As a guy, I was almost entirely ignorant of the stereotypes around which my masculine identity revolves until I hit college. I was thrown into a sporty dorm hall and met my two sporty roommates. As a resident of a fitness-themed dorm, I use the word “sporty” quite literally. Many people I’ve met come from very different places and have very different backgrounds to make for a very interesting first year.
Despite all this variety, one of the things that really stood out to me was a pressure to conform to gender stereotypes, particularly among the guys. At least some of these were positive—having such fit roommates encouraged me to take up running again—but others had the potential to be crippling, especially when it comes to things that people have no control over: height, intelligence, and sexual orientation, to name a few.
What is often dangerous about the stereotyping of college men is that when a man doesn’t fit into the “man box,” insecurity and frustration become commonplace—and then that insecurity and frustration can turn into depression or violence because real men don’t need to talk about their feelings. Because despite all the problems gender stereotypes have created for so many great men who are ideal in their own right, those stereotypes and the “be a man” attitude are so ingrained in us that silently suffering from depression, becoming violent toward oneself, and other unhealthy behaviors are legitimized. Seeking professional help? God forbid.
Man or woman, straight or gay, big or small—everyone has mental health that requires upkeep, just as with physical wellness. A community that tolerates stigma against mental wellness is indifferent to wellness as a whole. As someone who doesn’t immediately stand out as an athlete, and by no means fits the bill for being “macho,” I take pride in being empathic, open, and quick to smile. I can walk into a therapist’s office with that swagger that says “I talk about my emotions and s*$t, what about it?” This doesn’t mean I’ve never been teased or grappled with insecurities. I have. I’ve also experienced depression and thoughts of suicide. That doesn’t make me abnormal or strange, but it took time to accept that, because the culture around me made mental health issues out to be something that should be bottled up and forgotten. As it turns out, bottling up insecurities or traumatic experiences is about as helpful as bottling up a broken ankle; it’s painful, it makes no sense, and someone’s bound to notice anyway.
I gave in to that stigma, but recently I was confronted with something that I couldn’t just tuck away in my back pocket. After struggling with depression and insecurities about his masculinity for years, my older brother, Rion, completed suicide. As his younger brother, I saw Rio as this impossibly intelligent, compassionate, and strong role model who embodied much of what I hoped to be some day. However, it wasn’t until this year that I learned he was bullied and harassed frequently because he was more sensitive, quiet, and, most of all, short. He didn’t seek help, and he didn’t say a word about it. Why add insult to injury? He was picked on because others viewed him as vulnerable, and disclosing that would be the same as confirming the supposed vulnerability that got him into trouble in the first place. I have no doubt that the frustration he suppressed ultimately contributed to his decision to end his life.
Now, as a college student myself, I realize many of the pressures my brother faced and how they affected his state of mind. I believe mental wellness is a spectrum on which everyone is constantly moving, and the key to moving in a positive direction is being aware of things that trigger stress and insecurity and becoming familiar with different ways of managing them.
I feel passionate about sharing my personal experiences with others and working together to promote more open discussion. Here at Cal Poly, we’re the crème de la crème, but we aren’t immune to stress, depression, or grief. It’s important to have the appropriate resources so those can be addressed rather than put on the back burner.
I’ll be putting on a free stress relief workshop called Ready, Set, Stress on Friday, June 7, from 4 to 6 p.m. in room 220 of the Cal Poly University Union, so come by if you’re looking for a break from studying. Silhouette portrait art will be from 4 to 5, and yoga from 5 to 6. Food will be provided.
Winston Wight is a Cal Poly freshman studying business administration and is a student assistant at the Gender Equity Center. Send comments to the executive editor at [email protected].