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.
The traditional 'bloke'. A pretty simple beast most of the time. Put food in front of it and it will probably get eaten. Give it an option of beer and water and there is only one choice. Simplicity is the key to being a bloke. We don't complicate life. What's the point?
Hidden behind the idea of leading an uncomplicated life lies the problem. There is a feeling amongst men, on the whole, that we can't speak about anything we are finding difficult. If we do we are just making an issue out of nothing. The simplest thing? Brush it under the carpet. I certainly understand that. I've never found it very easy to speak about anything, even to close family and it has taken a concerted effort for me to try and change this. I don't think it's just me though. Being a male in today's world has its problems. We have evolved from the time when men went out to work leaving women at home to look after the kids and family home. Roles and equality between the sexes has developed over a relatively short amount of time and I don't think men have developed at the same rate.
Women are far more likely to go and have a coffee with a friend and talk about a problem or chat to family about intimate personal issues. Do men find it that easy? No way. I recently wrote a piece on my retirement from professional rugby. It's been much harder than I anticipated but I have found it hard to talk about it. I used the chance to write the article as an opportunity to try and exorcise some of the demons I was having and enable myself to come to terms with the issue more. In fact, I had some great feedback about from people who had been through the same thing and also those who read it from a neutral perspective. But I was always going to get the texts coming through from some people saying 'cry me a river mate' or 'stop moaning about it, it happens'. Those two messages especially, came from lads, as you might expect. Lads I know too. We find it easier to use jovial 'banter' to get through problems than actually talking about the problem. Many people use humour to get through tough situations and men are the same. The more in depth conversations I have had about retirement have come after a couple of beers when inhibitions have dropped. I'm not saying I would or indeed can do it any other way but I do think men are supposed to just get on with it and not talk about it. It's like it's an affliction of character should you be seen to be moaning or discussing some of your problems to close friends. There will no doubt be people, guys, that feel that they do speak about their problems and that's fantastic but I would think quietly in the back of most men's minds reading this they feel the same.
People talked to me about retirement before it happened. It was more of a case of 'are you prepared for retirement?' with a focus on my plan for life after rather than the emotional side. This is something that needs addressing in the future. In fact, I face more demons from the emotional side of retiring than I do the more tangible side including finding a new income to secure myself moving forward. Rugby players especially will find it hard to talk about emotions and concerns about leaving the game. But leaving a career which, for me, spanned 17 years leaves a very big hole in your life no matter how prepared you are for work life after. I can only liken it to the grieving process in some way. Anyone that says it's not is either in serious pain from the punishment they have given their body or they are flat out lying! I think there is a shift in the way people see men talking to each other about issues they are struggling to deal with and I have friends that find it much easier than me but that shift has not made a huge difference to the general male population as yet. I'm sure over time it will. Guys get their eye brows threaded and take themselves for facials now so something must be shifting!
The thought that you are being strong by being silent is a widespread feeling among men but I know from experience that this doesn't work. It makes things much harder. It's why writing a piece on retirement was so cathartic for me. Talking works. Or writing. But 'lad culture' doesn't make it easy for 'modern day man' to express feelings, opinions and troubles and talk about them. Far from it. It makes it harder and that shift will not have touched the men with whom 'lad culture' is central to their lives. It might be why I wrote the piece rather than do an interview on it, less embarrassing.
For 17 years I was meant to "man up and get on with it" and that tends to instil itself in life outside of rugby too. It's a sport that doesn't afford you much emotional leeway. You show any sign of weakness and it gets exposed. Hopefully rugby as a sport will address the issues I have faced as there is no doubt that there is an extreme nature to it here. It's also clear that it's not only within sport though that men find it hard to expose their problems and worries. It's their perceived weakness. The 21st Century man is under constant pressure to demonstrate strength at the expense of being able to offload troubles.