CW: Mental Health, Mental Illness, Eating Disorders, Mental/Emotional Abuse, Childhood Trauma, Toxic Masculinity
TW: Weight, Body Image, Body Dysmorphia, Mental Abuse, Abusive Slurs and Cusses, Familial Issues and Parental Problems.
No, I’m not writing a review of the 2011 Pedro Almodóvar movie.
Yes, I will eventually talk about my skin, albeit contextually different than a dermatological stand point.
It’s always blown my mind, the extent in which we gender the world.
Pink for girls, blue for boys.
Beauty and fashion are girl’s things.
Sports and shagging are boy’s things.
Don’t be a girl!
Boys will be boys.
This all seems quite mundane from a certain distance, but the small bits of toxic masculinity and the way in which we define men, women and anyone else that falls on the gender-spectrum, ends up being quite insidious.
I remember being told from a young age that girls mature faster than boys. I never understood that, as I always saw myself as more mature than my peer group, yet, when you get older you end up seeing it for what it is – women are policed on their behaviour, and young men aren’t. Thus, creating an army of man-children, subjecting everyone else to their fuckery.
But this doesn’t just extend to how men, of all descriptions that buy into toxic masculinity, treat others. What we have is a suffocating way in which we treat men too (and how we treat ourselves). We all buy in to it or have done throughout our lives. Telling children, tiny little people, to stop crying, to shut up and get on with it, to hit the bully back, to stop being hysterical, ‘don’t do that it’s for girls’ – it’s endless.
And the results? Violent, mentally-ill, uncommunicative, emotionally stunted individuals who release their frustrations on their partners, their friends, that random person who looked at them funny in the pub and ultimately, themselves. It’s all connected. It’s estimated that most boys stop crying all together, or find it near impossible, after the age of 11. We shrink their emotions down to the point where they can’t express them, or they lack the ability to know how.
I’ve always been overly sensitive, I’d cry at everything as a child, any and all emotions I’d feel would end up as drops in the ocean – especially fear and anger. And although I don’t remember being told not to cry nearly as much as I probably was, I have only started to regularly cry as an emotional outlet over the last 2 years. Let’s put that into perspective, I’ve only been able to cry (albeit limited to watching movies, reading stories or fucked up shit in the news) since I was 26. There’s a good 10-15 years where crying was not something I did as a basic, human emotion.
That’s not to say I didn’t feel upset, grief or intense sadness. More so, I had disconnected from that way to express myself for reasons out of my control.
This is where I began to realise that my mental health, unbeknown to me, in the societal way in which we understand ‘masculine’ problems or ‘feminine problems, was very much gendered.
If crying was feminine and anger was masculine, then I had been given a dud hand.
The single most masculine person in my life, is my Mum. She knew no other way to be; hide emotions, pull yourself up by your boot straps and protect yourself. Yet, throughout my childhood it was actually my Dad who was the more overtly sensitive or ‘caring’ parent. They both grew up in households of abuse, both my grandfathers were the epitome of toxic-masculinity. Violent, abusive drunks who beat their wives, cheated on them and physically/emotionally abused their children.
This, as a result, gave me a broad spectrum of insight, you could say, into mental health and mental illnesses. But also limited my scope as to how I perceived my own issues as a reflective tool.
I was raised solely by my Mum, visiting my Dad at weekends. Their parental tools were limited and intrinsically developed by their young, emotional development. That in turn put me into a living environment where I was open to mental and emotionally abusive tendencies. The ‘cycle of abuse’, as health care professionals would call it.
My parents bullied me, took away autonomy of my body and ignored my cries for help – perhaps ignored is not the right perspective to have, but what seemed ‘normal’ and ‘typical’ of a teenage boy, to them, was actually just their ignorance as to what constituted as ‘normal’ behaviour.
Until the age of 18 I’d have my hair cuts picked by my Dad, it was either short and manageable, or when I was a lot younger, a number 2 with the clippers. I dreamt of having long hair, I fantasised myself slicking it back or putting it into a ponytail but suffice to say, I did not have Harry Potter’s magic hair.
