Is our failure to take men’s issues seriously linked to our collective hatred of men’s bodies?
This week I’ve come to the conclusion that we hate men’s bodies.
It all started when I was invited to the UK Government’s Equalities Office to meet the women’s minister, Jo Swinson. I’d prefer to be meeting the Men’s Minister but there isn’t one, despite the many inequalities that men and boys face, the body of men in the UK is not deemed worthy of representation in equalities work.
The meeting was a round table event where eight experts were given an hour to kick around ideas about involving fathers as change agents in the Government’s Body Confidence campaign. It was a fascinating mix of people but something didn’t feel quite right. I was in the room, I was making a contribution, but I felt disconnected from the conversation.
At first I thought it was because the conversation was too peripheral; that Body Confidence isn’t a significant men’s issue when we have big problems like life expectancy, male suicide, crime and violence, fatherlessness and boys’ education to contend with.
Then I was asked to write an article about the rise of eating disorders in the UK which gave me a chance to spend some more time exploring the overlap between disordered eating, body image and gender. Again, it was intellectually stimulating but I wasn’t feeling it.
And then the moment came. Jo Swinson hit the national headlines for telling parents not to praise their daughters for their looks. It was one of those transient media storms where journalists take the most gossip worthy aspect of what someone says and give it a good thrashing for public amusement.
Rather than join in this spectacle, I decided to have a peak behind the scenes and discovered that the Government had released a 14-page report highlighting the successes of its Body Confidence campaign and outlining the actions it will be taking next.
And so, as I have done so many times before, I opened the document and set my search engines to gender—and then I felt a familiar feeling. It’s a combination of anger, passion and deep, deep pain I feel for the body of men and boys around the globe whose suffering and struggling is brutally dismissed and denied by those who govern the world on a daily basis.
Do you know that today, just like every other day, that an estimated 7,400 men and boys will die an avoidable death through some bodily injury? That’s 300 men and boys every hour of every day whose lives are taken from them not by disease or old age, but by their bodies being fatally damaged through war, through violence, through deliberate self harm and tragic accidents.
This happens to men and boys at twice the rate as women and girls and when it comes to violence, we are four to five times more likely to die from someone intentionally attacking and fatally damaging our bodies.
Men and boys all over the world account for eight out of ten violent deaths and yet there is no global movement to end violence against men and boys. Do we hate men’s bodies so much that these individual men whose bodies are destroyed on a daily basis are not worthy of our concern?
When humans undergo extreme trauma a common coping mechanism is body disassociation, where the act of mentally detaching from the body enables an individual to survive the overwhelming distress of the event.
Modern nations survive today by putting men’s bodies at risk. We are the soldiers who fight the enemy; we are the workers who put our lives in danger; we are the good men who protect you from the bad men.
From the little guy who scares away a burglar to the big guy who defends or captures Baghdad, we still expect men to be heroes and die in the process. Men are either the perpetrators or the protectors and so the manly ideal remains an image of strong, stoical, muscular success; so much so that one British survey recently found that four out of five men wishes that they were more muscular.
Do men hate their bodies the way they are because secretly, we all hate men’s bodies? Do we hate the ugly, dangerous body of a potential perpetrator just as much as we hate the weak or flabby body of a man who isn’t muscular enough to protect us from that perpetrator?
I don’t have the answers to these questions and I invite you to open your mind and consider the possibility. It’s clear to me that we are collectively more tolerant of the damage that is done to men’s bodies. We are more tolerant of violence against men than violence against women. We tolerate the fact that the overwhelming majority of people who die at work are men. We tolerate the fact that the majority of humans who kill themselves, because they hate their lives too much to live, are men.
Is our coping mechanism for being complicit in this game to collectively disassociate ourselves from men’s bodies and deny and dismiss the emotional and physical pain that men and boys suffer?
The UK’s Government Equalities Office is clearly complicit in this disassociation from the body of men and perpetuates the stereotype that men are either perpetrators or protectors, a risk or a resource. If your worldview is that women have problems and men are problems there is no space to consider the physical, emotional and social problems that men and boys experience. This is why when 84% of recession suicides are men; when 97% of workplace deaths are men; when 90% of rough sleepers are men; when the majority of violence victims are men; when boys are underperforming girls at every stage of education; when the only children dying in the UK from genital mutilation are boys and when the majority of people dying prematurely are men, the Government Equalities Office has nothing to say on the matter.
The contradictory message that the UK’s women’s minister and others send to men is “Patriarchy is bad, now be a good patriarch”.
The only role we are asked to play in discussing violence and abuse, for example, is to be good patriarchs and condemn the violence that other bad patriarchs commit against women and children. We’re not asked to speak out against the bigger problem of violence against men and boys bodies and certainly not asked to discuss the violence and abuse we personally experience at the hands of women.
And the UK Government’s Body Confidence campaign follows this same old familiar sexist pattern. In its 14-page summary of all the great work it has been doing there is no mention of the body problems that men and boys experience – because its women who have problems and men who are the problems.
The only role the Government wants us to play is to be good patriarchal change agents for our daughters’ body confidence (not our sons’ note). How on earth we are supposed to be body confidence role models for girls when we are so inexperienced at considering our own embodied experience as men is a mystery to me.
Men can’t play a role in helping women with the problems they experience as women until we give men the space to learn how to deal with the problems we face as men. That will require us to begin connecting our hearts and minds to the body of men and boys around the world; to feel the pain and suffering in male suicide, in violence against men and boys in the suffocating social pressure to live up to the ideal of being a strong, successful man.
Sitting in a boardroom with the women’s minister being asked how to help dads be good patriarchs who transmit Government approved messages to their daughters was a strangely disembodying experience. As a man I want to be of service to my family, to my country, to the world and I can do that best when people ask me how I could serve, rather than telling me how I should serve.
I think the most important message I can pass on to my daughter is to be the women that she wants to be, not the women that others think she should be. The best way for me to do that is through the practice of being the man that I want to be, not the man that anyone else thinks I should be, least of all a politician with a one-sided gender agenda.
I am grateful that Jo Swinson gave me the opportunity to glimpse inside the body of the Government Equalities Office to see how it works, It’s a cheeky thing to ask, but I hope you’ll open your heart Jo and consider the benefits of being more loving towards the body of men and boys—if that’s the kind of woman you want to be.
—Photo credit: Flicker/e-basak