There has been much talk about gender equality in Singapore.

It’s 2020 but there is still a pervasive cultural gender norm where the husband is out working to provide for the household while the wife is at home taking care of the family.

Recently, the conversation has shifted to women’s rights in Singapore and the government is planning a series of reviews to address these issues.

This White Paper, entitled “Conversations on Women Development” will be an important milestone in charting the course of gender equality in Singapore for years to come.

But before we get there, there is another issue closely related to gender roles that have been affecting men – not just in Singapore but in many parts of the world as well.

Toxic masculinity perpetuates the stereotype that there is only one “acceptable” way of being a man and that is to be stoic, strong and domineering. Anything less than being the “alpha” is a shortcoming and a “real man” must strive to attain that lofty level before he can claim to be a success.

That toxicity breeds unhealthy competition – even contempt – and when boys are brought up in that environment, it creates a problem. In 2017, a survey by AWARE and Ngee Ann Polytechnic found that 9 in 10 teenage males face pressure from society to be “manly”. This pressure includes being subjected to harassment, bullying as well as physical and mental violence, among other things.

This gives you an insight into the kind of environment young men have to traverse today. This environment gives them two choices: Either conform to a particular standard of a “being a man”, or be ridiculed, ostracised and even hurt for being different.

Most of us have had a similar experience to this

“Come on bro, you’re a guy. Cry for what?”

Those were the words I heard as I sat in my secondary school classroom, tears running down my face.

At the time, I was frustrated at myself for not being able to perform as well as some of my peers. They were getting good grades, making loads of friends and generally fitting in.

I was not. My inability to achieve what they could made me feel less of a person. And I was dealing with it the way I knew how: By allowing my hurt and anger at myself flow to the surface.

I remember hearing a hint of mockery in the words coming from my classmate. I didn’t know why he was saying what he was saying. Perhaps he didn’t know what to do with a crying classmate. Maybe he was trying to be reassuring but it came out wrong.

Whatever it is, his words didn’t make me feel any better. In fact, I felt even more sub-par than I already did. However, it did make me stop crying – out of shame. My classmate’s scoff shamed me and I instantly pretended as if nothing happened.

Finding a solution

Unfortunately, toxic masculinity has played a significant role in my upbringing. For years, I have been socialised to believe that to be a man, I have to be strong at all times and not show any vulnerability in any situation. Doing otherwise would make me “not a real man” but just an “attention-seeker”.

Unbeknownst to everyone, I was struggling internally.

a man holds his head while sitting on a sofa
Unbeknownst to everyone, I was struggling internally. Image Source: Unsplash / Nik Shuliahin

This caused me to bottle up all my negative thoughts. Whenever something upset me, I would pretend to be nonchalant and downplay it. “It’s not a big deal” became my pet phrase.

That unhealthy practice only aggravated my already low self-esteem. The negativity festered and my mental health suffered. I didn’t even dare to let it out in private because I believed that vocalising my fears was a validation of my weaknesses.

And when those emotions eventually spilled out, I started to believe that I was too weak to be a “real man”.

Thankfully, I gradually broke out of that spiral thanks to a spiritual experience and after finding help with online articles. I realised that being devoid of negative emotions doesn’t make me a man. It just makes me a robot.

But I want to be clear too. This is a personal journey. Let’s not judge others on what we see on the surface. Just because someone doesn’t show emotion, it doesn’t mean that he (or she, for that matter) is incapable of experiencing emotion.

It is about finding your own truth. Get real. That’s the key. What is real for you? There’s nothing wrong about being the strong silent stoic type… if that is what you are. I was not, but I was shamed into thinking that that was the only proper way a “real man” should behave.

I believe the solution to toxic masculinity is to find who you are and to be that person. If you express yourself through sharing emotions and shedding tears, sure, go for it. But if you’re the strong silent type, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re repressing your feelings and being a slave to societal norms.

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Toxic masculinity affects more people than you’d expect

After escaping my vicious cycle, I began to see how toxic masculinity still affected those around me. From among my own friends to overhearing conversations of passing strangers, I continued to notice those ever-familiar mocking statements when anyone tried to talk about their feelings.

