• Michelle Johnson

The art of Manning Up: International Men’s Day can change the narrative on toxic masculinity

International Men’s Day can change the narrative on toxic masculinity

While International Women’s Day on 8 March is receiving more press and acclaim than ever before (yay), each year brings with it the inevitable cry of, “but what about international men’s day?”. Turns out the UN’s got you covered, lads. November is the month of men helping men thanks to the Movember men's health campaign, but we’ve also got a bona fide International Men’s Day on 19 November.

Held each year since 2010, IMD aims to raise awareness of important issues and stigmas impacting the modern man. These include tackling toxic masculinity, improving health and wellbeing – including access to mental health and the prevalence of male suicide – to gender equality, particularly in the forms of underperformance of boys in education and still stigmatised issues like single fatherhood.

This year’s theme is positive male role models, with IMD partnering with Dads4Kids Fatherhood Foundation to highlight the importance of addressing issues that still affect men and boys. “The observances of International Men’s Day are part of a global love revolution,” said IMD founder Dr Jerome Teelucksingh, who describes the campaign as an “ongoing effort to improve lives, heal scarred hearts, seek solutions to social problems, mend troubled minds, reform the social outcasts and uplift the dysfunctional.”

Discussions around mental health have changed in recent years, and the rise of social media seems to have allowed users space to start discussions about disorders such as anxiety and depression – particularly for women. The Mental Health Foundation credits female friendship with helping to "protect their mental health, providing a source of support, particularly in hard times or at times of loss or change.”

"Let's not man up. Let's not tough it out. Let's find true strength instead. Let's show our vulnerability. Let's stop faking macho bullshit. Let's change." –– Matt Haig

And that change in conversation can be felt on a personal level. When I first experienced anxiety as a child I don’t think I even realised what was happening. When I finally approached therapy in my 20s, my sense of shame and secrecy was so well-developed that I paid out for a private therapist just so I didn’t have to acknowledge the problem officially with my GP or parents. Now, whether in the pub or on social media, there’s power in talking about mental health – not just to share new tools and coping methods with friends, but because the very act of acknowledging my anxiety is a sure-fire way to take the wind from its sneaky little sails.

But if women are slowly, thankfully, becoming more open about mental health, many men are beginning to talk about how our cross-generational ‘man up’ culture has created a sense of silence. The prevalence of male suicide is a prime indication of how damaging this toxic culture can be when it stops men getting help. Suicide is the leading cause of death in men under 45 according to the charity CALM, and men account for three-quarters of suicides in the UK. These are tragic stats, especially when you consider how mental health can impact a person’s ability to work, parent and communicate effectively even at a lesser scale.

“Male suicide is the biggest killer of men under 50,” tweeted author and mental health Matt Haig. “It is preventable. Let's not man up. Let's not tough it out. Let's find true strength instead. Let's show our vulnerability. Let's stop faking macho bullshit. Let's change.”

International Men’s Day can change the narrative on toxic masculinity

So how do men and women work to break down the trappings of toxic masculinity, including that dangerous silence? Because, let’s face it, real emotional equality might not just reduce suicide further, but could also mean an end to catcalling and rape culture – and they are both issues we can all get behind.

How we consume media is definitely a factor – and one that I hope will have a positive impact given the voices that are now evolving. Just as mainstream outlets like Stylist are embracing an unapologetically and empowering feminist tone throughout their brands, so too are publications like (the now sadly closed) ShortList, GQ and Gentleman’s Journal taking on more sensitive topics, delving into wellness in a way that’s far deeper than Beckham’s new do.

Earlier this year I interviewed Samuel L. Jackson for his One For The Boys charity, which raises awareness of cancer in men, and he made a strong case for a new definition of ‘Manning Up’. “One For The Boys [was founded] to help create a change in male attitudes,” he told me, adding how important it is for men to be open about their health – whether that’s talking among friends or visiting a doctor. “It’s so important for guys to realise we’re not invincible.”

Even better are outlets such as the brilliant Book of Man, which is tackling toxic masculinity head on. In fact, to celebrate International Men’s Day, Book of Man has curated its own list of international role models, celebrating leaders from diverse backgrounds and industries who are working to challenge traditional notions of masculinity – and really, what's stronger than standing up for what you believe?

With the likes of Black Lives Matter leader Deray McKesson, New York Times reporter Walter Thompson-Hernandez, London R&B star Aaron Porter, and trans* boxer Thomas Page McBee featured, this list is a fascinating and inspiring read and, hopefully, a sign that future generations will find there's much more to masculinity than ‘Manning Up’.