'Will people laugh at me if I colour a princess?' asked my five year old son, when we were talking our regular talk about his friendship woes at school.
'Jayden said to me 'You've got a purple hoody,' my eldest, age seven, confided, a bit downcast. Jayden will have said this in a mocking way. I know all about Jayden. I have two sons and this is a snapshot of their experiences of the heavily gendered culture in the last two weeks. Pro-actively challenging limiting gender stereotypes through parenting and education from pre-school will help boys survive the limiting norms of masculinity that they're under immense pressure to conform to. Norms that stifle their expression, exploration and stamp out their rich and varied humanity.
Of course I let my sons know that nothing is off-limits to them, that there isn't Girls' stuff or Boys' stuff, there's just stuff. Of course I don't stick to blue, brown, navy and grey when I'm buying their clothes. My sons are physically active and sporty (the eldest clocks up seven timetabled sports activities a week) and many of their interests fit into what's considered typically boyish: football, BMXing, skateboarding, Lego Ninjago, Scalextric, Minecraft, Star Wars, dinosaurs and Pokémon trading cards. My seven year old used to enjoy My Little Pony on telly and we appreciate Sylvanian Families (for which my eldest's friend picked on him) however, my boys 'fit in' yet still can be called up by their peers for straying from a narrow type. When my boys get picked on at school I feel angry that the sheer insanity of thinking a colour belongs to girls could affect their sense of self. I feel sad for my own children and for Jayden, because he has been groomed by a gendered world without being given the tools to question it. Let's just say Jayden's parents took him out of school for his birthday in Reception year to see Transformers. Rated 12. Superhero culture is the backdrop to little boys' lives and what does it tell them? That it's not just about being strong, it's about being SUPER strong - the actors playing the roles in films beef up to inhuman proportions, their 'Blockbuster Bodies' and 'Superhero Abs' used to sell men's magazines.
Photograph: Patrik Giardino for Men's Health UK
Superhero culture sells a masculinity defined by leadership, physical prowess, rescuing women and winning respect with aggression and weaponry. When adverts come on between TV programmes I shout, 'Those children aren't real! They only show boys with guns, and girls who love pink! Those children are actors!' My sons groan as they enjoy being sold toys but I know I'm getting through to them. My eldest son was five when he said, 'Mummy, don't be cross but there's only one girl in Angry Birds and she's pink.'
Campaigning group Let Toys Be Toys won a scientific research award for their 2015 study, which found that adverts for construction sets, action figures, vehicles and toy weapons only showed boys and that play is 'aggressive'. Girls appear in ads for dolls, grooming, nurturing and are only active when dancing. A glance at Let Clothes Be Clothes shows the onslaught of boys' clothing encouraging them to be Little Monsters and Double Trouble, grooming them for a more adult popular culture in which the Bad Boy is eulogized at every turn. Being annoying, arrogant and disruptive is in, wanting to learn, be responsible or respectful is out.
Image: www.freetobekids.com, who say, 'Is there any other phrase out there that so perfectly expresses just how little we think of our boys' capacity to be good, kind, empathetic people?'
Where can boys learn being vulnerable and having feelings is allowed? Where can they see men celebrated in caring roles? Men celebrated for speaking the truth? Where can you buy a T-shirt that says, World's Coolest Reader? The documentary film The Mask You Live In by Jennifer Siebel Newsom of The Representation Project shows the hidden suffering and vulnerabilities of American boys and young men who are under pressure to act tough to 'Be A Man'. The short from The Representation Project, Masculinity In Popular Culture, encapsulates the hyper-masculinity presented as the ideal. The documentary trailer demonstrates how our culture has feminized traits such as empathy and kindness and rendered them unmasculine. It shows how respect is linked to violence. It shows young boys breaking down from the weight of loneliness, the burden of covering up their true selves.
So what can we do to counteract the hyper-masculine models that surround boys? Point out men in non-stereotypical roles - male dancers, male nurses, charity workers, male creatives, to show boys that they are allowed to be caring, individual - and human. Encourage a questioning mind in response to media representations on TV, in film, in adverts and books. Make sure boys understand it's OK to feel hurt, weak or vulnerable, that men cry. Encourage communication by asking questions and giving full attention (even if you just say 'Mmm' or 'I see') for a response. Name and acknowledge feelings by saying 'That must have really made you mad', 'I can imagine you feel really sad about that.' With too few role models who open up about pressures on boys and men, role models who can articulate the personal and societal benefits of relationships based on equality, it's up to parents and educators to spell it out that intimacy with friends, with partners, with loved ones, is a normal survival strategy of being human. See my posts, Bringing Up Boys and Strategies for Challenging Gender Stereotypes for more ideas.
The website for International Men's Day - this year the theme is Stop Male Suicide - tells us that 54% of teenage boys who had experienced a mental health problem 'put a brave face on it' or kept it to themselves. This month the former professional footballer Andrew Woodward courageously took off the mask he'd been suffering behind since age 11 to bare his vulnerability to the world. Suffering is part of life. This is what being a man looks like.
The Being A Man festival took place at London's Southbank from 25 -27 November
HuffPost UK is running a month-long focus around men to highlight the pressures they face around identity and to raise awareness of the epidemic of suicide. To address some of the issues at hand, Building Modern Men presents a snapshot of life for men, the difficulty in expressing emotion, the challenges of speaking out, as well as kick starting conversations around male body image, LGBT identity, male friendship and mental health.
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