Sunday 20 January 2019

What makes a man? Darren Kennedy shares his personal journey

In the era of 'toxic masculinity' the traits of manhood that were once prized are now considered poisonous. But while we're now encouraging young men to engage with their emotions, we're simultaneously criticising them for being weak 'snowflakes'. Here, Darren Kennedy explores what it means to be a 'real' man in 2018 - and shares the deeply personal journey that led him to embrace his own masculinity

Darren Kennedy for Weekend magazine. Picture: Kenny Whittle
Darren Kennedy for Weekend magazine. Picture: Kenny Whittle
Express yourself: Darren struggled against his softer side in his youth. Photo: Kenny Whittle
Acceptance: Darren says he let go of expectations and embraced his softer side
Darren with his nieces, Taylor (4) and Gabrielle (3)

What is the modern ideal of man?

He's strong, yes, possibly even ripped. But he is also sensitive. He is in touch with his emotions, of course. But does he cry? Probably not, certainly not in front of anyone. He is able to protect his loved ones, sure, but he is not aggressive or violent in any way. He is vulnerable, but he is not weak… If that sounds like a mixed message, it's probably because it is - it's no wonder modern masculinity is having a crisis moment.

How else can you explain the fact that, for a lot of men, saying "I love you" feels like a risky act of self-exposure? Or the fact that tearing up at a TV advertisement that tugs on the heart strings feels like a shaming experience? Or that something as simple as booking an appointment with a GP feels like an admission of weakness?

Over the course of the last century, as women have forged ahead, reshaping and redefining what it is to be a woman, men have clung to the old paradigm of protector, bread-winner, stiff-upper-lipper, and it is slowly suffocating them.

Acceptance: Darren says he let go of expectations and embraced his softer side
Acceptance: Darren says he let go of expectations and embraced his softer side

In the last year, the emergence of the #MeToo movement has inspired a free flow of global discussion on gender roles, across newspaper front pages, social media and private conversations between friends and relatives. It is, many believe, the biggest cultural moment of our time as it has kick-started overdue discussions for everyone. Now is a good time to start discussing how masculinity is perceived in 2018, and to reassess and bring a positive shift in what masculinity means to the modern man.

When I was a little boy, I was very much an outdoors kind of kid. I was always covered in mud, climbing trees and doing all the things that little boys love to do. But somehow, I still learned early on what it was to be 'less than' a man.

I always felt a little bit apart from the boys in my school. I wasn't interested in football so I wasn't 'one of the boys'. There was a guy in my class who was really good at football and we were of similar build, so the captain of his team asked my mam to bring me along one week. Eventually, she did. I must have been about six years old, and I wanted to cry by the end of it because the captain did nothing but shout at me. I still remember how I felt less of a boy for not being able to do what he wanted me to do. Whenever I get really out of breath, even now, it brings me right back to my six-year-old self. It was traumatic.

Fitting in is important for boys. When I went to secondary school which was GAA-orientated, if you didn't play you were a sort of shadow. And it kind of suited me to be a shadow at that time. I wanted to do art which wasn't even part of the curriculum in my school, so I had to take art lessons after school hours. What kind of message does that send? I went to all-boys' schools throughout my schooling, and they were a jungle.

There have been times when I have really questioned my place as a man in this world. As a young man growing up you have so many mixed messages. You're expected to be masculine and you hear all these phrases like "don't cry" or "grow a pair". I can actually remember actively suppressing the part of myself which was emotional, the part that showed feelings. I had learned - not from anyone in my family but just from society - that being in touch with my feelings could have really big consequences for me as an individual.

I never felt comfortable crying in front of people. I didn't grow up seeing my male role models getting emotional. I remember my aunt dying and my granny dying and I didn't cry. I remember thinking, 'There's something wrong with me' because I felt I couldn't cry. Now, I think that was just me not feeling able or knowing how to release that emotion, so much so that it stunted me completely. I cried later, but not at the time.

