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What Has Machismo Got to Do With Mental Health?

10/08/2016 11:00

If I hadn't been aware of the latest charitable viral campaign doing the rounds online I would have considered Facebook videos of people doing press-ups as being nothing more than another daily dose of the self-objectifying underbelly of social media.

Body image is slowly becoming the mental health problem of our generation. For women, marketing campaigns that frequently use unrealistic ideals of the body are compounded by celebrities, fashion models and show hosts who are compelled to change in a mass media environment where the portrayal of body size has been steadily getting smaller. But as much as we talk of it as a women's issue, body shaming is as prominent for blokes.

A survey conducted by Psychology Today found that men believe their appearance is much more important to women then women report it is, with millions of men suffering from eating disorders as a consequence. Where women are pressured to 'lose', 'trim' or 'tighten', for men it's about 'adding inches', 'bulking' or 'building'.

Social media is largely to blame for such feelings of insecurity which are driving men into negative cycles of shame over their body. The so-called "Dark Triad" of narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism is all too commonplace nowadays, with gym selfies, photo-edited 'bulk shots' and an incessant requirement to inform friends and family which muscles are being trained on any given day adding to the weight of self-loathing already been thrown at men via sport, media, marketing, even the porn industry!

Which makes a recent viral campaign using push-ups to raise awareness of suicide rates rather perplexing. Two years on from the ice bucket challenge - which, although a depart from the charity's key goal has led to scientists identifying a gene that contributes to the disease - a global movement called Honor Courage Commitment has started the 22Kill campaign to create awareness of the fact 22 veterans die by suicide every day. Participants must do 22 pushups for 22 consecutive days and nominate two friends on each of those days to join the challenge.

According to the veteran empowerment group the purpose of the campaign is to spread the word that veteran suicide is not the answer, helping to "bridge the gap between veterans and civilians" and "build a community of support" for those living with these mental health challenges. That's admirable, but when it comes to awareness, isn't machismo part of the problem? As one phycologist told me, "it seems to just compound the ridiculous notion of men needing to be tough and therefore not very human". The big issue that is being swept under the very carpet we're bulking our chest muscles on top of is that men don't talk.

That's why I'm more upbeat about the 'It's OK To Talk' viral campaign which uses the universal hand gesture for 'okay' to focus on one of the core issues of mental health. Started by Irish international rugby player for Halifax Luke Ambler after he lost his brother-in-law to suicide the campaign has already been backed by many celebrities, including comedian Ricky Gervais and several actors and sportsmen.

Along with posting the hand sign, the campaign note reads:

"The single biggest killer of men aged fewer than 45 is suicide! In 2014, 4623 men took their own life. That's 12 men every day, one man every two hours. 41 per cent of men who contemplated suicide felt they couldn't talk about their feelings. One 20 per cent of the UK know that suicide is the most likely cause of death for men under 45. Let's show men all across the world that #ITSOKAYTOTALK."

Viral campaigns have proved themselves to be incredibly effective ways of raising awareness on key issues, but we must make sure that we communicate the right messages. Encouraging men to "buff out" rather than "speak out" risks missing the point entirely.

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