You need to be strong. You need to be popular. You should probably be loud and you should probably be sporty. You shouldn’t display your emotions, unless you’re displaying anger. You should probably have a girlfriend, or at least you should want one.
You’ll have friends and you’ll laugh with them. You’ll discover yourself and you’ll start to find your place in the world. Maybe you’ll be a part of a team, one that may help you form your own identity. You’ll discover new skills and connect with the people around you.
But still, you should be loud. You should be clever. But you should never be too clever. You should be sexually active by this age and you should know exactly what you’re doing all the time. Thick skinned, big boned, quick witted. One of the boys.
At the best of times, growing up can be confusing. Adolescence is a critical and formative time in the development of our personalities; it is during these moments that the foundations are laid for who we are to become. For many boys growing up today, those formative moments are often marked by a pressure to behave a certain way, to present as a certain type and to be a certain version of the perceived ideal of masculinity. How can we help boys going through this? For educators, guardians and mentors it can be unclear to know how to support boys experiencing these expectations. The first step to supporting boys facing these expectations is to understand exactly what they are.
Others have called it the ‘man box’; the idea that boys feel pressured to perform only a certain set of character traits of ‘masculinity’, whilst simultaneously excluding other ways of being as ‘off limits’. At Beyond Equality, we also call this the ‘Armour of Masculinity’; we recognise that many boys put on this armour themselves as an unconscious reaction to feeling insecure or a need to protect themselves. Putting on this restrictive, burdensome armour is often driven by a need to fit in with friends or to prove oneself.
But what does this armour look like? Or rather, how does it manifest in different contexts? This varies from school to school, community to community and even between peer groups, so it’s always important to be curious about the experiences of the young people in your schools. But the armour does have some features that reoccur in many places and lead to negative behaviour. A boy trying to prove his dominance in front of his male friends may disrespect his girlfriend or women more generally. A boy feeling insecure may lift himself up by putting others down with jokes and insults, or by disengaging from education. A boy experiencing trauma might struggle to express his emotions and thus distance himself socially or slip into a state of poor mental well-being. If boys don’t have the space and support to develop as healthy, well rounded individuals without this armour of expectation weighing them down, a frustration may build up and can manifest itself in many different ways. Using sexist language, harassment, bullying, self-destructive nights out, turning away from school work or even vulnerability to radicalisation by hate groups are all potential behaviours that can arise from the heavy weight of this armour; the persistent pressure to play up to the masculine ideal.
What can be done? How can we help? For men who put on this armour at a young age, the process of taking it off is tough and painful; often what lies underneath is raw and unformed. To relinquish oneself from this requires a supportive and compassionate environment. For many boys, that support can come while they’re at school.
Beyond Equality provides teacher training workshops to all school staff and educators to discuss these questions and offer insight into the structural factors that can lead to negative behaviour amongst boys. We discuss the ‘armour of masculinity’ in our workshops not to show teachers how to ‘fix’ their students, but rather to provide a framework for teachers to better understand the boys they work with and the associated negative behaviours. During our workshops we demonstrate how enacting small actions and viewing every-day interactions through an ‘alternative-masculinities lens’ can lay the groundwork for educators to support boys in taking this armour off. Doing so doesn’t happen overnight, it is a process of cultural change as well as personal development. But at Beyond Equality we provide educators with the knowledge and support to assist this process, allowing boys to become the person they want to be.
At Beyond Equality, we aspire to help men and boys contribute to improving gender relations by giving them an opportunity and space to interact with each other, guided by our trained facilitators. Interacting in conversation is at the core of what we do, allowing people to learn at their own pace.
We don’t give lectures or tell young people how to behave, we create an environment in which a group can talk to each other about their own lived experiences, thoughts and beliefs. By doing so we give the participants an opportunity to free themselves from some of the pressures and stereotypes that can lead to negative behaviours.