It’s no secret that New Zealand has a cultural script about masculinity and what it means to be a man. From a young age, boys learn through catchphrases like ‘man up’ and ‘boys don’t cry’, and are encouraged to abide by unspoken rules to suppress emotion, individuality and live up to ‘kiwi bloke’ masculine expectations.
Research commissioned by White Ribbon shows that 47% of men were told that ‘boys don’t cry’, while 65% were told that ‘boys should harden or toughen up’ when they were boys. Conversely, only 9% of women were told that ‘girls don’t cry.’
The attitude towards masculinity is having an impact on the physical health of our kiwi men too. New Zealand men live on average four years less than women, according to General Practice New Zealand executive chairwoman Dr Bev O'Keefe. Yet men are significantly less likely than women to talk to a GP or nurse about their health, often taking a ‘she’ll be right’ approach to healthcare.
In recognition of Men’s Health Month, we spoke to Men’s Group Founder and Leader Jamie Loh to better understand how masculinity discourse is having an impact on the men in our whānaus, and how the Men’s Group is helping to create positive change.
The reluctance to show vulnerability and ask for help is something that is ingrained in our boys from a very young age. Jamie says that a lot of this stems from cultural traditions and the transition from boy to man.
“When boys are born they’re usually brought up in the first few months by their mum, not their dad (usually but not always), and there comes a time in their life where it’s time to cut the apron strings and ‘become a man’.
Throughout history, different cultures do different things to signify this. In Vanuatu, they do the bungee with vines, in Africa you have to kill a lion to marry or in some cultures, you’d get circumcised – these are things that cut those ties and transition boys from being ‘like mum’ to being ‘like dad’ now.”
These narratives are then continued into primary school age.
“Boys are told ‘don’t be a girl, don’t cry', and they’re taught from a young age that it’s not ‘masculine’ to show any feelings – which only teaches boys to be insecure about their masculinity. You’re expected to prove yourself to be a man.
The only masculine feeling that’s allowed is anger” says Jamie.
There’s also the issue of identity and exploring and expressing who kids are as individuals without fears or expectations. Jamie believes that in some ways the over-exposure to the best version of others combined with the endless opportunities to be anything and anyone are possibly having an impact on our young men.
“These days there are so many jobs, different clothes to wear, social media, you’ve got people posting the absolute best versions of themselves and kids don’t feel like they can live up to that so they don’t try.
When I was a kid playing the guitar knowing only two chords the whole school would be impressed and watch me, but now you can watch a four-year-old shredding on guitar on YouTube and you think “oh, okay I’m useless”. So they don’t try.
Kids are having a really hard time getting the confidence to try things and have that space to learn and get better at things and discover themselves and what they’re good at” he explains.
Because of the difficulty to find and express emotions healthily as children, often kiwi boys grow into young men who find it difficult to check in on themselves and be self-aware of how they’re feeling.
“I see it all the time in the men’s group. They don’t check in on themselves and ask, “is working 80 hours a week worth it?”, “is not seeing their friends for years good for my health?” – they don’t notice it, they just keep trying to push to fulfil the role of being a man and of course when they don’t notice their feelings and what’s going on for them, no one’s there to tell them that they need to make changes.
Often they’ll end up yelling or operating in a way that doesn’t get them any support. When you see a man yelling you see him as the perpetrator rather than someone who needs help” says Jamie.
Jamie also says that our men have a lot of weight they’re carrying, upholding these social masculine ideals and it can take a toll on family life too.
“It’s can be a double-edged sword. I hear women mention things like “I wish he would open up and talk to me, I wish he would say more”, but then when the husbands break down and are crying it’s often too much and the family think “that’s my rock and if I’m using him as my anchor and he’s falling apart, then our family is falling apart”.
“Truthfully, a lot of the time men don’t know where to start to express their emotions. Being a nice guy on the outside when they aren’t feeling okay can mean being bitter and resentful on the inside.
It grows and grows, then all the passive-aggressive behaviour comes out where they’re leaving empty milk cartons in the fridge or putting their wife down to their friends – whatever it is.”
It’s clear that open communication and learning to express emotions in a healthy way, unbound from the confines of ‘masculinity is the way forward. For families, Jamie uses the broken car analogy to explain the importance of creating a safe space and checking in with each other regularly.
“Families make big positive changes when they sit shoulder to shoulder and do a brainstorm on what’s working and not working for each person, what their needs are and then make the decisions. A lot of families make decisions to begin with without understanding what’s going on for each person.
It’s like taking a car to a mechanic and he doesn’t find out what’s wrong with it, he just starts changing things – it’s not going to work, the car’s not going to get fixed unless you know what’s going on.”
He also recommends the men’s group as a space for guys to get together outside of the home and begin to work through what’s going on for them internally.
“I’m running the Men’s Group which is a six-week programme. We just basically go for two hours each week and work towards more self-awareness, understanding ourselves better, and being assertive, not passive or aggressive.”
“Someone once said to me that the men’s group is like a bunch of jolly pirates – there’s a humour involved that helps guys relate to each other and stuff like that.
One-on-one therapy feels like a power dynamic where the therapist doesn’t tell you any of their stuff, you’re just talking about yourself to them so you feel like you’re the only one sharing which can feel more shameful.
In a group where all of the men have something going on and you’re in it together and there’s that joint comradery, that makes it less shameful. There’s power in the support of a group and network.”
In the future, Jamie feels like communication and vital skills being taught as a compulsory subject in schools would make a huge difference, after observing that kids don’t really have a roadmap to emotional self-awareness, they simply learn from what their parents do.
“I used to take a kids group and I noticed that kids are a by-product of their environment, and don’t have the power to make those massive changes that their parents do. So I was seeing kids in the kids group and dads in the men’s group and I noticed bigger changes in the kids from their dads changing than from what we were doing in the kids group.”
It’s all about understanding the journey our boys go on as they become men, and encouraging each other to notice how we’re really feeling and share this in a healthy way.
If you or someone you know would like join the Men’s Group, entry into the group is currently FREE for anyone enrolled within the Tamaki Health Network via Doctor or Healthcare Professional referral.