There seems to be a thread in the conversations I have had lately with many of the men I see in my practice. Our discussions are centering on the institutionalization influences of how masculinity is defined. We have entered into these talks from a variety of perspectives but we seem to end up circling around the same concerns. Coming to grip with how men define their own manhood is a pressured and loaded situation.
For women, the pressure to be everything to everyone is clearer. Our female counterparts have been vocal about how they have to struggle to achieve in a misogynistic world. It is unfair and a challenge that still needs to be dealt with. Our conversations have actually served us well in better understanding the plight women identified decades ago. While we don’t have any solutions, we did end up with more awareness of how subtle some of the pressures/blockades are.
So far, our conversations have focused on four key sub-themes. These themes are broad and do not apply to all men in all situations. I am sure that as we continue to explore these themes, the richness and depth of our understanding and more themes will emerge. Here is where our discussions have taken us so far:
1. Social image. This is where many of our conversations started. Talking about our gender expression and how we are perceived. The expectation to be strong, concrete and resilient can leave many men with a sense of failure, or at least a sense of ineffectiveness. In the world where the Marlboro Man has morphed into the urban, upscale man who can create business results and provide a strong foundation for his family is new ideal. Being soft, presenting emotional needs or wanting to take a divergent path is considered less than. Having to be “the man” means that we must take the lead, be confident, and put our emotional desires secondary to those of our partners. If we don’t do that…or do that well… we fail.
2. Our careers. Some of the discussions have centered on the expectations that men feel about achievement. Having to get ahead, be competitive, and increase our net worth is high pressure from society. As we have delved into these discussions many of the men talk about how they wish they could have taken another path – had a career that was more focused on interest or values and less about earning potential, resulting in a simpler and less stressed life.
3. Bodies/physicality. Like women, men have been discussing that the social images of men are held at an ideal. The magazine racks are covered in chisel-chinned men who are carved out of cream cheese or steroid-laden, muscle ripped lunks. Men are not objectified in the same way women are, men are being told that their bodies are not good enough. Images in mass and social media are not representing the way most men really look. Things as simple as buying clothes that fit remind men that there is a clear standard that men should fit into. For example, if you are a shorter man, finding pants with an inseam that fits is near impossible. If you are very tall and thin, pants are usually custom ordered. Clothing manufacturers are creating a similar angst for men that they have created for women.
4. Sex. With access to the world on every device possible, we learn about sex and expectations through mass/social media and pornography. People don’t know how to talk about sex and intimacy – there is no consumable language for the common man. So, the message that many men have received is that we must be virile, long-lasting, orgasm giving and well hung. If men don’t have the knowledge of their partner’s bodies, a high drive and staying power they are incompetent. If men ask for something in bed from their partner that is not on the approved menu of options, they are often judged or ignored. Often the expectation isn’t that every one of the requests be honored, but rather that they are discussed and explored.
What I take away from all of this is that many men are starting to be more aware of what they want and how that either fits in with or is contradictory to the situation they find themselves in. These men are starting to question their situations and how they can start to take control of their future and feel more aligned with their own emerging definition of masculinity. They are learning what type of man they are supposed to be, and trying to be that!
If you are working through these or related issues and would like explore them, contact Elliott at [email protected]