Darren with his nieces, Taylor (4) and Gabrielle (3)
Darren with his nieces, Taylor (4) and Gabrielle (3)

Eventually, I got to a really dark place where I didn't feel like I could express myself emotionally. I kept my emotions back. I was fearful that any sign of emotion or sensitivity was a sign of weakness. Fragility and sensitivity meant you were gay. And when you think you might actually be gay, that's a doubly bad feeling.

The only time I felt safe showing my emotions was with animals. I actually credit my dog Rascal with saving my life because I remember very vividly being bullied and I was so trapped I couldn't express myself, and there was a moment where I didn't want to live any more. The only 'person' I felt I could cry in front of was Rascal, because I knew he wouldn't judge me or question my masculinity. I did cry in front of him and that release allowed me to get through it.

But some boys and men are not so lucky. If you can't share or vent your emotions, they build up and spill over and in the worst cases you see boys or men taking their own lives.

Rugby pundit Brent Pope has worked as a mental health advocate for men for over a decade now and has just published a new book, Win, about his strategies for success in sports and mental health. "I had years of shame and guilt and I felt I was less of a man for feeling and having emotions," Brent says. "I hid all of that. Today, I talk to men in the construction industry and other macho worlds, and I ask them, what are we so afraid of that, as men, we can't even go to the doctor? If I broke an ankle playing rugby, no problem. But if I need to see someone and talk about something, I still feel judgment. Sometimes after giving a talk I will feel very vulnerable because I know there are guys going away from that talk laughing at me."

So how do you fix that? "The fastest way to shut down a conversation with a man is to start talking about emotions," says Brent. "They change the topic immediately. Young men are struggling to know what is required of them as men. The message is confused. Over history, what made men attractive were those traditional traits, but young men need to know that it's okay not to be the breadwinner, or for their wife to earn more money than them, or to be upset at sad movies or emotional times in their lives."

"What are we so afraid of?" is a question that Brent asks again and again of the men he talks to. Perhaps we are afraid of being weakened in the eyes of others, of being seen as lesser men because those societal messages run so deep. "I think we have to define for young people what it is to be a man in modern society," Brent agrees. "It's about re-educating them that a 'real' man is not necessarily the strong, silent type."

For me, one of the worst parts of being a man are the expectations of being strong, of always having to have the solution and not showing weakness. Growing up, accepting who I was was in direct conflict with the ideal of masculinity. I feared showing any signs of softness and I am a gentle person. I equated softness with not being masculine.

As a gay man, for a long time in my life I felt that I didn't have full claim over my masculinity, and I struggled with it. I no longer feel that way today, but that's after lots of reflection and maturity and growing into my own skin. I think there are stereotypes with regard to how gay men should or shouldn't be, but for me that's no longer an issue.

Of course, the expectations for all men in Ireland today are changing. On the one hand, you have extreme masculinity, and on the other hand you're trying to find a place in the world for the individual man you are. I was confronted by this concept when I was very young because of my own personal circumstances, but now a lot of men are faced with this reality because it seems like expectations are changing so quickly.

Express yourself: Darren struggled against his softer side in his youth. Photo: Kenny Whittle
Express yourself: Darren struggled against his softer side in his youth. Photo: Kenny Whittle

Dr Aneta Stępień, gender and literary scholar at the Department of Critical Skills at the University of Maynooth, says viewing masculinity as being 'toxic' or in crisis is the wrong approach. "What we should be talking about instead is how our gender norms and ideals are constantly shifting in response to social and cultural developments, the impact of technology on lifestyle and how the expectations of men and women are changing as a result of that," she says.

Child psychotherapist Dr Colman Noctor says the crisis for young men is not so much around masculinity as it is around identity. "I think the difficulty with being told that you're a 'snowflake generation' and you're weak and not resilient, but then also being encouraged to share your emotions and being told that boys can cry, is that they're competing criticisms."

Social media plays a huge part in the lives of young people and that has enforced a certain way of self-expression, as well as a certain physical look. "The currency of social value makes people very socially aware and interpersonally aware," says Noctor. "There's this tyranny of feedback and choice, and despite the atmosphere of inclusion, the norm in adolescence now is way narrower. These boys are at an age where peer influences far outweigh any adult voice.

