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He’s got to be big and strong — but so many other things besides. Help, says Paul Croughton, who are we now?
Paul Croughton 09 Jun 2013 00:01:00
I spent six weeks in a tent with a Welsh miner named Richard during an overland truck trip in Africa. There were 20 of us, strangers when we met at Heathrow a few weeks earlier, and I had been paired with the bearded, brooding bloke. I was 19, he was 24, wise beyond my years, and he scared the life out of me — mostly because he was a Welsh miner and I wasn’t. As the sun rose one morning, we broke camp and were having a makeshift breakfast before another glorious day driving through Tanzania. One girl picked up my treasured tub of peanut butter that I had been rationing for 200 miles and smeared the last of it onto a hunk of bread. It wasn’t the first time. “Oh, sorry,” she said, when I tried to scrape some out. “I borrowed a bit.” When you haven’t had a square meal in a week, these things matter. I turned to Richard and growled something under my breath. Richard muttered something back, and what he said has stuck with me for 20 years. He didn’t intend for it to become some sort of mission statement, but it made sense to me then, and still does now. “Don’t be the arsehole,” he said, as he peered despondently into an empty tub of Vegemite. “The world is full of arseholes. Be the nice guy.” I thought of Richard after hearing Diane Abbott’s recent speech claiming that we are in the grip of a crisis of masculinity in Britain. In her exhaustive list of all that was ill with the modern male, the Labour MP said that men these days lack role models. Consequently, she says, men no longer ask themselves what it means to be a man. While it is undeniable that the modern male faces well-documented changes to his traditional position of breadwinner and protector that are very different from those confronted by our fathers and grandfathers — in her book The End of Men, Hanna Rosin argues that women are now colonising parts of society traditionally the preserve of men, leaving us with nowhere to go — one thing still unites the generations: I doubt very much that any of us have ever asked what it means to be a man.
Because back when men were strong but silent, they just got on with things. If they suffered — as surely they did — they rarely showed it. Now silent is no longer in demand. Men must emote, share, talk. And we’ve got much to talk about. Images of idealised manhood are all around us. You’re more likely to see a half-naked man in advertising campaigns these days than a scantily clad woman: progress of sorts, but the growth of televised sport, especially football, and the focus on the tops-off personalities who play it, as well as a rise in interest in men’s fashion and grooming, has resulted in more and more men feeling the pressure to keep up with the Joneses — or the Beckhams. “They’re also feeling the pressure from increased competition at work,” says the personal trainer Matt Roberts, “not just from other men, but from women, and women have always taken care of themselves, and generally look better than we do.” Roberts charges £180 an hour and says it’s not unusual for men to train with him 3-5 times a week. That’s a pretty significant commitment to our wellbeing that we might not have made a decade ago. “There’s been a huge demand for personal care, on several levels,” he says. “More men are saying, ‘I don’t want to die at 45.’ But they also come in with a very defined idea of what shape they’d like to achieve. Training for a triathlon or an ultramarathon is the cool thing to do. For the middle-aged men in Lycra, the expensive new bike with all the gear is the new thing to have. It’s taken the place of the trophy car or wife.” This pressure to look better than our fathers is taking its toll, though. Cases of eating disorders among men and boys rose by 27% in the decade 2000-09, compared with a 15% increase in the population as a whole, according to figures published in the British Medical Journal in May. “Men suffer in times of economic downturn because we still have that instinct to be providers,” says the author Tony Parsons. “My dad was a greengrocer, and by doing extra jobs as a lorry driver, he managed to buy a modest house for us, but I think that would be impossible today for someone of that economic bracket. Some men feel they can’t get their lives started. They can feel it slipping away from them.” That feeling of despair has a number of outlets. Men are much more likely to have addiction issues — 80% of those dependent on alcohol are male. While more women are diagnosed with depression, the fear in medical circles is that this is because men mask the symptoms as something else, or don’t seek help at all. Men are three times more at risk of suicide than women. In 2011, the charity Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) said suicide was a bigger killer of men under 35 than road death, murder and HIV/Aids combined. Put like that, it sounds bleak. But perhaps the central problem is this: as a society, we’re nowhere close to agreeing on what kind of men we want. We want a new man, one who expresses his feelings rather than bottling them up, yet we want our old man, too — strong, rugged, and able to serve and protect women and children at a moment’s notice. To be honest, we can’t even decide if we want our men to look after our children. Matthew Hancock, a Conservative business minister, was attacked recently for suggesting he would take two months’ leave after the birth of his third child this summer. He’s been criticised in the past for being a workaholic. Now he’s being knocked for trying to put his family ahead of his career, however briefly. This confusion is at the heart of the movement away from the metrosexual stereotype to the risibly titled “retrosexual”, men who have returned to manly pursuits — grown beards, embraced the outdoors and who favour walking boots and technical fabrics. Then there is the rise in popularity and accessibility of traditional tailoring — men wearing blazers, brogues and three-piece suits through choice rather than custom, harking back to a simpler time when men were men, and the collar and tie was both uniform and armour. So who or what exactly is the dream here, and is it attainable? Is the embodiment of our new ideal the stayat-home dad who has earned a nice nest egg designing an app to calm colicky babies and now whittles furniture in an idle moment, after calling time on his first career as a fireman when the modelling work became too much?
