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September 30, 2019 | by  | in Features |
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Love in the Time of Face Tattoos

CW: Mental Illness, Suicide, Sexual and Physical Abuse, ECT


My girlfriend gets frustrated with me because I don’t open up.


There’s heaps to unpack here: One; I don’t want to put my baggage on someone else.

Two; for so long I’ve known that I can’t change anything, so the best I can do is get over it, which is hard but I’ve been able to do that.

Three; I think I can’t afford to show any weakness. This attitude is toxic, it is harmful, but it is 100% true and a tool I’ve always relied on. Not just me, but a multitude of Kiwi men.


Stoicism, bottling up, “boys don’t cry”, resorting to violence before talking—these pillars of masculinity, in all its maligned glory, that have come from a place of necessity. The way that a lot of us live makes opening up almost impossible. These harmful behaviours shouldn’t be condoned or encouraged, but they have been useful tools, and it’s unfair to suddenly expect men—and boys—to put things down that they rely on. 


In 2018, Māori males were twice as likely as non-Māori males to report an anxiety or depressive disorder. But we’ve known for a long time that Māori mental health is much worse than that of Pākehā. What is more telling is that even if their disorder is serious, Pasifika adults are much less likely to access mental health services (25% compared to 58% of New Zealanders overall). In addition, Pacific people, particularly those aged 16–24 years, have the highest rates of suicide planning and attempts. This isn’t reflected in mortality rates, however, with rates for Pasifika being lower or equal to that of other ethnicities. 


Which is what makes rhetoric around “toxic masculinity” somewhat hollow. How do you suddenly start talking openly and honestly about what troubles you, if you’ve never done it before? If it’s literally been counterintuitive to your survival, up until this point? 


Letting go of these defence mechanisms might be one of the hardest things you have to do as a man. And they are defence mechanisms, because at the root of it all—buried under the rhetoric of the “she’ll be right” attitude of the Kiwi bloke, the calls for a return to the times of “when men were men”, or a stubbornness to talk about your problems (because talking about them is as good as admitting there’s a problem in the first place)—are vulnerable men who were once vulnerable boys influenced by vulnerable men. 


What were we to do? What can we do? We were boys, we are men, living in an era when emotional openness isn’t encouraged—it is demanded—in the full knowledge that our society simply isn’t ready for a multitude of damaged men to open their hearts up. 


We are collectively terrified of admitting that we’re scared.


There is something about full and frank emotional disclosure that doesn’t sit well with the innately understated nature of New Zealand. Maybe in another country, where dramatics are more suited to their national identity. But not New Zealand, where our muted horrors are just that—muted. 

Nearly 90% of our adult gang population was birthed in state care. Taken from family, whānau, aiga, to return as monsters of men. Nightmarish places where sexual and physical abuse were common. Where boys as young as twelve would start to scream and cry when they saw the electroconvulsive therapist arrive. 


These boys, now men, bear the psychological scars of a lifetime spent resisting our efforts to transfigure them. And yet in 2019, we have returned to the same “out of sight, out of mind attitude” in placing children in woefully inadequate state care. Day broke with the Puao-te-Ata-tu report, yet we’ve chosen to return to darkness.


The point is: Farming our children out, be it through borstals or state care, was and is our way of ignoring the issue. As a country, we are so busy hiding our vulnerabilities that we create them anew. 


Maybe if we raised our boys—especially those who are already vulnerable due to socioeconomic factors—as boys, and not broken-men-in-waiting, we wouldn’t have to harangue them to abandon their toxic masculinity.


If your environment demands you make your emotions unavailable, why would you show vulnerability? Because what if your depression or anxiety comes from a very tangible threat?  You’re anxious, because of gang tensions; the opps certainly aren’t going to sit down and talk about how you’re feeling, and talking about that won’t solve anything. It will draw you into entirely more trouble, yes; it won’t make the problem go away.


No, they’re going to kill you, and cut your face tattoo out. That’s what they’ll do. 


It’s a bit like riding a motorbike, really: You can wear all the safety gear, observe all the road rules and ride defensively, but it all means nothing if someone in a car doesn’t give a shit. 


And that’s how it is: Lots of people in cars, not giving a shit. Expecting us to magically have a level of emotional openness that is literally counterintuitive to what we see everyday, and what some of us have to do to see another day.


For myself, I know that only I lose when I hold my emotions in check. And that I’m bitter about bottling up, dealing with it on my own, learning the hard way. But that is no one’s fault but my own. I don’t expect anyone to help me deal with it, and I don’t want to put it on someone else. What’s done is done. 

Besides, many of our men literally can’t afford to open up: Changing harmful masculine behaviours often relies on women for emotional labour, or depends on access to socially progressive resources such as further education, stable and sufficient income—all the trappings of the middle class, and the exposure to the world that comes with it.


Attacking vulnerability never addresses the root cause of the hurt. It only makes defence mechanisms stronger, draws the guards higher. Let’s remember why we want our men to talk—because we love them. Let them know they deserve to be loved.


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