While the idea that society pressures men to be macho is widely accepted, the pendulum swings both ways.
In recent years a new term has emerged to describe this phenomenon: nice guy syndrome. A number of books have been written on the topic, of which “No More Mister Nice Guy” by Robert A. Glover is the perhaps the best known.
No More Mister Nice Guy
What this literature—and my own experience—suggests is that the social pressure on men to suppress behaviors deemed too masculine is creating undue stress in men.
To give the reader as much information as possible on how to help their male clients, I gathered a few opinions on the matter.
According to massage therapist Mary Tamez, who has worked with men who have had body image issues, “There are definitely men who suppress their natural emotions. For instance, there’s one guy who I see regularly, who I would say is a mix between being macho and a nice guy.
“He comes in and presents himself one way, because he thinks that’s what I want to see. But I can tell he’s not really that way. I want to tell him, ‘Dude, you’re safe, you don’t have to pretend you’re this really spiritual person.'” (Read “Male Body Image: Massage Addresses Muscular & Emotional Tension” in the June print issue of MASSAGE Magazine.)
Larry Cammarata, Ph.D., who is a psychologist and provider of continuing education to massage therapists and other professionals, acknowledges that both types of societal pressure exist.
“I think both hold truth,” Cammarata explained. “The softer male-nice guy syndrome certainly can apply to men of any age, but I suspect that there are generational differences there. Since the late 1960s to early 1970s, I think you’re going find more of the nice guy syndrome happening. And prior to the early 1960s, and especially in the 1950s, you’re going to see the macho mentality being more prominent. That said, those two sides of the coin can affect men of any age.”
When I asked Cammarata about his approach to addressing the effects of both types of pressure, he explained, “[To the proverbial nice guy] I would say to look at where you say yes to please people in your life, whereby you might also be feeling at the same time a pit in your stomach or tension in your shoulders. That might be an indicator that you are being overly pleasing.
“Or, [I might ask] are you feeling overwhelmed by the demands that [are] placed upon you in your relationship and work life? And, if so, that may be a sign that you are a yes person or cannot establish clear, effective boundaries with people,” he added.
“That’s one side of the coin,” said Cammarata. “The other side of the coin, for the guarded macho male, is if you feel like you’re constantly angry and disconnected from the people in your life. Then maybe that’s a sign that your way of guarding yourself may be by saying no too much.
“It may be interfering with your ability to be effective. I think either side of the coin—the overly guarded guy and the guy who’s too much of a nice guy—may have some tension, or might even have heart palpitations or some stomach distress. These are the autonomic symptoms that often happen when emotions get repressed, or aren’t processed by the body.”
Educator and massage therapist David Lauterstein added, “Really good bodywork helps men be more relaxed about being themselves, without having to adapt to the idea that they have to be sweetie-pies or that they have to be soldiers.”
In my opinion, what the two forms of social pressure have in common is that they encourage men to be inauthentic. This is a complex issue, of course, and there are certainly behaviors most people would agree should be suppressed.
Even so, I believe the habitual inauthenticity that comes from the pressure to be excessively macho, or the pressure to be excessively nice, results in a feeling of disconnection in the male, an internal gulf that grows between the false version of himself that he presents to the world and the person he is on the inside.
This inner disconnect takes a toll, both physically and mentally, and I suspect male body image issues represent only a few of the ills that arise as a consequence.
Thankfully, regular massage therapy can help men reconnect to themselves and build healthy body image.
Phillip Weber is a San Diego-based writer and co-founder of The English Adept, a language-learning website where he blogs frequently. He writes news and features for MASSAGE Magazine, including “Massage Brings Peace to Torture Survivors’ Bodies & Minds” and “Massage Therapy Improves Quality of life for Frail Children.”