Males harm themselves indirectly to reach ideal

It's hard to guess what might drive an otherwise reasonable, 70-year-old man to kill himself trying to finish a bike race. But one potential reason applies to men of all ages: societal pressure.

So said a panel of Pacific University students, professors and psychologists in ‘Societal Pressures: Men and Self-Harm,’ the latest brown-bag discussion from the university's Center for Gender Equity.

Bharati Kasibhatla, a Gender and Sexuality Studies professor at Pacific, said there are a few direct types of self-harm observed in males, including physical mutilation and suicide. But the societal pressure to achieve specific ideals of masculinity, such as strength and dominance, can drive men of all ages to harm themselves indirectly, she said.

The 70-year-old bicyclist who died during a bike race was just one example Kasibhatla brought up. “Men are under a great deal of pressure to discipline their bodies even at 70 and 80 years old,” she said. “Some men are pushing their bodies to extreme limits to prove their strength.”

Several different studies have shown that college-age men are far more likely to engage in self-harm than adults, but the pressure remains for all. Signs of it are everywhere in popular culture.

“I look at action figures, and G.I. Joe now looks like The Hulk,” said counselor and psychologist Robin Keillor. “Leading actors in films are another example. Even John Wayne didn’t look anything like the stars of today.

"It’s impossible to conceive of change without bringing the individual together with society," Keillor said. " We can’t really change Hollywood and we can’t really change the advertising industry, but as individuals we can pay attention. We can start by being aware. It’s a powerful, invasive message, but we can present alternative models of masculinity, like wisdom and compassion, that aren’t damaging like some of the others.”

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