine trait. It’s a feminine trait in their eyes. What does that teach boys about men? Or about girls and femininity? There’s nothing more embarrassing for a young boy than being called a girl.
Men have relied on this ability to rule and dominate for so long, now they are being questioned, by both women and men, it’s not surprising that, because of the way masculinity is constructed, a lot of men struggle to accept their behaviour has been negative.
I think a lack of empathy is at the core of a lot of problems for men. I trained myself to ignore my empathy, but when it kicked back in it was a transformational moment. I want to take some of the responsibility and try to help others not fall into those traps. It’s not about pointing fingers – it’s about helping.
How To Be A Man: Talk Openly
Terry Brazier is a former stonemason who changed careers to join the military as part of the Irish Guards. Since returning from a tour in Afghanistan where he served as a Gunner, Brazier has spoken openly about his struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder and now competes as an MMA fighter for Bellator.
I believe the army made a man of me. Before the army, I was just a boy. I was part of a group of kids that were trying to prove themselves as men but what I was doing was far from manly. The list of stupid things we did is endless.
I joined the army because I made a promise to my late mum to change my life. I began to evolve and learnt so much about the world we live in.
The traditional idea of being a man can make it very hard for men to open up about their true feelings, worries and issues and this is especially true for people in the army.
Following my medical discharge from the army after a tour in Afghanistan, I was very low. Some days I even felt suicidal, and I needed to escape from the horrific reality I was living. I went to the gym looking to get involved in MMA to channel my emotions. MMA became a coping mechanism for me.
Now I’m an MMA athlete people think I’m very masculine and tough. I actually find that makes it easier to talk openly about my PTSD. Some men are a little less fortunate.
Strength, toughness, and dominance are important to me and are certainly traits of traditional MMA. However, I think my outlook on those traits is different from how many men view them.
For me, strength is being able to reflect on myself to see how I really am. I see toughness as being able to admit you’re scared and accept that that’s okay if you can grow for it. Meanwhile, dominance is about taking control of what you can actually do and not worrying about something that is totally out of your control.
The Penis Expert
How To Be A Man: Be Content
Ant Smith is a performance poet and the author of The Small Penis Bible. As well as frequently speaking about men’s anxieties around penis size, he also organised the Big Small Penis Party in 2015.
I think expectations of masculinity are changing for the better, but we’re not yet very clear on how to meet those expectations.
We’re getting good at talking about what’s wrong with our ingrained idea of masculinity, but we’re yet to find all the keys that will unlock a paradigm shift. For example, we understand the toxicity of thinking of man as breadwinner – and yet we continue to pay men more than we pay women.
For most of my life, I allowed my ‘masculine identity’ to define the expectations I had of myself. I aimed to be the successful breadwinner, and I hid the shame of not stacking up in the pants department. Trying to play the role of ‘the man’ brought me some successes and joys but more hurt and fear. No troubled marriage was ever made happier for a fatter wallet or a bigger penis.
The most important quality for men to have right now is self-awareness. Put the effort in to understand how, as an individual, you can improve/support/maintain the relationships, families, communities you belong to. Putting the bread on the table isn’t enough. You have a greater responsibility to make breaking the bread a joy.
The main thing holding us back is the belief that we must ‘act like men’, because everything we understand about the term is outmoded. We do not need to ‘get in touch with our feminine side’. We do not need to throw away our ingrained characteristics – strength, protector, provider – we just need to apply ourselves, our characteristics, consciously as responsible individuals, not as a protected member of some privileged group.
Be your own very self. All of your fears of ‘not being man enough’ (which every man suffers, whether that’s due to penis size or any other perceived inadequacy) arise from trying to be enough of a man. Happiness lies not in being the best, most successful, greatest endowed man – but being just the best person you can be.
The Trans Actor
How To Be A Man: Forget What You Know
Ian Harvie is a trans stand-up comedian and actor. He starred in the acclaimed Amazon show Transparent as well as making an appearance in Will & Grace alongside his work as an activist calling for more and improved roles for transgender people.
When I first transitioned, I was focused on visual ideas of what it means to be a man because I was consumed by the idea of my gender presentation. I had an idea of what a man looked like.
Once I got to clear my head and be in the body, I got to explore more what it’s like to be a man. As a human being, it’s absolutely no different from being a woman. I now know that from experience.
What it means to be a man is to be a decent human being, and be considerate, to pause before we speak and consider our privilege. To consider our systematic domination, to relinquish some of the chokehold we have on society and think, “What can I do with my privilege to make change for the better?” That’s what I’d say it means to be a man today.
Men rule the world and still choose to be repressed – it’s repression done to themselves because of this twisted idea of what masculinity is. But that’s historical, and I do feel like that’s changing.
The things we associate with masculinity are just a construct. We have to peel away the layers of this crap about what it means to be a man. We have to deconstruct all of the bullshit and rebuild it the way we see it. It’s a hard task – especially in Western culture – because we walk around with marketing messages constantly at us about who men are and who women are. Women have long hair, men have short hair, women wear dresses, men wear trousers. But it’s a construct, totally made up.
