Some years ago I stood transfixed near the side of a school field watching (at a safe distance) as seemingly fully grown men launched into each other at what I later learnt was the 1st XV rugby trials. It was my first immersive experience of a largely all-male environment and, in my inexperience, I thought these boys had it altogether. They appeared so strong, so confident and in control.
From a safe distance.
Three lies of Masculinity
My years since that day have taught me that this mask of dominance and stoicism is exactly that, a mask. Young boys and men attempting to be what the world expects of them as men while underneath lie all the insecurities and emotions that you would expect from any human. Former NFL player, turned activist Joe Ehrman, explains how males of all ages are fed the lie that the measure of a man is his athletic ability (or size and strength), economic success and sexual conquests.
These three myths are very much alive today, and in the fertile proving ground of adolescence they are intensified, particularly when men come together such as in all boys’ school or sports teams. The term given is ‘hyper-masculinity’ where genuine male traits are exaggerated, distorted and even celebrated. Without awareness and intentionality in confronting these issues we can easily end up with the traditional 3 R’s of schooling being supplanted by the three very different R’s of Roids, Ritalin and Rac.
Such is the importance of body image a good definition these days is far more likely to be a topic of conversation in the gym than the English lesson. Where size matters the temptation of steroids is not far behind. Weight training goes hand in hand with a focus on eating and I have witnessed hungry teenagers skip desert at a formal dinner in order to preserve that ‘shredded’ body. With such a focus on body image it’s no surprise that anorexia and body dysmorphic disorders make their presence felt amongst boys. This ongoing pressure to be ‘built’ often morphs into expectations to be emotionally strong, manifest by not having (or at least not showing) emotional needs.
In a high performance environment where men are expected to compete and succeed, academic achievement is seen as the precursor to workplace success. Many boys though simply cannot keep up and turn to stimulant medication. Today, according to Joel Bakan, tens of millions of children are on drugs such as Ritalin compared to the 1980’s were prescriptions were negligible. In the words of Ken Robinson we anesthetise students (mostly male) through the often unnecessary rigours of our Darwinian school system, rather than waking them up to what’s inside of themselves.
With the rise of the ‘metrosexual’ male it’s important for boys and men to look good. The anti-acne drug Rac, or Roaccutane makes the ‘spotty teenager’ a thing of the past despite concerns around over-prescription. De-rigour dental work is also prerequisite alongside a regime of male grooming products, all in the guise of having game (success with girls). The myth of sexual conquest as a route to manhood is alive and well. In unguarded moments boys will talk about the expectations of the ‘bro-code’ to be ‘de-greened’ (kissed) or ‘get head’ by a certain age.
Clearly we have to help our boys free themselves from such gender strait jackets and toxic mind sets. If you work with boys, or have a son, here are some things to consider as a way forward.
- Redefine strength – “Boys want to be strong, there’s absolutely no point in telling boys that they don’t need to be strong. It’s built into their psyche that they want to be seen as strong. The message just won’t compute. What you need to do is redefine what strength is.” Martin Seagar. We need engagement with boys that defines strength to include emotional expression and vulnerability.
- Redefine masculinity – Joe Ehrman says with reference to being a man, “One, it’s your capacity to love and to be loved. Masculinity ought to be defined in terms of relationships. Second thing, it ought to be defined by commitment to a cause. All of us have a responsibility to give back, to make the world more fair, more just, more hospitable for every human being.” Enough said.
- Provide a range of healthy male role models – Psychologist Michael Thompson says, not every boy wants to be ‘…like Mike…’ This means school staff and visitors to the schools need to reflect a diverse and varied spectrum of men. In addition, while male role models in boy’s schools are vital, it is also important that female staff make up a significant proportion of the faculty.
Don’t stay on the touchlines
Back to the sports field, that ultimate arena of masculinity, and another memory. This time my youngest son, less than two years old, wandering away from my wife. It wasn’t too long before he was howling with a thorn in his foot. Before we got to him a young man had detached himself from his scrum of peers, sat down next to my son, put his arm around him and gently pulled the thorn from his foot.
We take boys at face value at their peril and probably ours. Young men will put up a convincing mask of anger or disinterest that discourages us from getting close. When we do though it’s all there, feelings, kindness, strength, thought, care, compassion, gentleness, vulnerability. But the thing is, you can’t stay on the touchlines as I did that day watching rugby. You have to be willing to be immersed at some level of discomfort, yours and theirs. Have the conversations that create the space for young males to be the better version of themselves.
When it comes to boys, don’t stay at a safe distance, have the courage to get involved.