October 16, 2016

REDDY | Chameleon

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I have been a research assistant for the Cornell Research Program on Self-Injury and Recovery, now known as the Youth, Risk and Opportunity lab, for a few years now. One of the projects I worked on last year was transcribing interviews. The interviews were conducted to clarify the course of one’s relationship with NSSI throughout one’s life as it relates to the trans-theoretical model. This model reflects an individual’s readiness to act on incorporating a healthier behavior into their lives, which in the cases of these individuals would be working towards ending their engagement in NSSI.

The interviews themselves were of many perspectives. Some were teenagers who faced bullying, young adults struggling with their relationships and older individuals who confided in us that self-injury had been a fixture in their life for a long time. One thing they shared in common was their gender identity. All were women, with the exception of one young man.

No, this gender distribution is not representative of the overall population. Countless demographic studies on NSSI have consistently found that its prevalence is half women and half men. However, significantly less men seek treatment for their NSSI, or rather, the underlying mental health causes maintaining the behavior. It then follows that a large amount of men experiencing mental health issues do not seek treatment for them, and another body of research can confirm that the results of this negligence can be devastating.

This is one example of how sexism is damaging to men. The movement is entitled feminism because women comprise the gender seeking equality; they are the marginalized. It is a social-justice cause that has implications for better opportunities available to women by reforming a male-dominant system to allow for the realization of ambitions, aspirations, hopes, dreams and basic fundamental rights. However, it is often neglected that men are also affected by sexism in that many feel they must live up to the expectations that a male-dominant system entails. Stereotypically masculine features are those of strength, resilience and detachedness, being minimally emotional and stereotypically feminine features are the binary opposite: weakness, delicateness and affectedness, being overtly emotional.

American Male, a short film released by MTV, effectively illustrates the toxic effects a fragile masculinity can have. American because the United States is a country horribly beset by sexism, and the setting of a fraternity grounded in ‘bro’ culture is a specific aspect of American society in which such toxicity seeps into almost every conceivable social interaction.

“Order beer not wine.” “And beef not chicken. Never light beer though. And not tofu. Never tofu. Can’t get more gay than tofu.”

The narration of how to be a man eventually makes what is implicit explicit: directly comparing the social cues that define appropriate behaviors based on gender. As he recites the laws, they begin to touch on deeper levels of personal adjustment and consequently depict stronger repressions of emotional expression and vulnerability.

“Steer clear of the arts unless you live near the coasts. That means no theatre, dancing, painting, poetry or prose. Too much reading is also risky because it makes you look soft and bookish.”

“Women move their hips when they walk, men move their shoulders.”

“Women use exclamation points when they talk, men use periods.”

“Women second guess, men go with their gut.”

“Women write in diaries, men journal.”

“Women sing, dance and perform on stage. Men play sports, watch sports and talk about sports.”

As conversations about mental health are inherently discussed through emotions, men are as a result less likely to seek help for mental health issues they are experiencing. If an adolescent is engaging in NSSI, he may fear telling his friends or even his parents because he will lose any chance of cultivating an image of toughness; the fear of not living up to his manhood.

A similar phenomenon occurs with other areas of mental health, with one prevalent example being the stereotype of those suffering from eating disorders being exclusively young, middle to upper-class women with body image issues. Along with women, a large amount of men also suffer from eating disorders. Their causes are as diverse as the people who deal with them. For a man who shows symptoms of an eating disorder, however, their internalization of masculinity actively prevents them from receiving treatment. It is not a stretch to say that even the way in which NSSI usually presents between genders is also gendered. Women are more taken to forms of cutting, and men, punching. Furthermore, men are barred from participating in mental health research that also requires dialogue about emotions. This can explain the lack of information regarding mental health in men and the proceeding lack of mental health treatments that could be effective for male populations. This is a particularly troubling aspect of disparity out of the entire systemic issue of stigma that mental health advocacy is fighting to address.

In accordance with de-stigmatization, we must double down on efforts to have men be open up about their emotions, or just what they are going through in general, with feminism. This sentiment is related to the fundamental importance of fighting discrimination leveraged against women because of stereotypes surrounding their emotional states. It should be noted that women are not necessarily better off than men even in this aspect.

A woman’s openness about mental health issues is not only recognized, but is often perceived as signs of being over-exaggerators attention-seekers, and has in many cases led to speculations about her sexual promiscuity. This perception deems a woman’s mental health less worthy than a man’s, who is applauded for speaking up about his mental health, whereas it becomes deceptive when a women does it. This can be seen in the discussions of celebrities’ mental health, what separates Amanda Bynes, Tila Tequila, Kehlani and Lindsay Lohan from Kanye West, Ryan Adams and most recently Kid Cudi. To take on sexism in this regard, we must empower both genders and encourage men to be more open about mental health while at the same time discouraging biased reactions when women choose to be more open about theirs.

The man who narrates the short film ends it by describing himself as a chameleon, one who must constantly alter his presentation to fit his social environment. Ultimately, he admits to sacrificing his personhood in exchange for becoming a set of social cues. In one sense, however, being a chameleon can be a good thing in that it can represent both the dark shades associated with manhood, and the bright associated with womanhood, to display the full range of colors, the emotional expressions, that paint our existence as unique human beings removed from our gender expression. Consequently, we must all learn to be dysfunctional chameleons if we truly seek to improve access to and acceptability of mental health as well as the quality of mental health treatment.

Narayan Reddy is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at nreddy@cornellsun.com. Reddy Set Go appears alternating Mondays this semester.

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