This post originally appeared here.
I remember the first time I bench pressed 225 pounds. I was in my mid-20s, and after barely being able to lift 145 pounds as a gangly teenager, I celebrated my accomplishment with more excitement than it warranted.
Two hundred and twenty five pounds is not a lot of weight for serious weightlifters or most professional athletes, but it was everything to me.
It was everything because 225 pounds seemed masculine. It was everything because bench pressing 225 pounds seemed like the epitome of strength. It was everything because strength is often regarded as the most desirable trait a man can possess in our culture.
I’ve consistently gone to the gym for almost 10 years, but I never thought about why. For a long time, going to the gym was simply my default. But in an ongoing quest to examine my behavior more closely, I’ve started thinking about why I go to the gym. And I’ve found that it’s not because going to the gym is healthy. Or because it gets me out of the house and gives me something to do. At least, those aren’t the primary reasons why I go.
I go to the gym because it’s masculine. Because, after years of going to the gym, I can drop and give you 50 push-ups. I can grind through 25 consecutive pull-ups. I can put 225 pounds on the bench press and churn out a few reps.
I know this doesn’t mean I’m strong or say anything about the person I am, and I’m not telling you these things to brag or because I hope you’ll be impressed.
These things are not impressive and they are nothing to brag about. In actuality, this isn’t about how much weight I can lift or how many pull-ups I can do.
It’s about how we try to hide the things we don’t want other people to see. It’s about how we try to hide these things from ourselves. It’s about how we react when we realize that we’re not who we’re supposed to be and how we try to escape from this reality.
It’s about hoping that whatever I’m doing at the gym distracts me from the fact that I feel deficient in so many other ways.
It’s about the fact that, in the narrowly defined and mostly ignorant idea of how a man is supposed to act and feel, depression and anxiety are not masculine.
It’s about the fact that if I can’t act like a man or feel like a man at least I can look like a man in the narrowly defined definition of how a man is supposed to look.
It’s about the fact that I go to the gym because it makes me appear strong. Even if I feel anything but strong on the inside, at least I don’t have to appear that way on the outside.
I can’t define masculinity in a way that resembles a coherent, concise set of sentences. But I know what masculinity is not.
Depression is not masculine.
Feeling like life is pointless and wanting to give up is not masculine.
Panic attacks and anxiety are not masculine.
Being terrified of crowded subway cars is not masculine.
There’s something particularly emasculating about depression. About feeling like there’s no point in being alive and that everything is hopeless and ridiculous. If I were stronger, the narrative goes, I would be able to stop myself from feeling this way.
There’s something particularly emasculating about a panic attack. About your mind taking control of the wheel and driving your body off a cliff. If I were stronger, the narrative goes, I would be able to stop this from happening.
A real man isn’t supposed to get depressed. A real man is supposed to get angry.
A real man isn’t supposed to have anxiety and panic attacks. A real man is supposed to fight through anxiety and panic attacks and stop being such a you-know-what.
A real man is supposed to devour a gigantic rare steak and hit something really hard with his fist and yell about what just happened on television and then maybe objectify a woman before getting on with his life.
Does the hero in an action movie have a panic attack before he saves the world? F*** no. He kicks ass, takes names, and gets the girl.
If you view masculinity through this narrow and ignorant lens, anxious and depressed are everything a man is not supposed to be. Anxiety and depression fly in the face of being masculine because there’s nothing masculine about needing help.
In this narrow and ignorant context, anxiety and depression make a person weak. And being weak is everything a real man shouldn’t be.
I’m only 30, but the conversation about mental health that we’re having today was not present when I was growing up (or at least, it wasn’t nearly as present as it is today). Because of this, I didn’t hear much about depression or anxiety when I was younger, but when they were mentioned, it was almost always in ignorant and destructive ways.
I had a coach in high school who said that depression wasn’t real. That there was no reason why someone should stay in bed all day or why they couldn’t just eat something.
“Just get outta bed. Just eat a f****** sandwich. It’s not that difficult.”
This is an ignorant and destructive way to talk about depression, but it is still a way to talk about depression.
Though things are changing, many boys and young men will continue to hear depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions discussed in ignorant and destructive ways.
And this reality can lead to a desperate and harmful struggle to avoid whatever the opposite of power and strength and masculinity are. It can lead to denial and a refusal to get help or tell anyone about what’s going on because of the fear that it isn’t masculine.
And ultimately, underneath a lot of struggling and a lot of pain, there’s fear.
But sometimes the scariest thing isn’t what we’re struggling with. The scariest thing is what people will think about who we are and how they treat us as a result of what we’re struggling with.
There’s something mysterious about anxiety and depression. About how difficult it is to get a handle on why I feel anxious or depressed and how I can get better. About why everything is fine today but my symptoms will be off the charts tomorrow. There’s a level of powerlessness about this experience that’s extraordinarily daunting and frustrating. That leaves me feeling weak and fragile and a hundred other things that are not what a real man is supposed to be.
But there’s nothing mysterious about the gym. When I’m at the gym I can feel like a man. Whatever the hell a man is supposed to feel like. For that hour at the gym, I am not depression or anxiety. The gym provides a reprieve from the shame and fear of not measuring up to what a real man is supposed to be.
And I think that’s the allure of the gym. Beyond the idea that if I’m not acting like a man or feeling like a man at least I can look like a man, there’s something about the gym that gives me a feeling of control. That helps me feel like my feet are on the ground and I’m getting stronger.
Which is, of course, the exact opposite of how anxiety and depression make me feel.
Based on the way we generally talk about masculinity, the word itself might as well be synonymous with strength. Being a man and being strong are so intertwined that it seems impossible to separate the idea of masculinity from strength. But I don’t think the issue is that those two words are inseparable.
And I don’t think the issue is how much emphasis we place on men being strong.
The issue is how we define strength.
The issue is what we classify as weak.
The issue is what we do to achieve that false definition of strength and what we do to avoid being seen as weak.
The issue is what we have to sacrifice while chasing something that misses the point of what it actually means to be strong.
The issue is how we think about someone who falls outside of the narrow and mostly ignorant definition of strength and masculinity.
The issue is the fear that’s inspired when we talk about depression and anxiety as weaknesses.
The issue is that so many men aren’t getting help because they’re unable or unwilling to admit they need help for fear that it says something about their masculinity.
But the issue isn’t masculinity.
The issue is the narrow and mostly ignorant way we define masculinity.
And for so many men, anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions fall so far outside their definition of masculinity that silence and suffering seem like the only option.