Let’s hope not. Maybe there is another version of manhood. Boysen Hodgson certainly thinks so. He’s a member of the ManKind Project, which is, according to its website, “a global nonprofit charitable organisation that conducts challenging and highly rewarding programmes for men at every stage of life”. Formed nearly 30 years ago in Wisconsin, it is one of the first of an increasing number of “men’s groups” around the world that offer chaps a forum to get together and talk about being men. In response to articles on this subject, he wrote a “redefinition of masculinity for the 21st century”. He calls it “the new macho”. It identifies more than 40 traits the modern man should have. Many are commendable. Some are just plain American. You can read a selection in the box below. “One of the things the ManKind Project is most about is personal integrity, responsibility and accountability,” Hodgson tells me. “I can’t name a hero from history — Gandhi, Martin Luther King — who didn’t have their weakness. So let’s be clear about that: have compassion for each other, and hold each other accountable. “We talk about purpose, or mission, a lot, too,” he says. “We ask men how they are going to make a difference, to their family, to their wives, to their community. That’s a powerful thing — men want to make a difference. And research shows that men who live with a sense of purpose, and who have support networks, are healthier, more emotionally stable, and live longer.” So where do men — decent, Sunday Times-reading men — go from here? Perhaps the first rule of being a member of this new macho is that we stand up for ourselves, and stop letting our kind be seen as the single cause of all that’s bad in the world. “When you see these damaged men in the news, the grooming gangs or the child molesters, they’re as alien, as incomprehensible, to you and me as they are to women,” says Parsons. He is bullish about the modern male. “You could make a case that this is a golden age of masculinity,” he says. “Men are more involved in raising their children, and being genuine partners with wives and girlfriends, than ever. We understand women better than in the past. And we’re more open. My father died of lung cancer without talking about it. I’d get at least a couple of books out of it.” “We need to celebrate the modern man,” Hodgson agrees, “because we need go-getters who have drive and discipline, and can be a power for good. We live in an incredible time of opportunity, and there are lots of men — and women — out there who are going to town. There are fantastic things happening in mentoring, in antiviolence work, and there are mature men getting together to say how can we better raise our boys, to create a better society.” So let’s kick off this era of the new macho by going back to basics. I think my Welsh miner friend was on to something. Maybe we begin by occasionally asking ourselves the question put to the Chelsea and England midfielder Frank Lampard recently: Are you a good man? “Yes,” he replied. “I try to be. I think everyone should. I wouldn’t be happy if I thought I was an arsehole.” The ManKind Project UK and Ireland: uk.mkp.org
Rules of engagement, according to the ManKind Project — He is a role model for young men — He is rigorously honest and fiercely optimistic — He holds himself accountable — He knows how to rage without hurting others — He cleans up the planet
— He knows how to listen — He loves with fierceness — He knows his higher purpose
Every woman's dream — He drinks but never gets drunk. — He has a well-developed protective instinct, as in the arm flung across the passenger seat in the event of a sudden stop. — He can carry off fur trims, designer flip-flops, hair ties and hairbands, jewellery, cashmere hoodies and a man bag. Although, clearly, not all at once. — He can look after three kids on his own, and return home with all their toys, shoes, towels and only one case of sunburn (his). — He doesn’t get cramp in his neck during the man-on-man action in Game of Thrones and is interested to see the new Liberace film. — He has a good working knowledge of the female anatomy, can spot the stirrings of PMT several days before you can, and is the one to blow the whistle when a lump turns up in the wrong place. — He makes sure women come first in the bedroom and is happy to take instructions. (See the one-nightstand policeman in The Fall.) — He is open to yoga and meditation, Pilates and hypnotherapy, swimming with sharks and t’ai chi. — He finds strong women sexy. — He can do basic DIY and plumbing. — He has muscle, not slabs of it, but some. — He notices cherry blossom, quality women’s shoes, a new haircut and can tell something is wrong without you having to make the Nurse Ratched face. — He can buy presents without consulting his secretary/sister. — He is not scared to buy you underwear in M&S in an emergency — but will not step inside Farrow & Ball in any circs. — He considers the dustbins his department, but can also put flowers in a vase in a crisis. — He can cook a perfectly good meal with no fuss and will not flap when there is no white balsamic/saffron/purple basil. Shane Watson