HuffPost UK is running a month-long focus around masculinity in the 21st Century, and the pressures men face around identity. To address some of the issues at hand, Building Modern Men presents a snapshot of life for men, from bringing up young boys to the importance of mentors, the challenges between speaking out and 'manning up' as well as a look at male violence, body image, LGBT identity, lad culture, sports, male friendship and mental illness.
To begin with an embarrassing admission: I feel good when I buy men's style magazines. I know there are eight pages of advertisements before you reach the contents page, and another eight before the first article - itself a glorified ad - but still, the feel-good rush is shamefully undeniable. Reading them is akin to shopping for clothes: a rush when you're doing it followed by feelings of vapidity and hollowness (an empty wallet, too).
The desire to buy the mag derives from its open admiration for aspiration - the longing for improvement and enhancement that speaks to all of us. To get fitter, richer and better looking. Its online equivalent is the weird lifestyle advice plastered over pictures of models on Twitter or Instagram (example: "what people think of me is none of my business" - Eh?).
Easy to mock but these pithy quotes answer to a very basic human need for clarity, wisdom and insight. It's a poor substitute for real self-knowledge, but they're easy to digest and, crucially, make you feel good. Just like men's lifestyle mags. (And always consider this: who is the great sage penning these tips? Usually a struggling copywriter).
You do not buy Esquire or GQ for critical insight. What you do when you buy these mags is collude in the lie; that we can all look that handsome, smell that great, wear those expensive clothes, buy that watch and be that clever, smart, wealthy, funny and attractive. It is completely unattainable and yet very seductive. It is aspiration, free with every issue.
Simultaneously, the post-modern nature of the magazine and its readership means it cannot help but acknowledge that it is all a delusion. It's what is not being said, what is half-buried beneath the words; the semi-apologetic tone of the editor, who'd like to put more articles from Will Self in but is given a load of gear to flog.
Some of it is just plain excruciating. The articles where middle aged men admit how hopeless they are at all this modernity lark. And who can blame them, for modern life is fraught with the fear of causing offence. Many guys are terrified of appearing either too masculine or too soft, trying desperately to avoid the charge of insecurity as a result of over-confidence or limpness due to a passive personality.
Easier it would be for all us chaps, if we could admit that what we actually want is more than sex. To yield to our desire for sympathy, affection, tenderness, conversation and warmth. All this, and ferocious sex too, if you wouldn't mind. It's a lot to ask, but more honest and rewarding than being chained to the narrative that all men are crude creatures, interested only in sports, cars and chicks.
If we were bold enough to make this admission, men's magazines would begin to reflect it. It is alas probably already too late for printed monthly mags. The Internet's infinite capacity for discussion - coupled with the benefits of anonymity - make it a platform far better suited for introspection and debate (if the nuances are not lost amid the abuse - a topic for another day) with sites like Vice and Buzzfeed offering a broader picture of modern man than any men's mag available.
Men's lifestyle magazines, like women's, play on our deepest insecurities and essentially exploit them for profit. How refreshing it would be to read a mag that was a forum for issues worthy of consideration: mental health, repression, violence, friendship and sexuality. But who's going to advertise next to that? True knowledge means you do not need to buy a Rolex to be happy, something an advertiser will never be keen to reveal.
First posted on my personal blog