VIEW: We need to give boys and men permission to feel

Jessica Sanders took the book industry by storm when she created the first iteration of her book, Love Your Body through Kickstarter in 2018. Two years later the book is available in 26 countries and received the Australian Book Industry Awards (ABIA) for Small Publishers Children’s book of the year 2020. 

Now, Jessica is releasing her new book, Be Your Own Man. In this interview, Jessica explains why she believes the current definition of masculinity is hurting boys and men.

  • What inspired the messaging and direction of this book?

Not long after his 18th birthday my friend Ben took his own life. This loss shook me to my core. As a young 18-year-old, about to finish school and enter the ‘real world’ I couldn’t understand how such a tragedy could occur. After Ben’s death I heard conversations around mental health come up. It was the first time we had really spoken about mental health as a school as far as I can recall. Other students were saying that around 25% of our cohort were on antidepressants of some kind. I still don’t know if that statistic was true but looking back knowing what I know now I feel it could have been accurate.

This book was motivated by a desire to reach the hearts and minds of boys early, before they reach a place where they feel that there is no one or nowhere for them to turn to. I wanted to normalise vulnerability and asking for help because they are essential parts of a healthy and happy life. I also wanted to provide the tools to process and release emotions. 

  • How is society’s definition of ‘male’ hurting boys and men?

A survey of 1,000 young Australian men aged 18 to 30 conducted by The Men’s Project found that young Australian men who believe in outdated masculine stereotypes such as ‘men don’t show emotions’ were themselves at higher risk of using violence, online bullying, and sexual harassment, engaging in risky drinking and reporting poorer levels of mental health.

Our narrow definition of masculinity causes boys and men to conserve any part of themselves that they consider to be ‘feminine’ such as vulnerability, emotional expression, and asking for support. This is harmful because those behaivours are human before they are feminine. Emotional expression, for example, is an incredibly important part of staying mentally and physically well and we are hurting boys if we don’t give them boys and men the permission to feel.

  • What should parents and adults be keeping in mind when purchasing and reading this book to children?

I would recommend reading the discussion questions at the back of the book and sprinkling those questions in as you work your way through it. This will most likely open up some vulnerable conversations that you may have never had with your child. You will need to be ready to match their vulnerability – for example, share insecurities you used to have and how you overcame them. Or you could share times that you had to lean on others and ask for help (in an age-appropriate way obviously). Children learn best through observation. When you express vulnerability without shame you are giving them permission to do the same. It can be incredibly powerful.

  • What else can parents and adults be doing to keep conversations around masculinity going in a constructive way?

The most powerful thing you can do for your child is to create safe spaces to talk about feelings and identity. You need to ask them how they are feeling several times a day until it becomes an effortless part of your interactions. Challenge them to reflect on why they might be feeling what they are feeling, and support them in building their self awareness and emotional vocabulary.

The book is a great prompt for reflections on masculinity, use the discussion questions to help you open up those reflective questions about gender. You can also start reflective conversations in your community. We all have work to do when it comes to unlearning our internalised gender bias and we need to support each other to do so through conversation and resource sharing.

About the expert

Jessica Sanders is a best-selling, award-winning author and social worker. Jess has a passion for creating resources that nurture positive mental health and promote gender equality. Every project she pursues is born from the question, ‘Why does it have to be this way?’ Her first Love Your Body was originally crowdfunded through Kickstarter and was born from Jess’s refusal to accept that every girl is destined to grow up disliking her body. Jess has since published Me Time: a self-care guide to being your own best friend and the follow up to Love Your Body for boys, Be Your Own Man.

Jess spends her day writing books, facilitating school-based workshops, drinking ridiculous amounts of coffee and running a social justice campaign for young people.

Image description: Jessica is standing outside a book store, wearing glasses and a beige long-sleeved top, smiling to the side.