I was told I was scruffy, a mess or a tramp if I attempted to grow it. Not once allowed to express my own wants or needs. This continued as I got older and grew facial hair, but by this point I was so hostile that I think they gave up.
I was bullied continuously from the age of 8 to 16 at school and other than the one intervention by my Mum, when what seemed like the whole of year 5 and 6 were lining up at the gates to beat me up, my parent’s response was to hit them back. Play fisticuffs with my army of admirers. This is the kid who, when faced with his first (forced) karate lesson, cried at the prospect of hitting the sand bag. Not another person, the sand bag. Violence wasn’t my thing. Still ain’t.
Due to familial-instability, and my burgeoning mental illnesses, my life was ruled by food and subsequently, my weight. From around 7 onward I comfort ate, which developed into impulsive binge eating and my weight fluctuated massively. My family, mostly on my Dad’s side but including my Mum, bullied me relentlessly. Called me fatty, called me lard-arse, fatty-boom-boom (thanks Sacha Baron Cohen) and asked if I wanted a cream pie. I did, I really did.
My mum took me aside at the age of 14 and told me I was too fat, and I needed to sort it out. She bought a second-hand rowing machine, put it at the foot of my bed and made me use it every day after school. This was, ironically, one way I learnt how to cry.
As a mid-teen I started going to the gym and starving myself, eating only a soup at night. This intensified my binging. I would relapse into cycles of this self-harming, living off of juices, fasting, extreme exercising and food deprivation. There’s been prolonged periods of my teens and 20s where I couldn’t leave the house as I would faint whenever I got up.
However, I never saw myself as having an eating disorder until the last few years as they’re for girls, right? Boys are strong and manly, they don’t care about their weight. Likewise, I didn’t think I could have body dysmorphia as young men don’t have the same pressures of looking good or loving themselves, right? Besides, I am tall and broad, always proud of my big strong thunder thighs and the strength they permit me. Why, then, would I worry about the fat that covered my torso?
Girl’s problems, all of ‘em.
These were, in most cases, surface issues. I knew they were problems and I had in many ways tried to tackle them. They affect my every day and they occur when I least expect it – or when I’m most distracted – and they all derive from control, or a lack there of.
Over the past 6 months, I’ve gotten a few tattoos. When people notice them, they immediately question why I didn’t tell them, grab my arm and want to look at them or ask me what made me do it. Simple fact is, I do it to reclaim the skin I live in, as I had my body taken away from me at a young age. It might sound cliché, but tattoos are a way for me to interact and see my body how I want to see it, not how I have been told to view the lines and curves of this meat bag I travel in.
And it’s funny, now in the age of heightened awareness and body positivity you still don’t hear from men talking about this much. How beauty standards, albeit entirely different to that which women are subjected to, define how we interact with ourselves and the world around us. We are susceptible to these illnesses and poor behaviour traits and that’s okay.
The stigma behind mental health, in particular to men, considering the suicide rates, is incredible. But we are constantly limiting ourselves to how we perceive our experiences.
By highlighting that the biggest killer of men is suicide, it changes the conversation focus. It polarises an already limited vocabulary we are permitted to use and puts a veil up and over the intersections of our mental health.
So, guys, talk about it.
Think about your words and how they might affect someone.
It’s not a joke to body-shame women, and likewise it isn’t a joke to do it to men either.
I often hear men, ‘woke’ men, constantly talk about their all male friendship groups as being full of ‘bants’ and it being great, because you can joke and laugh about anything, mental health, sexual abuse – you name it. This is the biggest pile of horse-shit.
I’ve been in that environment and it’s damaging as fuck. Constantly triggering people and maintaining an abusive friendship circle is toxic masculinity. It is not normal, nor should it be strived for.
Check your narcissistic, faulted personality traits at the door.
Whether you’re 5’6” or 6’5”.
Whether you’re the super skinny broom-handle of a man or the fat, forever sweaty dude.
If you have severe adult acne or just can’t seem to ever have your hair like the models on the TV.
You’re valid, your body is valid and I think you’re b-e-a-utiful.
Support your friends, don’t tear them down.