Masculinity Unbuttoned

‘Man up’ – a phrase that is often glibly thrown around, levelled at men who voice their worries or complaints. But this now staple of our language, which might at first seem like no more than an offhand comment, actually has far darker and more destructive implications. It entails a narrow and oppressive view of what it means to be a man: strong, silent, stoic. It’s the tagline of the ‘just get on with it’ brigade that characterises any emotional behaviour as an affront to masculinity. Much as women are subject to damaging stereotypes, so too are men – which means that they are part of the same conversation: the conversation about gender equality. Often this is misunderstood as a movement that benefits solely women. Far from it: men actually stand to gain a great deal from adopting a progressive standpoint, not least as it allows for a meaningful consideration of society’s notion of masculinity, and the ways in which it needs to be overhauled. We tend to think of the patriarchy as a system that oppresses only women, and whilst there is no doubt that men have benefited greatly from it, they have also been damaged by it.

Let’s look at some cold hard statistics:

  • 95% of prison inmates are male
  • Almost twice as many men than women are the victims of violence
  • nine out of ten homeless people are men
  • men are more likely to abuse alcohol and drugs
  • boys are on average three times as likely to be excluded from school

And the most sobering fact:

Which means that today, we’re going to lose 12 men to suicide.

So is this supposedly advantageous society really working out for men?

In terms of power, wages, opportunity and authority, this is still the case But what about education, wellbeing and mental health? Here we fare worse than women and it’s literally killing us. As Matt Haig, author of ‘Reasons to Stay Alive’, puts it: ‘sexism is wrong not only because it limits women economically and socially, but also because it limits men emotionally. It stops talk and kills people.’

The reasons behind suicide are various and complex. But there is little doubt that the cultural values that prohibit men from admitting weakness are a contributing factor. In fact, recent research speaks about a link between men feeling unable to fulfil the stereotypical notion of masculinity and suicidal thoughts. The research shows that 84% of UK men bottle up their emotions. But we can’t just say ‘men are less inclined to talk’ and leave it at that – we need to look at why this is, and to acknowledge that there are centuries-old expectations put upon men that act as a barrier to them speaking out about their feelings. According to a survey by UK charity Working With Men, nearly three quarters of young men in Britain feel pressured by expectations from society. Men are expected to ‘toughen up’, to be dependable, the providers, to display only ‘masculine’ feelings, like courage and confidence – and their lives suffer as a result. This deadly culture of silence needs to be addressed. Which is where charities like Mind and Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) come in.

CALM is a charity dedicated to preventing male suicide.

Not only do they offer support to men in the UK via their helpline, webchat and website, but they also campaign for long-term culture change to redefine and open up masculinity. They encourage men to take on ‘harmful, boring and archaic’ male stereotypes and describe themselves in their own terms, with campaigns such as #mandictionary, #biggerissues and #dontbottleitup.

At Alec I-K, we agree that it’s time to change the way we think about equality and what it means to be a man – to deconstruct ‘mask-u-linity (n.): a mask designed to disguise a man’s true feelings, and make him appear strong at all times whilst silently suffocating him and bottling it up inside’ – which is why we are choosing to donate 5% of our profits to CALM and 5% to another charity which we’re looking for our customers to help decide on.

Expand on what it means to be a man and woman

We want to be part of a culture that expands the narrow confines of both genders. As Owen Sheers the Welsh poet has said, if men are the ‘protectors and providers’, why not expand this to protecting and providing for our species not just our loved ones? So that being environmentally conscious becomes the most ‘manly’ thing you can do – heroes who save the planet. And as well as being somatically strong, let’s expand this to emotional strength – having empathy for others and taking as much care of our minds as we do our bodies. Let’s do away with any notion that silence is synonymous with strength. Being emotionally brave is bravery too.

“What is the future of man?”

When CALM invited men to answer the question, ‘what is the future of man?’, the responses (published in their magazine CALMzine) were eye-opening both for what they included and for what they lacked: the future man ‘can express his feelings verbally’, ‘yogas, moisturises, posts regularly on mumsnet’, and – importantly – is ‘not Donald Trump’ (we’d like to think that this included believing in climate change and opting for ethical and sustainable practices in all industries). Significantly, there was no ‘stiff upper lip’, no mentions of great strength or job security. Most of the suggestions were about freedom to be whatever you want to be, with no expectations.

That’s the future of man that Alec I-K is committed to seeing – one that will greatly benefit us all, men and women alike, and that will result in a more caring, more advanced world. So let’s unbutton the restrictive notions of masculinity and allow men new and varied identities, in particular as listeners and as talkers. Less ‘man up’, more ‘speak out’.


So if you’re interested in speaking with CALM, you can do so via their free helpline 0800 585858 and webchat (5pm–12am daily), which are confidential, anonymous and staffed by trained professionals.