by Justin Standfield
Just recently I was in a supermarket with my 7-year-old son, giving him some time to choose a magazine. If you have ever taken a child shopping for a magazine or comic, you’ll already know that this isn’t a straightforward affair due to the sheer range of options available… all with assorted ‘free’ gifts to be checked out and evaluated before the final decision can be made. I took this opportunity to be mindful (check: rising sense of impatience) and thought I’d see if the supermarket had any magazines on mindfulness; I eventually located not one but three options, all of which were in the ‘Women’ magazine section (despite there being a more general ‘Lifestyle’ section available). When I looked at the three covers shown below, I put myself in the shoes of someone who isn’t a mindfulness teacher and asked myself who these magazines would be likely to attract based on the covers’ images, fonts, colours and general theme. The immediate answer to all three was “females”.
This blog article isn’t intended to be a debate on the arguments for/against the colour palettes associated with traditional gender stereotypes; I fully appreciate that pinks and pastels aren’t exclusively the domain of females, and I realise that these days people can identify with a gender other than male or female. What I noticed was more than just the colour schemes and feminine font choices – all three of the covers show images of women. In fact, the middle magazine cover offers a picture of a woman in a pink coat, walking through flowers while holding a bouquet of flowers (the only thing missing was a unicorn strolling through the background). This is a trend I’ve noticed on promotional materials for courses on mindfulness, too. It seems to be a form of unconscious bias that some providers of mindfulness training are unwittingly perpetuating, namely ‘mindfulness = women’.
Once upon a time, a man’s greatest responsibility was to protect the tribe; therefore, over many thousands of years, men’s brains have been programmed to guard against any form of vulnerability. When I took a look inside the covers of these magazines, the article titles were asking the reader to look toward and open up to vulnerability, with words like ‘nurture’, ‘tenderness’, ‘compassion’ and ‘gentleness’. Of course, those physical threats that men were guarding against in the past are – by and large – no longer the threats of the 21st century. However, we know from research that the brain hasn’t totally caught up with this yet and often treats emotional vulnerability as a threat, which can stop us men from truly reaching our highest human potential.
A survey commissioned by the Mental Health Foundation found that not only are men far less likely than women to seek professional support, they are also less likely to disclose a mental health problem to friends and family. I do think it’s important to talk about gender when we discuss mental health; I’d argue that even in 2019 it’s more accepted for men to deal with stress, emotions and difficult situations with anger… because anything else is often interpreted as vulnerability and shut down. Let’s get pro-active for a moment, then. How can we change this apparent PR problem that I believe could be putting a lot of men off trying mindfulness?
- Gradually over time, I think we can take steps to make the attitude of compassion more ‘manly’ (for want of a better word). Last week, Gillette attempted to do this and their advertising has divided opinion!
- As a mindfulness teacher, I’m committed to ‘meeting men where they are’ in order to discuss mental health and the benefits of mindfulness. Instead of trying to draw them in to spa hotels with posters of pink lotus flowers, I am working with employers to include it in the workplace with gender neutral promotional material.
- I’m delighted to see that many schools in the UK are teaching children how to use mindfulness techniques to be more resilient, handle stressors and respond more realistically to events. There may be scope here to do more to engage boys with this topic.
- Finally, I’d love to see a few more role models for boys regarding mindfulness and compassion, so that they can learn early on that this isn’t a female-only domain.