I can say with a great deal of certainty, that as an adult man in these parts, you would have at one time in your life heard these words “be a man” or “man up” said to you, be it over shedding tears at physical pain, failing at some task, or even while enduring an emotional heartbreak. Indeed we begin to hear it early in the formative years when you are not supposed to cry in a verbal fight with your female siblings or when you are compelled to internalize the biting pain of cane strokes because it is unmanly to show such emotions. It is like a given, something we’ve all come to accept as normal. What you might not have realized is that, these words and the experiences have affected you in some way.
On their own, these words are not bad. Life presents challenges which everyone, male and female must face with a degree of resolve and determination, and this often requires toughening up our emotions and growing a will of still. However, when they are applied as some kind of status we must live up to, especially the way they are used for men, they have the tendency of becoming very problematic, distorting our understanding of masculinity and turning the concept of manhood on its head.
Over time we have created a stereotypical image for men which we all struggle to fit into. The instruction to “man up” becomes essentially a call to fall in line and conform. This builds insecurities, forces us to repress our emotions, hide weaknesses and effectively disconnect from who we really are. When the phrase is used in relation to the lurking, serious shadow of depression, anxiety, or any other mental illness, the results can be harmful. It is a medically researched fact that men dealing with mental disorders are less likely to seek help than women. Suicide is higher in men than in women. Abuse of alcohol, drugs, sex and gambling can be seen at a much higher percentage in men than women; possibly because the manly psyche built over years of being told to “man up” has to resort to seeking an escape route to truly express himself.
The compulsion to act manly can also be traced as the root cause of domestic violence with men taking out their fears and frustrations on their wives because they know not any other way of expressing it. It doesn’t help that the male chauvinistic society these men are raised in tells them also that it is a classic show of manliness to beat your wife and not entertain her views on any matter.
It can also be argued that a lot of men have failed to really live their full potential in life because they have had to conform to this stereotype. Because there has long been established types of careers which are fit for men. The world must have lost many a great dancer, musician, chef and artist – all because they were afraid to exhibit any emotional or creative behaviour when they were younger so that they are not taken for weak or unmanly.
My thoughts on this topic flow from my personal experience and a discussion that came up recently during a chat at the filming of an episode of the Onyeka Nwelue Show. I lost my wife and best friend a little over a year ago and have battled all kinds of emotions since. Through it all, I could not help but notice the nudge to ‘die’ the emotions, to come off it, in the comments, framed as condolence messages from friends and family alike. It is essentially a “Man up” call, to swallow it all up and keep a straight face, because that is what men do.
Because people have different ways of processing emotions, there is a tendency for some men to collapse under the weight of these unshed tears, bottled up feelings and unexpressed thoughts. We therefore do our men no good by telling them to “be a man” or “man up”. Men are men already by virtue of their genetic make-up and do not have to “become men” in order to prove any point. There are certainly many better suiting words in English and the vocabulary of our indigenous languages that will accomplish the same feat if what we really intend to convey is a message of encouragement to a man going through certain challenges.