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Mind or muscle? What's the best path for men these days?

By Peter West - posted Tuesday, 22 March 2016


There seems to be a lot of stuff about improving men these days on TV and in the press. We're told to be careful what we eat, worry about how much sun we get and how much we exercise. One of the no-nos's is just sitting down all day, but most of today's men have to sit down to do the essentials of life: eating, working at a computer and updating their social media accounts. It made me wonder what people want in a man these days; and indeed what men want themselves.

In the past men worked, brought home the wages and provided for families. They made most of the rules at home: do this, don't do that. Boys helped dad in the garden, and might help build a house or add to it. Boys were told by their father what to do and how to behave, what people to mix with and who to avoid. And above all, not to cry under any circumstances. (Girls were more the province of their mother, who told them what to wear and how to behave in a ladylike way). When these duties were done, men might escape for a few beers at the pub or venture a few bets on the horses.

And on Sundays many men in many countries might go to church, where their sons and daughters could meet someone that met their parents' expectations. In some cases, that would be a man who would not waste the family wages on the racehorses, would vote Labor, believe in trade unions, and have rocklike faith in the Catholic Church. (And in other families, not any of the above). And thus (as Peter Berger wittily suggests) a man was, and maybe still is, matched with a woman from the 'right kind of family' with whom he can share 'bedroom, bathroom and the boredom of a thousand bleary-eyed breakfasts.'

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Working hours for men used to be long and exhausting. Miners and farmers, for instance, worked a huge number of hours and had shortened, hard lives. My dad wrote in his autobiography, A Beaut Life, that he worked in a furniture store 9 till 6 every weekday, late until 9 o clock on Fridays and then on Saturdays till 12.30 pm. Working those long, hard hours helped motivate him to study accountancy. Men needed to be strong so they could earn money to keep the family alive. And they had to stay strong. In some families Dad ate steak while the kids had mince or baked beans. Many men played sport when they could and felt that when they played or watched it they were alive.

The life of a man today seems far more complex. First things first. We are told to go, and how to behave, at the gym; and how not to behave. Apparently, the worst nuisances are the grunter, the poser, and the people showing off their nakedness (I don't understand why a bit of nakedness in a change-room is a capital offence, but I must be strange). And finally, the people on their mobile devices: "Yeah, what ya doin, I'm here at the gym sweating like a pig – yeah…but, like, ya gotta be fit, like, so I'm, um, here with all the try-hards…". Our bodies present us to the world, it seems, so millions are spending their hard-earned money altering theirs.

They are getting bizarre tattoos, often with gross spelling mistakes or weak comments like "Such is Life". Perhaps in twenty or thirty years' time they will spend more money erasing the tattoos, all mucked up by sagging skin and surgery, because they embarrass their children. Of course, many others scoff at the gym and get their exercise playing football or jogging. But we get the message anyway: go and exercise, preferably in the gym. Someone must be slipping money to someone influential to keep all these urgent messages in the media.

The idea of work must occur to men, because they need to find a way of paying for all the expensive gym gear, the monthly gym fees extracted from their bank account, and the expensive girlfriend hanging on their arm as they walk into the expensive clubs. Not to mention the low-slung cars that roar down the street burning rubber and scaring old ladies. (Alternatively, the Porche or BMW that Daddy helped him buy and for keeping up the payments of which he has promised lifelong devotion to the family law firm). Keeping up Appearances isn't restricted to Hyacinth Bucket.

Men have some challenges today that their dads didn't have. How do they react to feminism, for example? If they are dead against it, they might incur the anger of the women in their lives, and most men do have women they care about, one way or another. If they are too glib and fulsome in their praise of it, women will regard them as wankers and hypocrites. The diplomatic path is tricky, but many men seem to maintain a policy of "say what the girlfriend wants when I'm with her. And support the mates when I'm with them". A bit like praying barefooted with the Muslims when in Saudi Arabia, and genuflecting with the high church Anglicans when at Oxford University.

Housing is another challenge these days. My dad used to say that "the working man's only saving is the house he owns". After the war he was an accountant and then the chief executive officer of a large hospital, but he always felt he was a working man. In about 1938, he found a block of land for a hundred pounds and built his own house on it, with the help of my uncle.

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It used to be common for people to build a scrappy fibro garage and live there while they slowly built a house. Later they might build a scrappy holiday cottage by the same process. Improvements in housing and numerous rules imposed by well-meaning councils have meant that working men and women can no longer build their own houses. And as we know too well in Sydney, housing is now out of the reach of most Australians under 40. Travel by train around Sydney these days and you will find yourself looking up at apartments that dwarf the train-line. That could be anywhere from Zetland to Chatswood, or what the locals are calling 'Chats-woo'. This seems the future for housing for men and women these days. Asian style comes Down Under, perhaps?

Finding work that offers a decent living is still a challenge. Men are still found in some of the toughest, riskiest and most life-threatening jobs. Having jobs that make us lean over a computer for hours is part of the reason why so many men need to pay gym fees, as we saw before.

Somehow in all this, men want to have their fun. The club and the pub offer a form of fun for many, apparently. Some still want to risk their money on the horses. Prostitution seems to flourish, to judge from some of the people I see on the street, and the rather seedy notices in local papers. I'm sure it's the same in every country, and always has been.

So where are men today, and what kind of future seems to be ahead of them? Compared to our dads, and their dads, we don't have that simple equation that says men work, and work is what men do. Being a man today offers many challenges. Once we celebrated men (Prince Henry the Navigator, Abel Tasman, St. Patrick and so forth) and being a man was an achievement. Now we're asked 'but what about the women?' If something wrong is being done, such as some indigenous footballer being booed, or refugees being attacked, it's sure to be a man that did it. Some U.S. observers, as well as others, are speculating that Donald Trump's support springs from the angry white men who feel they are losing control of society and culture. I don't know enough to comment on that. The violence among people at his rallies certainly seems to be an unleashing of pent-up anger.

Men do seem to be leaders, almost everywhere we look. But inside man, as Glenn Poole asks, what really goes on? How do they feel about the developments we've spoken of, and the many challenges that are thrown up before them? My guess that there is an apprehension about things today, and a nagging worry that things are only going to get worse. That guy in the gym lifting impressive weights may be not at all contented or serene.

Muscles were very much needed by men in the past. But what tomorrow's man will need will be a tough and searching mind, rather than a bunch of attractive muscles. Yesterday men slaved in mines, farms, or factories. Today's man is more likely to exert his muscles in a sleek, clean gym. It's a bit sad, but we are still a long way away from seeing the Twilight of the Muscle Gods.

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NOTE: My dad's life-story was home-published, but might be found in some libraries: Bert West, A Beaut Life: The Story of a Life in the Twentieth Century. Venture Press, Sydney 1993.



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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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