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Why men need feminism for their mental health

In a long overdue response to the University based fiasco on the ‘Overheard at Durham Uni’ Facebook group, Kirstin Stevely shares her opinion on the controversial debate between advocating meninism and whether or not feminism already serves its alleged purpose.

Recently I, and everyone who follows the ‘overheard at Durham’ page, have heard the male mental health crisis and suicide rate cited as examples of the need for men’s’ rights activism. Although I acknowledge that certain issues such as suicide affect men disproportionately, I think feminism has the means to tackle the issue far more effectively than men’s rights activism. Unfortunately, I think a lot of men’s rights activists are more interested in making sexist comments about feminists than tackling any of the very real issues that affect men. For example, Mike Buchanan, leader
of Justice for Men and Boys describes feminists as ‘hatchet-faced miserable women’ and does not think it’s a real sexual offence to ‘pat someone’s bottom’. But for those men out there who are genuinely concerned about issues such as men’s mental health, please read on. As a sufferer of bulimia and as a feminist, I have always found that an awareness of feminism significantly helps my mental health. Reminding myself that society’s body standards are an aspect of the patriarchy used to oppress women and increasingly men, sometimes helps me to fight the little voice in my head. However, I have recently found it necessary to point out that feminism can be good for men’s mental health too.

I’m sure no one has failed to notice the recent rise in awareness of men’s mental health. The royals are talking about it, Zayn Malik is talking about it, even Dwayne ‘the rock’ Johnson is talking about it. There are Facebook trends and Movember campaigns about it and everybody knows the statistics about suicide rates in men, with male rates 3 times higher than women in the UK. This improvement in awareness is undeniably a positive trend. However, we all seem to be ignoring what is, in my view, one of the main roots of the problem: femmephobia (the dislike of or hostility towards, people who present themselves in a feminine manner). That’s right, I’m talking about the patriarchy, and how the fear of being feminine, instilled into boys from a very young age, has contributed to the men’s mental health crisis. For those of you who have not heard of toxic masculinity before, let’s start with the disproportional importance which is attributed to gender in our society. From the second you come out the womb, your
sex (whether or not you are genetically male or female), determines your gender and all the prescribed traits that go with it in one shout, ‘it’s a boy/girl!’. Different treatment starts almost immediately; through toys, the way people talk to or compliment a child, and pet names. We are led to believe that our gender is one of the most important aspects of our identity, and as such, there is fear and prejudice surrounding those who don’t prescribe to what we see as the ‘norm’. This leads to toxic masculinity because traits associated with women are seen as negative and shameful in a man. Think of all the times you’ve heard the phrases, ‘don’t be such a girl’, ‘man up, ‘don’t be a
pussy’ or ‘grow some balls’. This is not misandry, but misogyny. Men are made to feel as though it is ‘weak’ to talk about their emotions, ‘weak’ to reach out for help and ‘weak’ to admit suffering. These things are seen as feminine, and therefore inappropriate for a man. This internalised fear of being womanly can prevent men from seeking help when they are suffering from mental health issues.

Worryingly, only 36% of referrals to IAPT (increasing access to psychological therapies) are men. I believe that a greater understanding of feminism would help men who are affected by toxic masculinity. Just as feminism helps me with my eating disorder by reminding me that the ‘ideal’ body type is a lie, feminism could help men by empowering them to fight against the belief that men, to avoid being feminine, must be stoic and unemotional. For me therefore, feminism is the fight against the patriarchy and ALL of its negative effects, whoever they affect. I understand that for some people, the name ‘feminism’ is off-putting. Some feel as though it should be changed to something like ‘humanism’ and that it excludes men’s rights from the discussion.

To clarify, the reason it’s called feminism is because, although it advocates gender equality for everyone, women are the gender that are overwhelmingly oppressed. If you don’t believe me, just check out the wage gap or ask your female friends how many times in their life they’ve been sexually harassed (and that’s just western countries). By creating more equality for women, things will improve for men too. Just imagine a world where being ‘like a girl’ isn’t an insult and everybody is free to express their gender identity in any way they want. None of this means that men are excluded from the conversation. Campaigns like HeforShe are encouraging men to join the conversation and to stand in solidarity with women (http://www.heforshe.org/en).

So my advice to men who feel frustrated and angry (rightfully so) about the situation of men’s mental health, is not to become a men’s rights activist, but to become a feminist. Recognise that ultimately, it is the fear of femininity which creates toxic masculinity and leads to a lack of openness about mental health. Call people out when they make misogynistic comments, have discussions with your friends about how misogyny affects all genders, and importantly, be an example of the fact that it is okay to talk

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