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Let the tears flow

Undergraduate student James Garbett considers male crying, with a little help from his friends.

29 March 2018

In the rapidly evolving role and meaning of gender in society, certain specific elements are coming under the microscope. I've become interested in what is colloquially referred to as 'man-tears', a phrase imbued with socially constructed ideals.

The presence of the pronoun suggests this is not considered a masculine act, instead being more commonly associated with femininity. Growing up as I did in a male-dominated environment, crying was seen as the ultimate blow to any reputation you had amassed within your school or sporting career. A coach even lectured the 12-year-old me that man’s lack of tears was psychological in nature, inhibited by higher levels of testosterone. This supposed biochemical fact lodged in my brain throughout growing up. I put my faith in the understanding that I found it difficult to cry due to a psychological, even physiological, reason. Yet a read of Homer’s Iliad or of Arthurian Legend shows the masculine warriors of Troy or Camelot outwardly weep at various moments, not only in times of great sorrow but also in elation and to demonstrate the great brotherly bond they possess.

Could this picture of the stoic masculine individual lurk behind the huge mental health epidemic within males? A man remains far less likely than a woman to talk about their own psychological state, and men aged 20-49 are more likely to die from suicide than any other cause of death. We need to place 'man-tears' under examination and question where this discourse has come from and why it’s so important to change it.

As a university student I began my own investigation among a dozen of my male peers, aged 18-24, with anonymous surveys and interviews if they were willing.

Everyone I spoke to said they felt emotionally better after crying. (In fact tears contains leucine enkephalin, a natural painkiller). But the follow-up question provided a more disconcerting response, that all respondents also stated that they’ve been made to feel ashamed by crying. 

Asmir Gracasin has also noted the positive affects crying can have, but added that 'we believe that tears convey helplessness and powerlessness, and that their function is to elicit help or stop aggressive behaviours in others'. While a majority of the men I interviewed would not associate another person’s crying with weakness, they would, however, make this association with themselves. One way an interviewee described this complicated form of masculinity was not an emphasis on pride but an overwhelming fear of shame. But if the recent studies in mental health have validated anything, it’s that when the stigma is bypassed, and men are able to share their inner feelings freely and without fear of consequence, then true progress can be made to the mental wellbeing of an individual. John Rottenberg, Professor of Psychology at the University of South Florida, has addressed this by saying 'Crying signals to yourself and other people that there’s some important problem that is at least temporarily beyond your ability to cope'. 

Ad Vingerhoets has said that we should not see crying as a reflex but rather a behaviour in and of itself, stating that ‘crying is a social trigger for empathy – a communication system that signals to others "I need your help and support’"'. I asked my peers if they’d appreciate help in an emotionally turbulent time, and all of them agreed. But to the follow-up question, of whether they would actually ask for help themselves, nearly half say they wouldn’t. Men perhaps have a tendency to isolate themselves during times of emotional vulnerability, and this could be exacerbated by this 'boys don't cry' attitude. 

It would be foolish to regard 'man-tears' as the sole or even main problem in the male mental health epidemic: but perhaps it's the issue in poignant microcosm. When we admit the fundamental flaws of masculinity and the macho ideal, we begin to strip away the social conventions and break down the stigma. The key to reducing the mental health epidemic is talking about it. And men crying isn’t just natural, it’s healthy, and it may just save lives.

- James Garbett is an undergraduate studying English at the University of Exeter.