Dr. Judy Chu is the Chair of the Movember Men’s Health Advisory Committee and Lecturer in Human Biology and Affiliate of the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University.
She discusses men’s health, the impact of societal messages about gender on boys and young men, and the implications of their developmental outcomes for society at large.
What has typically been viewed as boys’/men’s nature actually reflects their socialisation towards and accommodation to social constructions of gender that cast masculinity and femininity as mutually-exclusive opposites, and lead boys/men to devalue and deny qualities that have been gendered feminine. This includes their emotional range and their capacity and desire for relationships, which are stereotypically viewed as “feminine” weaknesses but are in fact human strengths and essential to boys’/men’s health and happiness. Over time and in extreme cases, compromises we make in order to conform to our society’s narrow constructions of gender can hinder our self-expression and self-acceptance, and lead to the kinds of disconnections that make it possible for us to harm ourselves, other people, and our planet.
Barriers boys and men face
One thing that most boys and men come up against is the expectation that they must prove their masculinity. The premise is that they are not enough as they are, so they must become something more or something else in order to be deemed worthy and lovable. Moreover, they are led to believe that there is only one right or best way to be a “real” man. Yet, as Professor of Human Development and Family Studies Joseph Pleck pointed out in his book, The Myth of Masculinity (1981), this narrow masculine ideal — which centres on physical toughness, emotional stoicism, projected self-sufficiency, and heterosexual dominance – is ultimately unattainable. No one can be all of these things, in all situations, and at all ages. As a result, boys/men who believe it is important for boys/men to align with this ideal are destined to strive towards an image of masculinity in relation to which they will inevitably fall short. Moreover, boys/men must continually prove their masculinity, which is precarious under these conditions as one can be “called out” at any time and by anyone for deviating in any way from these norms.
It’s all about relationships
Infant research shows us that all humans are born with a fundamental capacity and primary desire to develop close, emotionally intimate relationships. Humans are relational beings, and our lives and experiences are inextricably embedded within our interpersonal relationships as well as our particular cultures and societies. We develop our identities, values, and beliefs not in isolation with the option of having relationships, but through and within our relationships with other people and the world around us.
Crisis of connection
Societal messages and pressures to conform to narrow constructions of gender can impact how boys and men bring themselves into their relationships. Although boys and men wish to identify and relate to other people in meaningful ways, and are motivated by their desire to belong, they learn to protect themselves against possible ridicule and rejection by conforming to group and cultural norms of masculine behaviour. Their masculine posturing may help them to fit in (or at least not stand out) but often at the cost of feeling truly seen, known, and accepted. In other words, the process by which boys/men are socialized to become “real” boys/men can involve and result in disconnections from themselves and from other people. As Terrence Real, author of I Don’t Want to Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression (1997) explains, when you take the range of human qualities, divide them into masculine and feminine, and say that only men can be masculine and only women can be feminine, then everyone loses.
Pushing past the status quo
For at least the past four decades, we have known that maintaining the status quo is not serving boys and men well. We even understand many of the causes of the problems they face, and have developed evidenced-based solutions that can alleviate their suffering. For instance, if disconnections, or what Professor of Developmental Psychology Niobe Way describes as a crisis of connection (2018), is contributing to rising rates of anxiety, depression, loneliness, violence, and the like, then campaigns and programs that foster and facilitate connections — like the ones Movember has funded, created, and developed over the years — can be key to enabling boys and men to feel worthy and fulfilled.
However, it is not enough simply to have knowledge about how to make healthier choices, or even to have the desire to do better. If that were the case, then we would all be eating healthy foods and exercising regularly. While it is important to raise awareness and empower individuals to act, social psychologists have long emphasised the need to “facilitate the channels” – by removing obstacles and providing practical support at both individual and systemic levels – in order to bring about sustainable, widespread behaviour change.
Mister Rogers had it right all along
Beloved American television host Mister Rogers used to tell members of his audience, “I like you just the way you are.” It’s a simple message but one that we, as a society, have yet to adopt and convey consistently. Accordingly, the hope for boys and men is that they can feel seen and valued for their authentic and whole selves, be comfortable and content with their intersectional identities (e.g., no longer expected to prove their masculinity), recognise multiple masculinities (i.e., that there are as many ways to be a boy/man as there are boys/men), acknowledge their vulnerability and uncertainty (and understand that these are normal aspects of the human condition), ask for help when they need it and offer help when they can give it, disagree respectfully with other people, realise and express a full range of thoughts, feelings and desires, and develop the kinds of close, mutual relationships that have been shown to be protective as they face life’s inevitable challenges.
Healthier men are essential to creating a healthier world. When men are able to be fully present and genuinely engaged in their relationships, they do better personally and professionally, and so does everyone around them including their partners, family, friends, neighbours, co-workers, local and global communities. Men who are self-aware, interpersonally sensitive and responsive, and socially attuned are better positioned to connect with and contribute to a healthier world.