“Man Up!” We need to talk about gender roles and men’s suffering

Poor body image, eating disorders, “bigorexia” and suicide. It’s time to talk about men’s suffering – and we’re not talking about man flu. Here’s why saying “man up” is harmful;


Men’s Suffering; some facts which might surprise you

Suicide is the biggest killer of men aged 15-34. In the UK 75% of suicide victims are men.

Gender Roles mean men aspire to be big, muscular. Sometimes this can lead to bigorexia

Bigorexia = wanting to be Mr. Muscle.

One in 10 men who train in gyms could be suffering from “bigorexia” AKA muscle dysphoria.

This is an anxiety disorder, where despite being large and muscular, men feel small and weak.

It can lead to steroid abuse, mental health problems and even suicide.

Explain It like I’m Seven: Mental Health

Bigorexia is often described as the opposite of Anorexia. This is an eating disorder characterized by a desire to be thin and a fear of gaining weight.

Yet men also suffer from eating disorders. Since 2000 the number of male sufferers increased by 27%. In fact it was a young man first to be diagnosed with Anorexia in 1649.



So why aren’t we talking about it?

The facts above suggest these are real, tangible problems. Yet when issues like eating disorders or mental health are covered, it’s often (though not always) with a focus on women. Why?

Doves Real Beauty Campaign focused on "real beauty" with women. There have been campaigns for men, but less often.

Campaigns like Dove’s “real beauty” adverts focus on women’s self-esteem and eating habits, not men’s.

Research suggests that men are less likely to recognise health symptoms themselves. They’re also less likely to come forward for a check-up. The same is true for mental health disorders, where men are less likely to report symptoms than women.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that when exploring these issues we focus on women rather than men. After all, the numbers suggest that women may be more at risk. Eating disorders are 10 times more common in women than men. Women are 40% more likely to develop a mental illness than men.

Yet this isn’t providing the full story. Matt Haig notes that whilst UK women may be more likely to suffer from depression, more men commit suicide. “As suicide is usually a symptom of depression, this suggests men are not getting the help they need.”

Dig deeper and you realise this all comes down to those pesky “traditional” gender roles that men and women are supposed to adhere to.


What is gender anyway?

Scene from Mad Men, where Don Draper mocks crying for not fitting within gender roles

Gender Roles: be a man, don’t cry

Psychologist Will Meek defines gender roles as “a set of attitudes, behaviours, and self-presentation methods ascribed to members of a certain biological sex”

(FYI the World health Organisation (WHO) defines “Sex” as “biological and physiological characteristics that define men and women”

and “Gender” as  “the socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities, and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for men and women.”)

So when describing Western traditional gender roles for men, think: don’t cry, stay tough, and work hard. Man up, essentially.



A teenager describes how being a man doesnt mean conforming to gender roles

Be a man: not about holding back tears.

Working with men-only therapy groups Dr. Martin Seager identified the “three rules of masculinity”. Be a fighter and a winner, be a provider and a protector, retain mastery and control.

“If you break any of those, you don’t feel like a man.

So if you don’t have a job, for a woman that’s awful, but if [a] man doesn’t have a job he doesn’t feel he can provide or protect – so he’s lost his masculinity. That’s why the suicide rate for the unemployed is greater for men.”

Seager believes that “this isn’t genetic: we are biologically evolved as male.” Put simply; our image of a “male” is influenced by society.


Is telling someone to “man up” harmful?

Now, it could be argued that our society is slowly becoming more accepting of different ideas of masculinity. Yet the pressure of fitting within the “traditional” gender roles is such that some men find it hard to come forward when perceiving symptoms to be “un-manly”.

A teenage boy describes how gender roles are sexist

Gender roles harm women as well as men

For example, a study of 135 men with eating disorders found that several bulimia victims were ashamed of suffering from a disorder typically associated with females.

It’s important to remember that women also face longstanding destructive cultural practices. The phrase “man up” pressurises men, emphasising that they should aspire to be masculine.

Yet it also belittles women by portraying “feminine” behaviour as inferior.

So, whilst it’s OK to question whether “man up” is “the most destructive phrase in modern culture” we should probably focus on calling out negative stereotypes which affect both men and women.


What can we do about this?

Talk about it! Raising awareness will help us get past gender stereotypes and allow men AND women to come forward and get the help they need.


There are lots of resources and helplines if you, or someone you know, are experiencing mental or physical problems.

READ: The Men’s Health Forum provides information and raises awareness on issues surrounding men.

