Photo by Maskot

The right to be reserved

Not everybody wants to open up

Artillery Row

If any of you have ever had the problem of needing to fit a haircut and a therapy session into a packed day, you’re in luck! Gymshark, the seller of work-out gear, has recently opened up a barbershop with “mental-health-trained barbers” in Shoreditch, East London — so you can now off-load your emotions while getting freshened up. 

For the remainder of us who never anticipate having such a problem, the idea of listening to people vent about their social anxiety or fading marriages whilst waiting for a haircut sounds less exciting. In fact, I think spending time in such an environment would drive me mad — meaning I could have the convenience of offloading my problems onto my mental health-trained barber.

Just who are these “mental health-trained barbers” anyway? Presumably Gymshark is recruiting from a rather small pool, since I’ve never met a barber who doubles as a shrink. I also, apparently naively, was hoping barber shops might be relied upon to be one of the few places secure against the creeping encroachment of today’s therapy culture. 

Opening up is no longer accepted, but idealised

Such hopes underestimate the insatiability of the health and well-being industry. Anyone who has been to university in the last five years will know of the substantial number of therapists on the universities’ payrolls, willing to offer their services to any student who might be stressed or anxious about exams. 

In the drive for inclusivity, we increasingly medicalise perfectly healthy human tendencies, all the while seeking to “normalise” and “de-stigmatise” more fashionable conditions.

When all forms of moderate discontentment are associated with some kind of affliction or disorder, the logical conclusion is that we all need therapy. This attitude is expressed in the demand to “open-up” about our emotions. Barely a week goes by without a new campaign by a celebrity or mental health charity, encouraging us to talk about our feelings as much as possible. 

This campaign may have begun with the reasonable recognition that the stiff-upper-lip culture of old was excessively repressive and needed some adjustments. But like many progressive causes, it fell victim to mission creep and has now extended itself further than it needed, with harmful effects.

Opening up is no longer merely accepted, as was the original aim — it is idealised. Opening up is something we apparently can’t do enough of. Instagram is awash with lengthy attention-seeking captions from its users, broadcasting their anxiety or depression to their exasperated followers.

Recall the rush to congratulate the Duchess of Sussex for offloading her woes onto Oprah — and the millions who tuned in — which was described as “brave” by none other than the White House Press Secretary. Opening up is now a cathartic indulgence, engaged in less out of a need to, than a desire to participate in a collective ritual.

Self care takes precedence over other virtues

At risk of sounding like an ambassador of the manosphere, it is trends like these which make our culture seem like it is being feminised. The elevation of “opening up” and “self-care” takes precedence over other virtues, such as resilience, toughness, perseverance and courage. Such traits might be associated — dare I say it — with a masculine ideal. This doesn’t mean women can’t or shouldn’t also display them, only that they are traditionally framed as masculine traits. Which is just the point.

A related trend to the expanding definition of “mental-health problems” is the expanding definition of “toxic masculinity”, which now includes the full range of masculine characteristics, not only their less desirable extremes. This inevitably entails that the stoic and less emotionally-expressive tendencies common to men are unfashionable, if not actively vilified.

The American Psychological Association’s 2019 guidance to therapists working with men listed “traditional forms of masculinity” such as “stoicism, competitiveness, and aggression”, as “toxic for men and boys”. Various campaigns, such as that pioneered by Only Way is Essex star Tommy Mallet in 2018, encourage men to “open up about their feelings”, or to do away with outdated phrases such as “man-up”. Needless to say, Gymshark’s new initiative is driven by this push to get men to be “more open with their mental health and their feelings”.

Such movements are intended to prevent the emotional withdrawnness more common in men from leading to serious psychological issues. There is undoubtedly wisdom in this — but there is also inevitably diminishing returns, if unbalanced against these aforementioned masculine characteristics. For it is just these characteristics that can give men and boys a meaningful sense of masculinity. This is not something wildly popular in today’s culture, but is arguably the most important ingredient for their mental health. We would be wise to encourage it a little more than we have done lately. 

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover