I was 16 and suddenly decided to shave it all off.
From my face that is.
My dad walked into the room, hands on his head and yelled “OH MAI GOAAARDD” in his usual Asian accent.
And I thought to myself, what’s the big deal?
Little did I know that I had entered a rite of passage. Relatives in Pakistan were phoned, the news had gotten round that I was now a fully grown man.
The treatment I received was different and I had definitely felt that things had changed forever.
I had crossed over an invisible line.
Every time I shave, I am reminded of that line.
And in turn, as I often daydream while getting ready, I think of where men are today and how we got here.
The Gender Wars Today
From Trump to MeToo to Feminism and you know, that Gillette advert, it definitely feels as though our time is one of highly polarised opinions regarding what a man can and should be.
I might evoke history here and say perhaps this point of time was inevitable, simply because of three things:
- The acceleration of women entering the labour force/education
- Our privilege to live in societies where physical ability is no longer the ruling criterion
- The contraceptive pill
I choose to characterise it as a “war” simply because there’s a lot of back and forth between where people stand.
Does the man provide? As a stoic figure of strength? Are current efforts to feminise him only getting in the way of what nature intended?
Is the man we’ve grown up to know just a mask? Taught by higher forces to crush others beneath him so the machine can keep turning?
I think both sides are guilty of some hyperbole.
However if I was to lay my cards on the table, I would fall more on the progressive-liberal side.
Not because of where my politics are but because of deeply rooted personal experiences that, upon reflection, make so much sense to me now.
Strap your belts because it’s about to get heavy.
Death always lets us know
I’m in a quiet hospital, a male ward with plenty of old men giving hushed whispers to their relatives.
My grandfather is on his bed and I’m pretty sure these are his last days.
When you see the resignation in someone’s eyes, then you know it’s their time.
My initial instincts are to grieve privately. But everyone has a front, so I keep one too.
The last conversation I had with my grandfather is incredibly practical.
He asked me what my plans were, how my education was going and gave me some advice as to what I should do.
Perhaps for him and for me, it might have been too painful to get emotional then and there.
But my grandfather perhaps believed that he had to be that strong and practical man all the way until the end, because after all, that’s how he raised 4 daughters extremely well.
When I think of him and of the other male figures in my life, I see the same pattern repeating, which in part may be cultural as well.
I see men who think that all of the world’s responsibility falls on their shoulders.
I see men who neglect themselves because they have mouths to feed and places to be.
I also see men who find it difficult to say what they mean, because a censoring machine exists to keep them and other men in check so the disease of “weakness” doesn’t become contagious.
A lot has been said about women’s suffering at the hands of patriarchy and I would be the first to raise my hand and acknowledge that pain.
However, I don’t think enough has been said or discussed about how men suffer.
And it’s difficult because they’re silenced from both sides.
One side tells them to shut the fuck up and “man up.”
And the other side is a voice that says “don’t you dare compare what you’ve gone through compared to what women have to go through each and everyday.”
But that’s exactly the problem. Both attitudes don’t get us anywhere.
The Male Silence
The biggest killer of men under the age of 45 is suicide.
Let’s let that sink in.
Who are the people who fight the bulk of our wars, or inhabit our prisons?
What does it mean to be a father in this incredibly unstable, morally ambiguous and hedonistic age?
Why do we teach young men that they are sexually powerless against women, are incapable of any willpower and should just surrender to the all encompassing power of pussy?
The older models of masculinity were tied to a world were physical strength or tribalism were the biggest power plays.
Now that model is being rendered obsolete, given the mental health crisis for young men and/or more women being able to do the same jobs that men used to always do.
Being masculine can still mean whatever it is that you want it to mean.
But ironically you also need to “man up” and be psychologically honest about where you are.
Efforts to break the male silence by allowing men to speak their mind and be honest is not “feminising” them – it is giving them a chance at improving their mental health and therefore enriching the relationships they have with everyone else.
If men don’t speak, guess what happens?
They fill the prisons like they’ve been doing for ages.
They get shoved into doing physical shit all the time because that’s all they’re good for.
Men should stand their ground and not be shamed into misogyny just because they dare to suggest that they have a suffering of their own.
Any man who experiences the birth of his first child, his favourite football club winning or losing, landing his dream job, losing the love of his life, or feeling like he has no one….all of these powerful experiences get crushed and pressed into a few muted words because the world has not given him a right to speak.
It broke my heart the other day to overhear a conversation in the gym with a man one saying that he had to attend the funeral of his best friend that he lost to alcoholism.
The funeral was to take place next week.
I felt bad for both of them. For his now passed-away friend that felt that the world was too cold and too strong that only drinking made it feel better.
And this guy was speaking about it as if he was talking about the weather.
His advice he was given by those listening to him?
“Sometimes you just need to get on with it…you know?”
I could feel the testosterone hanging in the air like a choke hold.
To My Fellow Men
I want you to feel like you can speak.
I want you to stop listening to what other people want from you and start taking care of yourself.
You can keep however you define being a man for yourself – but simply be honest and know when something is working well and when something isn’t – and to impact it with confidence.
If you fit in the more traditional or customary beliefs of what a man is – then know that a man does not make decisions out of fear; he answers only to his own self. Not to his boys, not to his family, not to the beer bottle or his woman or society – he answers only to himself.
And if you’re a bit more of a progressive like me then you need to understand that your struggle is also relevant. You are not erasing or taking away from what other people go through, but you have a right to stand your ground.
This isn’t about constantly being on the defensive, but fixing the very real fact that men need better mental health practices.
You open that beer bottle and enjoy the match.
I’ll be here with weed and philosophy.
I’m pretty sure we can both find a middle ground.