To round off Mental Health Awareness Week, we asked our Positive Body Image Series creator, Dr Jane McNicholas, about her thoughts on body image.
As part of Men's Health Awareness Month, we spoke to Edward Corrie about masculinity and mental health. Edward is a professional actor and writer, and is Head of Arts for Super Being Labs. He worked as editor for Being ManKind - a project which hopes to address the unique issues that men and boys face in the 21st century.
Being ManKind was born out of a conversation between Super Being Labs' CEO, Darshan Sanghrajka and his friend, Mark Lazarus. They were discussing the world that they'd want their children to grow up in, the detrimental effects of negative gender stereotyping, and how this is having a dangerous impact on the children of today, notably in young men and boys. Often young men struggle to meet the societal dictates expected of them, and burdened by pressures to conform while staying 'strong, stoic and stiff-upper-lipped', this can have devastating consequences, evident both in the rates of male suicides and the rise of toxic masculinity.
Being ManKind uses the candid stories of ordinary men to provide positive male role models to young people, particularly young men and boys who may not have these figures in their lives. These stories touch on all aspects of modern masculinity and life, and if a young person can identify with or be empowered by a story, knowing that they have shared experiences with one of the figures in books, then Being ManKind will have done its job.
Being ManKind showed me masculinity from every walk of life, and every corner of the country. Men who I otherwise wouldn't have had the fortune to have met. I remain humbled by their examples and to name just a few; there's a survivor of sexual abuse, who walked around every capital city in Europe to challenge the statute of limitations that impeded survivors' rights in raising criminal proceedings against their abusers. There's a Paralympian, who lost his legs on an IED in Afghanistan who fought his way back from injury to be in Team GB for both skiing and rowing. There are stay at home dads, single dads, male midwives, men who have lost loved ones, men who have dealt with body image issues, mental health issues, and physical health issues. Every example is different and unique, but all of them represent modern masculinity - that being a man is about being a decent and genuine person.
I learned a great deal about the darker aspects of masculinity from Being ManKind. The lengths that some men will go to maintain a facade of strength or stoicism - or whatever it is that they feel they have to do to conform to the societal expectations. There are many examples in Being ManKind where people have had to rebuild their lives due to negative gender stereotyping. Being ManKind is part of an ongoing conversation about masculinity, but it makes me realise just how much work needs to be done.
It's about being an empathetic, moral, decent, and kind human being. Someone who inspires, who is honest with themselves and others. Someone compassionate, reasonable, generous, and selfless. I suppose gender doesn't come into that, so it's just about being the best version of yourself at any given time. My definition of masculinity came from my dad and the kind of man he was, so I hope I can be that similar figure for my nephews and nieces.
We have these epithets that men should be strong and silent - that we should be the breadwinner, that we should be emotionless, drink beer and watch football. I'm being simplistic, but these constructs are reinforced throughout popular culture, subtly and not so subtly.
If you look at the most popular Hollywood movies or franchises - you find a male hero who is the 'lone ranger' character, the last man standing who works alone and exists in isolation. Their strength is their silence, they do not show any emotions beyond anger, and they do not cry or talk about their feelings. These are portrayed as aspirational qualities in men; they're the men we're told we should be and the men that we should be with.
Equally, women have been stereotyped for years as the 'weaker' sex. Women are portrayed to be in touch with their emotions and to be manly is to be the opposite. The word, 'hysteria' comes from the ancient Greek, husterikós, meaning 'suffering in the uterus', so culturally there has always been this perception and explicit association of women with emotion. Again, by definition then, masculinity must be the opposite, so immediately, words like 'strength' become synonymous with silence and so too with masculinity. With these concepts etched into our language and consciousness for centuries, you can see how men and women are both told by society how they should be and behave. Boys like the colour blue and fast cars and sport; girls like pink and ponies and Barbie dolls.
As I say, a massively assumptive answer to the question, but I think that culturally, women as the so-called 'weaker' species are expected to talk about their feelings, their emotions and their wellbeing. That by being perceived as 'weak', you are permitted to be open about your mental health, while men must maintain a show of strength and anything less is shameful.
As previously mentioned, societal stereotypes have decided that it's ok for women to talk about their feelings, emotions, and wellbeing. Women are permitted to be open about mental health, while men must maintain strength. Nothing could be further from the truth on all sides. If you have a broken arm, you will go to a doctor to get it fixed; if your mental health is suffering, you need to see a professional, and the ability to acknowledge that in yourself, to talk about it openly and candidly - that is a real strength.
Suicide is the single biggest killer of men under the age of 40. We have to change the way we view mental health and the stigmas associated with it. Otherwise, we will continue to lose loved ones and friends to this rising epidemic. Knowing that you're not alone, that you have the support and that there are people who will listen and who are sympathetic and non-judgemental of your situation is vital. Mental health is an everyday fact of life, and we need to treat it as such.
We need to get to the point it is commonplace to talk about mental health as you would about having a cold or the flu; mental health affects everyone, and it is a daily part of life. Some people will go through life without ever having broken a bone or going through an operation, but everybody will experience good and bad days with their mental health. There is no shame in recognising the moments when we are struggling and need to take a moment or seek help.
My concern is that while we have made great strides in raising awareness, we need to keep the conversation going and moving forward. Charities, organisations, companies, and the NHS are all doing incredible work to this end, but it shows me how far we have yet to go to normalise mental health and especially in men.