How To Be A Man: Don’t Compete
Josh Maley is a bodybuilder and personal trainer with Nottingham gym M10. He was awarded the title of Mr Britain by the National Amateur Body-Builders’ Association in 2015 and was crowned Mr Universe in 2017.
Bodybuilders are very stereotyped, but people are surprised by how gentle and kind supportive we are of each other. The thing I love about it is that you’re not competing against anyone except yourself. The judging is subjective, so the only progress you can make is to be better than yourself last time.
I’m 6’6” and used to be skinny, so I felt very self-conscious. I’ve gained confidence from getting bigger through bodybuilding. You can call the process manly – the lifting, eating, and being the biggest guy in the gym – but have you seen what we do? We shave our bodies, we get tans… being on a bodybuilding stage is nothing to claim as ‘masculine’.
I think the key qualities I want to show as a man, if people do look up to me, are respect and hard work. I’m a bit old fashioned, I believe in taking care of your partner, and I like the idea of chivalry and being a romantic.
This year I’ve encountered something that I think touches on mental health – a bit of anxiety and the frustration of not knowing where that comes from. I’ve become more sensitive and empathetic about it. I look up to The Rock as someone to emulate. He’s got the great physique but displays respect, understanding, and empathy with people.
The LGBTQ Wrestler
How To Be A Man: Ignore Expectations
Jack Sexsmith is a pansexual professional wrestler. He is the current Wrestling Resurgence Champion and also wrestles for British promotions IPW, Riptide, and Progress.
Culturally speaking, the construct of what is expected of us as men stops us from expressing ourselves. While I have experienced several cases of contempt from others for ‘not being enough of a man’, the most damning critique came from myself – agreeing with social expectations and thinking I was less of a person for not better embodying that idea of ‘man’.
When I started wrestling, I felt I lent on certain stereotypes in order to be digestible for the audience. But I was the first openly queer wrestler in the UK who sought cheers instead of boos and made that compromise to better break new ground. Now that my persona has a wider reputation, there is no need to be a parody any more. I have faith that my audience is mature enough to allow characters of certain persuasions to be whoever they are as people.
The only pressures I put on myself are to put on a good show and to represent the LGBTQ community as best I can.
Pro wrestling is about aesthetic, to convey a legitimate a contest. It’s vital that competitors appear strong, tough and capable of dominating – qualities you want in people. But striving for dominance is hardly a quality we want in a parent, work colleague, or friend. Men are no longer hunters-gatherers – a more important quality for modern men to have is the strength to express how you feel and be who you are, regardless of what is expected of you.
How To Be A Man: Be Thoughtful
Matt Farquharson is a writer, TED talker, and one half of the parenting team behind Mother Pukka and Papa Pukka, an editorial, video-led parenting platform that also boasts an award-winning comedy podcast.
Mostly, fatherhood has turned me into the kind of sappy wuss who wells up at the sight of sad puppies on Facebook. But it has also taught me the value of parking your ego every now and then, of being less selfish and more patient. My hope is that if my daughters see me being nice to their mum and speaking kindly and fairly to them (even when they’re being massive wallies), it will have some positive impact on their own relationships later in life.
I think the current climate has forced men to be a little more thoughtful – to consider the impact of what we say and do – which can never be a bad thing. But there has been a downside, too: a small but highly vocal kickback from the more toxic corners of digital man-dom, where the resistance to extra thinking is mighty strong.
We can still be loud and brash and confident and do heroic things, but the broader reassessment of manliness has also opened up new avenues – things our dads’ generation might have considered more feminine, like being more involved with our kids.
The Reality Star-Turned-MMA Fighter
How To Be A Man: Be Who You Want To Be
Aaron Chalmers is a reality television personality best-known for appearing on Geordie Shore. He is now an professional fighter with Bellator, one of the largest MMA promoters in the world.
Even though I’m now an MMA fighter, I still go for facials and look after myself. Just because you fight doesn’t mean you can’t look good. I think nowadays looking good is part of MMA. It’s what you have to do, otherwise you’re going to start looking weathered. We are sparring five or six times a week, so it’s nice to lay on a bed and get pampered from time to time.
I definitely think masculinity is changing for the better. If you want to pamper or wear make-up then so be it, you’re not harming anyone, you be what you want to be. If you want to be a man and wear make-up, then you do that. But at the same time, if you want to be a man that lift weights and has a big hairy chest, then you do that. I think men should just do whatever makes them happy.
I remember a few years ago it was definitely more difficult to express yourself, but things have changed now. I’ve publicly spoken about my anxiety in the past, and I’ve had problems with alcohol. It was a big thing for me to talk about that, but if I even help one person by opening up about my own issues, then that’s really positive. It felt like I was really getting something off my chest and now I can walk out in front of thousands of people in packed arenas and not feel anxious at all.