"When it comes to challenging this stuff, anyone who says, 'Here are the five steps you need to do it' is selling you a pup. It's stuff you invest in over time. If you have a value system at home that reinforces the good stuff, they will have that."

Getting to know yourself and who you really are is a problem for today's youth, particularly with the 'anti-boredom device' of the smartphone. "You have no time to get to know yourself," says Noctor. "We have to try to create a counter-culture to the one they're being sold. In a world of porn, we have to show the value of intimacy. In a world of outrage, we have to show them calm and balance. In a world that values outcome, we have to show the value of effort. It's important to instil meaningful value systems. We still have the greatest influence over our young people at home, even if it doesn't feel that way with the general busyness of life nowadays."

Like Dr Noctor, I believe that the message needs to start young. What we value in young men are things like competitiveness, aggression, 'ballysness' for want of a better word, but it's time to start embracing other aspects and values of masculinity, too. We need to teach young boys that it's okay to be vulnerable. Embracing my vulnerable side and soft side has made me more of a man. I have only come to terms with that over the last couple of years.

I'm a man and a big side of my masculinity is caring for and protecting my family and friends, and my dog, and standing up for what I believe is right, and not being afraid to speak out.

Irish men are particularly pent up when it comes to showing affection. I did a student exchange in France when I was 13, and every morning my exchange partner would give his dad, his brother and his friends three kisses on the cheek. I remember thinking, I wish that was part of our culture. I kiss my nephews and nieces now and I tell them that I love them. I make a point of doing it. It may sound simple but we are only slowly starting to dismantle this armour we have had to carry around - and the weight of it is huge.

Our notion of masculinity is an outdated concept. We need to rewrite what we perceive as masculine. It's a continuum. Can we hold on to positive traditional ideals, whilst redefining masculinity? Dr Aneta Stępień thinks so.

"Strength in men is not a problem, but how we understand it is," she says. "Strength is often understood as being hard, being emotionally distant and controlling, especially towards women or children, which can translate into violence. That is a patriarchal and, let's be honest, old-fashioned understanding of strength.

"A couple of years ago, Safe Ireland had a great campaign about domestic violence with Cathal Pendred, a UFC Fighter, telling men that real strength is in preventing the violence not in inflicting it, thus redefining the term. This is what we should be teaching boys and young men, not only in Ireland but anywhere in the world - the strength is in condemning the violence. On the other hand, admitting to fears and other emotions is not a sign of weakness but shows emotional maturity and the knowledge of yourself. I think the greatest gift every parent could give to a child is to teach them that emotions are okay. People connected to their emotions produce healthy relationships."

For me, it's all about balance. If you look at what it was like growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, any man who groomed himself either had notions or was gay and that was it. Now we see it as a sense of self-value, self-worth, self-esteem. That's why I have created my new men's grooming range, Kennedy and Co by Darren Kennedy (see panel).

We need to teach boys from a young age that it's okay to express yourself. We have reached a point now where young men see it as de rigueur to look after themselves. And this is important because it gives boys confidence to become the men they are and not the men they think they should be.

Kennedy & Co is a capsule range of the five products that every man needs in his bathroom cabinet or wash bag. They are a face moisturiser with SPF20, a purifying peat facial scrub, a cooling, anti-fatigue eye gel, a hydrating beard oil, and a matte clay which can be used to style hair but also contains compounds that stimulate hair growth.

"The products are all vegan-friendly, and sulphate-free with no animal testing and they are all made in Ireland," Darren says.

"I've been working in this field with some of the biggest brands and houses in the world for the last 10 years, and in the Irish space we were really lacking. I wanted to champion Ireland. We have such a great reputation abroad for being clean, green, and healthy."

The grooming range will be available at Dunnes Stores and selected pharmacies nationwide, from Monday, October 22.

Weekend Magazine

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