Whenever possible, I attempted to encourage my friends to be open and allow someone to feel safe to speak when he started to share something personal. But most of the time, they would ignore me and that friend’s moment of vulnerability gets met with raised eyebrows and sniggers.

Often, I could see that person flip a mental switch and sweep his thoughts under the metaphorical carpet, oh how reminiscent of how I used to respond!

This always left a lasting impression on me. Even though the person seemed okay on the outside, I knew that we couldn’t see how it was still damaging him inside.

Recently, I came across an article about a group of young men in Ireland who set up a help group called the Dublin Boys Club. Before Covid, they would meet once a month to practise “real talk” – that is, to openly discuss their fears and concerns with one another – without hiding behind banter or having alcohol as a crutch to the conversation.

Even during their lockdown, they would meet virtually to talk about their worries. The members also had a WhatsApp group to share self-help materials, talk about their problems or arrange online and offline meetings.

This support group is all about supporting one another as men and ridding themselves of the idea that being vulnerable isn’t manly. As one of the participants said rather colourfully, it takes great courage (he didn’t use that word) to be open with a group of 20 other men.

man sitting on brown wood windowsill looking out to buildings across
Image Source: Unsplash / Freddie Marriage

Toxic masculinity during Covid

Reading about these Irishmen in Dublin gives me hope for what we are going through now.

We are facing a pandemic that has changed the way our lives work, some more drastically than others. Some of us have lost our jobs or loved ones. Others are lonely or angry. We are restricted in many ways and adapting to this new normal can be very stressful and harmful to our mental health.

Toxic masculinity removes our ability to cope with these new stressors. Pride and ego make us pretend to be okay even when we are not. But when it becomes too much – and it probably will – we crumble and break down.

This problem has been prominent even well before Covid. According to Samaritans of Singapore, out of the 400 suicides reported in 2019, more than two out of every three of them were men.

Reclaiming what “being a man” means

One common phrase flung at men who talk about their feelings is to “man up” or “be a man”. This has perpetuated the toxic stereotypes for too long. But let’s not refute this phrase; let’s reclaim it instead.

I would argue that telling someone to man up is totally acceptable. What needs to change is our definition of what “manning up” entails. We need to get rid of the outdated concept of the alpha male, grinding his teeth, silent in the face of pressure, or worse, over-compensating when called out, flexing his muscles, metaphorical or otherwise, to try to bluster his way out of trouble.

Imagine how it would feel like if we redefine “manning up” as “staying true to your strengths”?

We don’t need to punch a bully to take him down; we can stand over the fallen and protect the bullied. We don’t need to shout to be heard; we speak quietly but authoritatively for the voiceless. We don’t need to be brash to be strong; we show our composure by using our hearts and minds, not just our muscles.

There is more than one way to “be a man”.

A few years ago, there was a PR campaign that called into question some long-held stereotypes. Called “Like a Girl”, it called out some parts of society (even women too!) for viewing doing something ‘like a girl’ as an insult.

Thanks to the campaign, more men (and women) are turning the meaning of the phrase around and now it is a message of empowerment. Many now view the phrase in a positive light, and they are more confident in doing what they want to do without society trying to hold them back.

What if we could run a similar campaign but call it “Being a Man”? What responses do you think we would get?

Men need to talk now, more than ever as it will allow us to better process what we are going through. It takes a load off our chests and will help us on the road to overcoming our toxicity.

smiling men and women sitting on green grass
Image source: Unsplash / Sharefaith

Just being human

In retrospect, I wish that I knew then (when my classmate mocked me) what I know now. Granted, I was young and impressionable and he probably was the same. On the bright side, the experience has left me wiser and more mature in my beliefs. They were hard yet vital lessons that I’m glad I was able to learn.

I hope that we as men can be more accepting of sharing our feelings with others. This not only helps us conquer our not-so-happy days, but it also allows us to grow closer to our family and friends to create a more wholesome society for all.

Emotions are what make us human. Showing them isn’t a sign of weakness. Rather, it’s a sign of our humanity. Choosing to hide them only deprives us of our right to be who we are. That is why we shouldn’t create an environment that pressures men to suppress them.

Anyone can yell and beat their chest and call it courage. Bombast isn’t bravery. True strength comes from daring to look inside yourself and admit that you may not be okay but you’ll get better.

That, to me, is a sign of a real man.

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