What Makes A Man – review.

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In April, I was pleased to be asked to go and work with some Year 9 and Year 10- boys in Heathfield Community College near Tunbridge Wells and talk about helpful and unhelpful masculinity, stereotypes and how to navigate the world around them with its many conflicting messages about relationships with one another, women and girls.

The wonderful Headteacher Caroline Barlow has give us permission to reproduce her article, so please enjoy this ‘guest blog’.

What Makes A Man – a Reflection.

Throughout this year the College has hosted a series of motivational speakers for students to encourage them to think beyond their current circumstance and influences, to be inspired by the stories they hear and sometimes to be challenged in some of their preconceptions. We have so far enjoyed hearing from:

  • Kathryn Burn on the confidence and ambition needed in her journey to becoming a successful business woman and Apprentice finalist.
  • Anna Heming on the determination, reflection and resilience needed for her inspiring career as a world and Olympic champion kayaker.
  • Ayo Awatona motivated our girls to be able to be compassionate to themselves and each other, sharing strategies to support their mental health.

On Friday 29 April we were delighted to host Andrew “Bernie” Bernard to consider the topical issue of “What Makes a Man?” with our Year 9 and 10 boys.

Bernie shared with the boys some less than desirable stories from his past and the choices he made when younger. He reflected on the stereotypes applied to boys as they grow up and messages that often surround young men from toddler T-Shirts to media figures and social media messaging. The boys discussed to what extent these promoted a version of masculinity that encouraged toughness, power and strength and to what extent this might be at the expense of empathy, consideration or emotion.

He encouraged them to think carefully about why they do what they do and to be more conscious about the decisions they make and the actions they take. He offered a series of alternative role models who were recommended for their honesty, advocacy of others, positivity and willingness to be different to stereotypes:

  • Bear Grylls – British adventurer, writer, television presenter and businessman
  • Barak Obama – American former politician and 44th president of the United States
  • Munya Chawawa – a twice BAFTA nominated satirist
  • Stormzy – Musician, noted for his honesty about his mistakes
  • Musa Okwonga  – author and broadcaster, co-founder of @stadiofootball
  • Ian Wright  – Footballer and broadcaster, for his honesty in talking about overcoming his difficult childhood and understanding its impact
  • Musicians Prince and Harry Styles for eschewing gender fashion stereotypes
  • Marcus Rashford – footballer, for the use of his platform to help disadvantaged children

There will of course be others but the essence was to focus on those who use their position for positive support of others, who are honest and authentic.

Bernie left the boys with three main points to reflect on:

• Boys don’t always have to be or follow the traditional expectations of males.

• Boys can also bring empathy for other people into everything they do.

• Young people can understand they have more power than they think they do, to be the best version of themselves.

Reflecting on these sessions many students understood the value of their own self-esteem and of education, some commented:

“I took away that there are ways of being masculine without being violent. I will think of my actions and consequences before they happen”.

“The difference in the messages to men and women is large and opposite but we shouldn’t always listen to them.  A man does not have to be strong or be ashamed of being themselves”.

“We need to be careful how we look at and treat people I will think more about names and nicknames, even if they seem harmless.”

“We don’t have to always show the ‘male attitude’ to things”.

“Many elements of toxic masculinity come from fashion. Education is incredibly important.”

The College will continue to explore these themes with both boys and girls as we support them to understand how they can navigate the in-person and online world in which they are growing up, working out who they want to be and how they can become the best version of themselves.

The details of the What Makes A Man programme can be found HERE.

A session on Coercive Control and Domestic Abuse: Sarah’s Legacy, can be found HERE.

Recommended reading on Misogyny, sexism and equality can be found HERE.

A recent article I helped with in Big Issue Magazine is referenced and linked in this blog HERE.

The original article on the Heathfield CC website is HERE