A guide on how to be a man for International Men’s Day on November 19th (introducing the masculinity doughnut).
This is about the rules of being a man and why the rules are a problem. Also how men are like doughnuts and how to make lives easier for men and everyone else.
Watch the video version of Being a Man
If we think about how men learn how to be a man, there are a few key rules. Broadly speaking the rules are:
- Be aggressive
- Be tough
- Show courage
- Take risks
- Have adventures/have fun
- Be better than others
- Be successful
- Don’t talk about your feelings
These rules be a little bit different for men depending on location, the people around them. It also depends on how they were brought up (if you want to read more about this look up ‘hegemonic masculinities’).
There is a huge pressure to follow the rules of how to be a man
Not all of these things are necessarily negative – the problem is that they are rules. They come from so many different sources (TV, film, comics, adverts, porn, magazines, games, sport, health services, school, college, university, religions, government, institutions, the law, friends, peers, gangs, family, parents …) that it’s easy to believe in them.
There is a huge pressure to follow the rules of how to be a man because men might shame them or harm them. Just as anyone else does who isn’t a man – which is well scary.
So how are men taught to be men? I think men are taught to be like doughnuts. Mmmmm doughnuts. For me, there are two essential elements of a doughnut – the dough and the jam. The dough is everything that men are taught about being a man. All the stuff that it is important to show, to do, to demonstrate to the outside world.
The jam are feelings and emotions: love, loss, anger, sadness, vulnerability, joy, despair, ashamed, upset, scared. Remember the rule about feelings and emotions when it comes to being a man. ‘Don’t talk about your feelings.’
Men are taught that for the most part, they should keep their feelings hidden from other people. They are taught to keep their jam inside their dough.
So if their feelings/jam get too big, there is a risk of spillage so they may increase their dough. They have to protect their jam at all costs and sometimes this means that men are too much dough.
Being Your Own Man
So far so simple. Men are taught to behave a certain way to be a man, this involves not talking about their feelings. This means being more and more manly to prevent their feelings being shown. In real life men find ways to workaround or to adapt the rules in ways that work for them.
Some men are able to adapt the rules of masculinity to be their own man. This is easier for some men than others
Many men have been able to adapt the rules in order to do other things, like being a caring friend, or a parent. Men can demonstrate their success as a man by having good relationships with women, by listening to women and not having to feel that they are superior.
But it’s easier to ‘be your own man’ if you have other ways of doing masculinity – for instance: if you are a very talented and successful footballer that gives you enough ‘man points’ to also be able to cry on the pitch if you lose and still be ‘a man.’
Why it can be difficult to be ‘your own man’
For this reason many men find it really difficult to be a man. Men who don’t have ‘the right kind’ of body can find it difficult. Many men worry about: their size; their hairiness; their build; having a big enough penis; having a penis at all; or their disabilities because they worry they are not going to be seen as a man or man enough.
Read how to feel better about your body
It’s also really difficult for men to ‘be men’ if they are poor, discriminated against, have their rights taken away, are less physically able, have had a difficult upbringing, struggle with their mental or physical health or believe they are a failure. But to many men not ‘being a man’ is just not an option – it can be the only way they get any status in society at all.
So often the only way to ‘be a man’ is to either:
- be aggressive, or
- put others down to make themselves feel better (for example denying them their rights, or discriminating against them with ablism, racism, sexism, homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, etc).
Or, sadly, many men take their own lives because of the huge amount of pressure to be a man, and having few ways to actually be one. Especially if they can’t talk about this pressure with other people.
Talking About It (Code word = Doughnut)
So although some men are able to be a man and be okay, there are many men who struggle with the pressure to be a man and take this out on themselves or on others. Maybe talking about this is the way forward – even though this is breaking the most important rule.
There are ways that men can show their feelings but often it can feel like there aren’t many opportunities. Like it often feels acceptable for men to show that they are feeling angry by being aggressive but that can be super scary to other people. Often men think that they can really only talk to romantic or sexual partners about their feelings. But then who do they talk to about their feelings if their relationship breaks up?
What we could all do is to find ways for men to feel okay to talk about themselves, about their feelings and about the pressure to be a man.
If you’re a man and you have a friend or family member that is a man, you might have had times where you can actually talk about this kind of stuff. It might be possible to do it pretty openly, if you both trust that you aren’t going to take the piss or tell everyone. Sometimes it’s in a code, like talking about other people or talking about hypothetical situations. It might be sharing an amazing moment together that doesn’t involve talking at all. Guys do often share their feelings – but they might not talk about it after.
You could watch out for these moments and think of ways that you can open up conversations that might lead to you talking about feelings. You can ask questions to help them to talk about their feelings, ‘so you and thingy have broken up. That must have been hard.’ Or just making it clear that you are interested in what is going on in their life. Sometimes this is easier when you’re one to one, or even with texts.
If you’re a man share some of your tips for how you talk to other men about feelings in the comments below.
In groups a lot of men really like the bants/z, or to take the piss, or to laugh at each other a little bit. For many people it helps to take the edge off a conversation if it’s getting a bit serious or about <feelings>. Some people think piss taking is a sign of affection and feeling included. Other people feel like they are being put down and made to feel bad. So if you like to bant, maybe now and again just point out that you are only joking and that you do actually like them.
While we’re talking about bants, remember that gay men, bis men, ace men, and trans men are men too. Also remember that men aren’t ‘better’ than women or any other gender – so lay off the men are better than women bants too yeah?
Are You Too Much Dough?
Remember how sometimes men can be too much dough? Be just the right amount of dough and jam. Don’t be threatened if someone who isn’t a man wants to behave in a manly way. It’s not just men that may want to behave like men are supposed to do. So try not to be threatened if a woman is stronger than you, or a non-binary person is more successful than you.
There’s nothing better about ‘being a man’ than any other kind of person. It’s just as valuable to be caring as it is to be aggressive. It is okay to support other people as well as to compete. It’s okay not to be a success but to celebrate the successes of others. It is okay to listen and learn from others (even people who aren’t men) rather feel like you have to know all the answers.
What We Can All Do
Maybe we can all take the pressure off men to have to ‘be men?’ Men learn about how to be a man (and how important that is) from so many different sources. We could celebrate different kinds of men, or recognise different traits in men. Like placing greater value on different things. Like men who are into compassion, sharing and being nice?
If you’re a guy struggling to find someone to talk to, try CALM. They are awesome.
If you’d like to get some advice from me about some of this stuff you can ask me a question here
Big Up Yourself – if you’re not feeling great about yourself at the moment
Self-Care Advice – to look after yourself if things are getting a bit much
How to Support Someone – if a mate is in need of some support
#MeToo and tips on what men can do to be useful
How to Love Yourself – yes it’s hard, but here’s how to get started
If you liked this, please share it. Also comments are welcome – particularly if you have any advice or thoughts about being a man
© Justin Hancock, 2019
© Justin Hancock, 2021.
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Justin Hancock has been a trained sex and relationships educator since 1999. In that time he’s taught and given advice about sex and relationships with thousands of young people in person and millions online. Find out more about Justin here