What Does It Mean to Be a “Real” Man?

June is Men’s Health Month, meant to call to attention the importance of proactive, preventive and treatment-oriented care for boys and men. But as we emphasize the importance of regular check-ups, good self-care and healthy lifestyle choices, let’s not forget that mental health is likewise crucial to men’s wellbeing. An important part of any man’s emotional wellness is an understanding of his own perspectives about masculinity, as well as how these concepts of manliness fit into his identity.

Cultures throughout the world have expectations that the male of the species adhere to a standard of being a “real” man. These expectations often include pressures to perform, mask emotions, take charge without sharing responsibility, compete instead of cooperating, soldier on through pain, carry the burden of support and refrain from crying. Some invectives hurled at men do irreparable damage.

Think of the message behind admonitions such as, “Man up,” “Don’t be a wuss,” “Big boys don’t cry,” and “Grow a pair.” They infer that for a man to be like a woman is an anathema. The illusion is that a “real” man can hold his liquor and his job, his partner and children. He can also “hold it all together” in the face of challenges. “Real” men are divorced from their emotions because their feelings could make them vulnerable, and vulnerability means danger.

Emotional repression can take a physical toll. The pressure to conform to societal ideas of masculinity can lead to cardiovascular disease, stroke, hypertension, diabetes, and increased occurrences of depression and anxiety in addition to addiction. As Shari Schreiber, MA, wisely pointed out, “Emotional repression underlies all addiction.”

From the Minds of Men

When the topic of masculinity came up with one particular group of men, each had something different to say. They’d all experienced manhood in individual ways, whether by birth or transitioning to living as a man. A few of the friends are female-to-male transgender. Here’s what they had to say:

“A real man is a man with integrity and honor who provides safety, adventure, orgasms, care, and a loving ear, even when he doesn’t want to listen. He is all of himself, not all about himself. To feel like I’m all of me, I must be able to share the warrior/crunchy/killer aspect of myself. If there’s no safe place for this to be expressed, it either gets stuffed down or comes out at times that aren’t OK with modern society. I simply think that as we allow for men to be men again (powerful, outspoken, loud, scary) we create a more authentic world, meaning if the only accepted state for a man to be in is docile, communicative, gentile, and present, we leave out the opportunity for full self-expression, and ultimately world-changing opportunities — businesses, relationships, etc. This aspect has been neutered in so many men/relationships and not held with honor and respect.”

“No human is allowed to simply be without fitting into a particular role or mode. Different audiences demand different facades. To my children I’m a ‘real’ man because I keep them safe, both physically and emotionally. To my buddies? Not so much. Where we run into problems culturally is when we pretend that all people must behave one way (whatever that way is) at all times to be ‘real.’ I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t feel any pressure to be a ‘real’ man. I feel a responsibility to know my audience, but that’s just manners.”

“The illusion of not showing certain emotions is huge, or the way we’re allowed to show and not show certain emotions, like tenderness, compassion, sorrow, sadness, and loss. I’ve felt this pressure and watched my 13-year-old stepson deal with it in middle school. He showed tenderness and compassion in a class that showed a movie about slavery, and he was immediately made fun of. This is what boys grow up with, which causes men to stuff their emotions.”

“Our nature is our nature. Many men relate more to their masculine essence, and other men may relate more to their feminine side. We’re not 100 percent masculine or 100 percent feminine, but we have the opposite essence within — yin/yang. Nature abhors a vacuum. But there’s no way to escape from your true self. The masculine kills the deer, and it has kingdoms to rule and empires to build. The feminine feels and gathers and nurtures. If my partner wanted a man who 100 percent of the time shared emotions, multi-tasked, or wanted to communicate my deepest emotions, she wouldn’t have a masculine male, but a girlfriend. There are times when I do surrender my feminine side to her masculine essence in areas that she’s more knowledgeable about than I. The greatest gift she can give to me is when she allows and embraces me for being a man, with all that goes with it.”

“Affectionate women who are attracted to men are attractive to men. Women often say that they wish men to be more sensitive to feelings. Unfortunately, what many women really mean is that they wish men to be more sensitive to the woman’s feelings, while at the same time they reject men who show their feelings as being ‘weak.’ That’s why many men hide their feelings from women.”

Male Bonding Makes a Difference

Fortunately, there are groups that work to help men be able to embrace masculinity in a positive way. One such group, called 100 Men Make a Mark, is a global, online men’s collective that invites members who are accomplished and choose to pay it forward by making a difference in the world. They tell members, “To have all, give all to all.”

The group’s purpose is to:

  • Find greater meaning in our work, and create a powerful legacy.
  • Share our challenges and blocks so we can offer guidance for resolution.
  • Meet young men who share our values to mentor and align them with the best accomplished men for them.
  • Organize retreats, workshops, and meet ups that will offer us the chance to meet men that we would not have met otherwise.

Ultimately, allowing for a space for men to be human beings, first and foremost — with a full range of emotional and behavioral options — benefits everyone’s well-being. Men, no matter how you define your masculinity, here’s to your health!

By Edie Weinstein, LSW

Follow Edie on Twitter at @EdieWeinstein1

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