Owning our Health: From unattainable manly myths to the freedom of the “new” man
Today’s man is often equated with the strong silent type, with a super-fit muscular body. From action movies and superhero figures, to TV commercials, men and boys are bombarded with images of manhood that are near impossible to attain. Conversely, TV sitcoms portray the hapless male figure, overweight, emotionally insensitive, and often the subject of demeaning humour.
These narrow stereotypes impose images on our thinking that are damaging and misleading about manliness.
Paul Gallant knows this only too well. Gallant started working in men’s health about ten years ago, in addition to his other health leadership roles. His latest research focuses on the growing problem of male eating disorders, and he now leads self-help discussion groups for men with various forms of this serious health problem. Men now comprise roughly one in four of all individuals suffering from these disorders.
Gallant says that eating disorders in men are often an attempt to cope with emotional issues through such means as food, body shape, protein powder use, or competitiveness.
One young man, who worked with Gallant and with whom I spoke, shared his story. Tyson’s journey from deep emotional and physical pain into freedom and health, gives an insight into how it is possible to break free from the destructive, imposed images of manliness, to discover the more freeing qualities of manhood that lie within each of us.
Tyson first began to use food as a coping mechanism as a teen suffering from undetected depression. However, as time went on, he became addicted to the dangerous act of food purging. But the behaviour did not lead him to any freedom from the depression. Instead, he tried twice to commit suicide. It was only then that he found a clinic with personnel who could help him.
Tyson’s stay at the facility on Galiano Island gave him time and support to experience a complete change in the way he thought about, and saw, himself. He realized that all this time he really hated both who he was and what he was not. He had no self-respect. His beliefs about the “perfect man” – so unattainable – did not match up to what he saw in himself.
Slowly, Tyson began to get to know a different man and to appreciate that nature. He learned it was okay to express love. He was more patient with himself and others, more forgiving of his mistakes. He started to feel a happiness and peace that did not depend on others’ thoughts about him. Instead of internalizing his anger, he found a healthy way to express his feelings. And as he did, his false notions of manhood began to disappear. He felt more confident and less anxious. He discovered that manhood is far more than physical appearance, or the ability to “be a man and not share your feelings.” And he learned to love and respect this new man within. He also began helping others find freedom from the same difficulties.
Viewing this from a spiritual perspective, real manhood and the “new man” are key themes in many stories in the Bible. They offer us various models of manhood and portray the struggles that often come with them. One of the most famous examples is the Jewish King David of Israel, who wrote the well-loved Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd.” David was a popular warrior and king – a man’s man by the standards of his day. Yet, through the course of his life, and amid many mistakes, he yearned for a better model. Over time, he discovered the importance of developing the qualities of honesty, love, tenderness, gentleness and spiritual strength.
This change of thought enabled him to exchange the worldly views of manliness for a better, more spiritual understanding of manhood that we can see in the afore-mentioned Psalm. David writes with simplicity and humility, qualities that likely were not expected in men of his day, and especially not in a leader.
As long as we think of manhood (or womanhood) as only physical – framed by and subject to the limitations of current human theories and fashions – we are always at the mercy of those beliefs, and never free to be who we are.
The world will always hold up before us either impossible ideals of strength and beauty, or crude and ugly models. But it is possible to change our views of what constitutes man. And the whole of society – not just the males among us – would be healthier, if we did. Realizing our unbreakable connection to the Divine, reveals a more stable, permanent character that is founded upon and wrapped in love rather than self-hatred.
Manhood is not about perfect “human” ideals; it’s about divine ideas. The willingness to view ourselves as the divine Maker views us reveals wonderful qualities that are within each of us, just waiting to be discovered.