SPEAK: Mental health charities like Mind run helplines so you can get help even if you don’t want to speak to someone you know.

Samaritans run a free 24-hour helpline; you don’t have to give any personal details if you don’t want to. If something is troubling you, then get in touch.

Think we missed something? Let us know sor@scenesofreason.com


Explain It To Me Like I’m 7: Mental Health

1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem in any given year, and 1 in 10 children and young people will experience mental disorders. But what does this actually all mean?

Define mental health for me?

Our mental health is about our ability to cope with what life throws at us and how we feel about ourselves in this big scary world.

Giph of Kimmy Schmitt

Not all of us are unbreakable

No one has perfect mental health or feels great all of the time. That’s something we all go through. What not everybody goes through is a mental illness, or what you could also call a mental health concern or a mental health problem.

BUT more people than you might think go through a mental illness: in England, 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem in any given year, most often in the form of a mixture of anxiety and depression. Also, 1 in 10 children and young people have mental disorders in a given year.

So what exactly is a mental illness?

The National Alliance on Mental Illness explains mental illness as: “a condition that impacts a person’s thinking, feeling or mood and may affect his or her ability to relate to others and function on  daily basis. Each person will have different experiences, even people with the same diagnosis.”

Errmm, not too specific is it? The problem with trying to explain mental illness is that it can be so many different kinds of things.

Mental illness is a bit like fruit. There are so many different kinds, like who  decided strawberries and tomatoes are the same kind of food? Also, even within  the same kind of fruit, like bananas, you never get two that are the same kind of  bendiness or yellowness. It’s the same deal with mental illness.

We can at least break it down into different kinds of mental health problems.  There are different kinds of depression, stress, sleeping disorders, eating and  body image disorders and personality disorders, which you can get more  concrete details on here.

The symptoms of a mental illness can be things we all experience from time to time like feeling down, stressed or having trouble sleeping. The difference is that for a period of time (e.g. two weeks for depression) the same symptoms are much stronger, or won’t seem to go away, and begin to be massive barriers to the person experiencing them leading a normal life. ‘Pain in the arse’ doesn’t even cover it.

These problems can be triggered by a number of different things, from serious trauma to everyday stress. A sucky thing about mental health concerns is that often there is no clear cause or explanation. This can make things feel even worse for the person experiencing it because they can’t find a ‘legit’ reason to explain why they feel bad.

What’s it like to have a mental illness?

Remember the banana thing from earlier? We can’t really explain what any one person goes through when they experience mental illness.

But that’s cool because the internet is a goldmine for things to help us understand what it’s like to live with mental illnesses.

These Hyperbole and a Half posts just plain get depression: Adventures in Depression Part I, Part II.

There is a lot of stigma attached to mental illness. This is because mental illness is not always understood as being like any other illness, and mentally ill people can be accused of being lazy or attention seeking. A whopping 9 out of 10 people with mental health problems experience discrimination. Not cool.

The thing is, as Professor Weare of Southampton Uni told the Guardian: “You wouldn’t go to someone lying in bed with a fever and tell them they could get up if they wanted to. There is a failure to understand that mental health problems are an illness – they are not something that you can snap out of and are not anybody’s fault.”

What to do if your BFF tells you they have a mental health concern

Mental health support charity Mind have a great page of advice on this.

Giph of Joey hugging Chandler from friends


It’s all super basic BFF stuff that you probably have down already: Hear what they’re telling you and show your support. Sending postcards and letters, even if you live in the same neighbourhood can be a great way of showing you’re there for them while still giving them space.

Don’t be afraid to ask them how they are, but remember that the problem they are going through is just one part of who they are, so don’t focus too much on it. Try to keep in mind how you would treat someone with a serious disease or broken bone. Saying things like ‘you’ll get over it’ or ‘just try and cheer up’ are definite no-nos.

What do I do if I think I might have a mental health concern?

Recognising the issue for what it is is already half the battle, and getting the ball rolling on recovery by seeking professional advice is the other half. Some people go a long time feeling like the reason why they have a hard time getting through a day is because of some sort of personal failure, not because of an illness that there are many possible ways out of.

Again, Mind has some great advice pages on taking care of yourself and what kind of services and support is out there.

Talk to your friends and family, but also connect with people going through similar things. For example you can enjoy podcast Mental Health Happy Hour.

Mental Health Explained: Mental health is how we all cope with the world. Mental illnesses are disorders which make that much more difficult. Imagine that you’ve got a problem with your heart or your liver, but instead it’s a problem with your brain – mental illness is just that, an illness.

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