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Being a man in 2014: reflections on the NSW Menís Health and Wellbeing Conference

By Peter West - posted Monday, 12 May 2014


Last week a panel discussed what it means to be a man today. This was part of  "Shaping Solutions", the NSW Men's Health and Wellbeing Conference held in Penrith, west of Sydney.

Until the 1960s, there were clear rules in most western countries about how to be a man. A man was all about work. Much of his life revolved around preparing for work, doing the work and recovering from work. Men became policemen, teachers, bank clerks or railwaymen, and joined the organisation for a lifetime., unless they went to war. Boys were junior men and spent their days preparing for life as a man. They helped their fathers around the family farm and did many outdoor jobs like milking cows, picking fruit or feeding hens. While boys worked outside, girls worked inside doing the laborious washing, drying and ironing of clothes. The two sexes lived in separate spheres. Men who didn't fit into this mould went to the city, joined the priesthood or drifted overseas.

Being a man meant the three Ps: First, men had to perform at work and earn money. Then they had to protect their wives and children. And finally they had to provide for them, for it was nearly always men who worked (women's work inside the family home and farm was not widely recognized).

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Churches were part of a web of authority that held most people in place. Boys left school and went to work, always under the eye of the local churchman and other church attendees. When a girl sought approval to marry a boy, her father knew already where he went to church, how much he drank, and whether he wasted time and money gambling or playing pool. The vast majority of people married in the church of their choice. Catholics and Protestants went to different schools, in the main, lived among their own kind of people and rarely mixed with the others. Catholic kids chanted

Catholics, Catholics ring the bell
Protties, Protties, go to hell

This data came from Fathers, Sons and Lovers, a study I did in Penrith, New South Wales. It was based on males who grew up between 1930 and 1960. Colleagues have told me that much of it applies to countries like the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand and the USA in the same period.

All of this began to change in the 1960s and 1970s as women moved into the workforce. Now, 'work' wasn't only done by men. Workplaces had to somehow adapt to women. The whole nature of child-rearing had to be taken into account in the workplace -and that was done reluctantly. We are still living with the consequences.

So what does it mean to be a man today? Let's make a few points in order of importance.

First, work still defines men in many ways. People ask men in social situations "What do you do?" Men are still expected to have an existence defined mainly by work. Men without a job say they are 'between jobs'. Someone who is a heart surgeon is in a different class from someone who drives a taxi all day.

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Second, the wealthier you are, the more choices you have and the healthier you tend to be. A father's occupation largely determines a person's income, social standing, education level and health outcomes. Despite this general truth, Americans are the exception. Despite some wonderful hospitals and excellent practitioners, they have poorer health outcomes than 17 other 'peer countries', for a complex list of reasons including an inefficient health system, ready availability of guns and too many fast food choices.

Third, sport was always part of being a man - and that's still true. Men are expected to have an opinion about the local football team [whatever code applies]. And to be able to kick a ball and swing a bat. It's still true that if they don't fit in, non-sporty men risk attack or ridicule. When I grew up, cricket and Rugby League were really the only sports played at school most of the time. Neither was really suited to the talents of many boys, including the tall, skinny streak that I was. These days nobody much cares about cricket, apart from the crusty old fellows who give us sport on ABC TV. And schools feature a far broader spectrum of physical education, far better suited to most children.

Fourth, men were always expected to be strong. This was so they could work hard and when needed, go to war. Being strong is no longer all about having muscles so you can work; though unfortunately, men are still expected to go to war when required. Today they want us to have a great body, it seems. Popular movie heroes like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Dwayne Johnson ('The Rock') made their name by being powerful men outstanding in sport (if we can call bodybuilding a sport!) Sadly, many of the bodies being shown to us in the men's health mags are unrealistic for most of us: amazing abs, perfect pecs, fantastic teeth, to say nothing of the dick of death. Men are also expected to be sexual beings: when did you last see a Hollywood movie in which the hero wasn't shown to be successful in attracting women? And the models are usually Caucasian or acceptably exotic: Chinese or Indian heroes aren't often found in western media. Even Vladimir Putin and Tony Abbott show us their firm, hard bodies these days. Are they hoping to impress someone?

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About the Author

Dr Peter West is a well-known social commentator and an expert on men's and boys' issues. He is the author of Fathers, Sons and Lovers: Men Talk about Their Lives from the 1930s to Today (Finch,1996). He works part-time in the Faculty of Education, Australian Catholic University, Sydney.

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