What 'Real' Men Cry Like
“Be a man!" / "Pussy!" / "Faggot!" — Why do we respond to men showing emotion the way we do? Why do we feel the need to dismiss boys’ and men’s emotions? What is so wrong, so taboo?
These were the questions I was asking myself as a freshman in college (2015), which ultimately led to (one half of) a viral photography series and the launch of my photography career. Read more about the project and my thoughts + scientific research behind it, and browse through the photos and participant’s quotes, below.
Society & Male Tears
From the moment they are born (crying, no less!), it seems like society is constantly telling boys to push back the tears; to ignore and suppress their emotions; to be strong and to not ask for help. Traditional notions of masculinity emphasize the qualities of courage, strength and invincibility, leaving little room for vulnerability or softness. Men are taught to have two faces – a private and a public one.
The teaching of this mind-heart disconnect can already be taught inside the home, but becomes particularly present as soon as young boys enter elementary school and start to learn from their peers. As communication specialist Audrey Nelson writes in her Psychology Today blog, “You’ll see kindergarten and first-grade boys bringing stuffed animals from home to comfort them amid heir fear of the social demands of school. They’ll even hold hands and put their arms around other boys and girls to show affection and express joy. By second grade, male indoctrination begins. Boys are sissies it hey show fear, pain, or heaven forbid the most taboo expression of all: crying”. This shift doesn’t really happen for girls. Aside for the emotion of anger, which is often considered not ladylike, girls are allowed to continue expressing a wide range of emotions. On the contrary, anger is the only emotion out of the big four (sadness, anger, happiness, fear) that boys and men are “allowed” to express.
From here on out, the social control only increases, and by the time that these boys have grown into men, not showing weakness and repressing emotions has become part of their identities. The idea that men don’t experience or shouldn’t express vulnerability is further perpetuated by the media and pop culture. In movies, advertisements, magazines and music, we constantly see the same ideals of masculinity repeated. As we learn to identify ourselves not only through the people around us but also the general messages and images we surround ourselves with, these expressions of masculinity also play a huge role in the identity shaping process.
As these notions of masculinity have become so crucial to men’s sense of identity by the time they’re adults, it’s no wonder myths along the line of “Men are from Mars, women are from Venus” arise. The difference between men and women when it comes to emotional expression is obvious. But to what degree are men and women actually different on a biological level, and to what degree is the difference created by the previously described gender socialization process?
A lot of scientific research has been done into the differences between men and women regarding emotions, with different results. Overall, however, the notion that women are “more emotional” in general has been disputed; both men and women could be described as “more emotional”, depending on the type of emotion, the way that it’s measured, how it is expressed, and many other factors.
As with most issues of human nature, gender differences regarding emotion are a combination of nature and nurture. Evolutionary speaking, the odds that there would be no differences at all in the way that emotion has evolved over time for men and women respectively, are basically zero. On the other hand, differences that are found shouldn’t too easily be chalked up to evolutionary differences either, even when they are based in different neurological substrates, as gender role socialization may change the brains of boys and girls. In short – we cannot (yet) truly know the cause.
Either way, the differences that have so far been found through large scientific research projects, are relatively small. These researches have generally found that women tend to overall experience negative emotions (e.g. guilt, shame, sadness) a bit more frequently and intensely than men.
Research has also found that women tend to use more negative emotion-related coping strategies, such as cognitive rumination (“thinking things over”), or seeking emotional support. This means that women generally have a healthier response to their negative emotions – they process them better. And this is where the importance of this project comes in, because whether it stems from nature or nurture, the way that men tend to handle their emotions can have proven harmful effects.
One out of every 5,700 men will kill themselves in any given year. This rate is between three and four times higher for men than for women, and highest among men under 35. Over the last few years, suicide has moved it’s way up the ladder and has become the single largest cause of death for young men. It’s becoming a slow-growing epidemic, and we don’t seem all too concerned.
As this consistent growth suggests, suicide is only the extreme outcome of a larger societal problem. As mentioned above, men are less likely to equip healthy coping strategies to deal with their negative emotions. They are not only less likely to reach out to loved ones, but also underuse primary healthcare, and are subsequently less likely to be referred to mental health services.
A 2010 study examined the effects of suppressing and not accepting emotions on depressive symptoms for men and women. They found that the suppression of emotions had relations to depressive symptoms for men, but not for women, while lower acceptance of emotions led to higher depressive symptoms for both genders. This suggests that suppressing emotions has a particular important role in depression for men, and should therefore be considered more carefully.
Outside of leading to symptoms of depression, and in worst cases, suicide, teaching boys to suppress their emotions and not reach out also withholds them form forming deep and meaningful relationships, and expressing themselves fully. This in itself already to me should be more than enough cause for serious attention to the issue.
Frustrated by this lack of attention and conversation surrounding the topic of men and emotion, I decided to do something. Through taking photos of men crying, I wanted to remind the world of the fact that even if they don’t show it, men still have the same capacity to feel (and express) emotions just like anyone else. I also wanted to break the taboo on crying and attach a sense of normalcy to the “crying man” through these images. I would also hope these photos could trigger a sense of empathy for each other’s emotions. They’re just that - emotion. It’s part of the human condition, it shouldn’t have to be such a big deal.
Ideally, I would have photographed boys and men of all ages and backgrounds, but as I was a freshman in college with no budget, I ended up asking friends and fellow students from my international campus to participate, leading to a limited age range. Nevertheless, I think this age group or generation has a particular story to tell. They have grown up feeling a lot of the pressure to be masculine, but have now reached an age where they are reconsidering their identity, in a time where questions surrounding gender live much more prominently in our society. These young men therefore are at the midst of the change, and have a unique perspective.
Through the conversations I had during the creation of this project, I found that although every participant was completely different, there was a common thread to be found among their experiences and ideas: pretty much everyone had trouble with expressing emotion or weakness, but they all didn’t want it to be like that. They all in one way or another weren’t satisfied with the status quo, and would like to feel more free.
Everyone is different, regardless of sex or gender, and they subsequently also experience and express emotions differently. The point of this project is not at all to suggest that all men should cry (more), and otherwise they’re not healthy - that’s an assessment everyone should make for themselves!
I do believe however, that just like I shouldn’t be telling others they should cry or express emotion in a certain way, we as a society also shouldn’t tell men they shouldn’t. Policing others’ identities, pressuring them into being something they’re not, suppressing their authentic selves in the process, isn’t good for anyone.
We’re over 7 billion unique human beings walking this earth. We’re meant to be different.