Be a man. Easy enough right? One must simply love grilled meats, have abundant body hair, refuse to go to the doctor, and possess all the strength of a raging fire (🎶with all the force of a great typhoon🎶).
By now, you can tell we’re being facetious. Being manly in 2021 is about as complex as being “healthy”— and trying to be both is harder than explaining NFTs to your mom.
While the stereotypical Ron Swanson perception of a healthy man is evolving in a better direction (fact: a diet of whiskey, steak, and endless cartons of eggs won’t a healthy body make), men are still tasked with striking the perfect balance between feeling manly and feeling truly healthy.
Exhibit A: While a growing number of men are embracing therapy, male suicide rates remain high and many are still reluctant to seek help for mental health concerns — preferring to ask Dr. Google for answers rather than a professional. Add in the effects of the pandemic, which caused gym memberships to plummet, cases of depression and anxiety to rise, and unwanted weight gain for about 42 percent of Americans, and you’ve got a perfect storm of problems.
So where do men go from here? To learn more about the changing perspectives on men’s health, we talked with five men of diverse backgrounds about how their personal approaches to health have evolved, the lessons they’ve learned along the way, and the habits that make them feel their best.
How Elladj Baldé uses mindfulness as a pillar of health
Photography by Pine and Palm
The son of Guinean and Russian parents, Elladj Baldé’s family immigrated from Russia to Canada where he was introduced — somewhat begrudgingly at the time — to ice skating. While his entry into the sport might have been less than enthusiastic, he eventually found a love for it and went on to enjoy a decorated 24-year career. Today he works to improve diversity within the ice skating community.
Over the course of his involvement in skating, Baldé struggled with the stigmas that came with his participation in what “wasn’t a sport that a boy or a man should do,” at least according to the reputation. But eventually, Baldé was able to find his truth and authenticity as a skater, realizing that “gender doesn’t exist in sports.”
In addition to dealing with toxic masculinity, Baldé has also had to contend with racism.
“It took me years to [deal with] those experiences,” he recalls. “It wasn’t until I saw another Black male figure skater skate for the first time that I actually realized what I could do and what I could be on the ice. I decided that I was only going to be myself and I wasn’t going to compromise who I am as a human being.”
While physical condition is obviously a key aspect of figure skating, Baldé’ says that mental conditioning is essential for his overall health. “For me to be at my healthiest in what I do I have to constantly be aware of my thoughts and my emotions,” he says. “For too long in my career I repressed emotion and I repressed thought in order to compete — in order to fit the mold — and that didn’t serve me. I dealt with a lot of mental health issues because of it.”
Not unrelated, the physical toll and the weight of responsibility when it comes to being a diversity advocate in the sport he loves is linked to establishing good mindfulness habits. Any pressure that Baldé does feel, he’s better able to deal with it in the right ways, thus leading to better, healthier lifestyle choices.
Elladj’s road to men’s health
“I think part of the problem in our society is that we think [strength] is the most important component of men’s health. But I think more important than that are mindfulness and being aware of where you are mentally, emotionally, and physically. Daily meditation, breath work, and yoga has allowed me to get to know myself on a much deeper level.”
How James Starks uses thoughtful habits to maintain consistent strength
Photography by Elaine Cromie
It didn’t take long for James Starks to realize that he wanted to go into sportscasting. As a boy he watched ESPN’s “SportsCenter” on TV religiously, and by the time he was in high school, he was broadcasting the morning announcements. This led to him selecting broadcasting as his major in college, which at the time got somewhat sidelined by sports when he went on to play football for the Cincinnati Bengals.
Shortly after, Starks retired from the game and returned to school to pursue his passion for journalism. And that’s when he was able to really pair his fitness knowledge with more thoughtful, sustainable habits in an effective way.
Coming from a sports background, Starks says he largely had to overcome the urge to mentally beat himself up whenever he missed a workout, telling himself that “there are going to be times when I can’t work out every day of the week, and that’s OK.”
As he’s gotten older, he says he’s come to recognize that “we grow up being conditioned to think that the stronger you are, the better you are — the more “man[ly]” you are, basically. We kind of have this notion that you’ve got to be this big, bulky dude to be strong. You don’t. In the world of fitness I operate in now, in CrossFit, the bigger guys are usually at a detriment. Usually, you can’t move. But you can be strong and not be big and bulky. You can be lean and strong as well.”
In other words, traditional models for what it means to have a healthy male body are changing. Bigger isn’t necessarily better, and you’ve got to keep an eye on what’s healthy in the long run.
James’s road to men’s health
“Do what’s good for your joints and what’s going to help you get out of bed the next morning. For me it’s just staying functional — doing things that are gonna help me down the road in the decades to come, and essentially just stay healthy: mind, body, and soul.”
How Clark Hamel uses the courage of his example to inspire others to be authentic
Photography by Kish Ouano
Growing up as a transgender man provided Clark Hamel a unique relationship with maleness.
“Coming out at 19 as a man and trying to understand what it meant to be a man in a healthy way — I felt, honestly, like it was this gift,” he says. “[I felt] that I had this unique perspective and could grow as a man and as a person with physical and mental health, and exist as a healthy man in a way that maybe other people didn’t.”
Hamel’s experience speaks directly to how the modern understanding of healthy masculinity has changed. He says being masculine and being a healthy man isn’t just about being strong and capable. “It’s also about being compassionate and empathetic and kind and, you know, those values that maybe we associate more with women or femininity. To me being kind and compassionate and gentle and tender is strength, is being strong, and is an example of healthy maleness and masculinity.”
Men’s traditional avoidance of seeking help with mental health has not gone unnoticed by Hamel. After saying he’s been in therapy for many years, he noted that all men should give it a try — pushing back against the idea that it’s a sign of weakness for men to be open emotionally.
“For me being in therapy and being encouraged to talk about how I feel and sift through those feelings and work on them has only made me a healthier person, a kinder person, a better person toward myself as well as in my relationships.”
Hamel stressed the importance of his other male relationships — crediting them for “lifting” him and allowing him to engage with being a man in a healthy way.
Clark’s road to men’s health
“For me, being a healthy man is about embodying values that are associated with masculinity, but also femininity and letting those things really live together.”
How Jamison Bethea uses faith-fueled creativity to feel at his best
Photography by Kish Ouano
Jamison Bethea grew up in his father’s Durham, NC church where he discovered an early interest in music, playing and recording his own songs and creating his own album art. From there his creative urge branched out in many artistic directions, culminating in the recent launch of a design agency called Designs by Jamison.
For Bethea, creativity and mental health go hand in hand, providing a means to “dump out some of the feelings and emotions and things like that in order to have a clean, healthy mental state. I see music as a way of healing.”
Bethea also credits therapy in his health process. “Men nowadays — especially men of color — are actually starting to go to counseling, and seeing therapists is becoming less taboo [for us],” he says. “I actually recently started going to a therapist as well [and I think] we’re in a better place because of it.”
Bethea acknowledges that he feels most healthy when he has bandwidth, peace, and time with his family on a daily basis. He says it’s hard for him to work or feel present when there are too many other things vying for his attention. He doesn’t subscribe to the traditional idea that men need to grind all the time to in order to win. Too much business can definitely start to erode peace levels.
“Having the bandwidth to work or to not work and spend time with the family is definitely healthy for me,” Bethea says.
Jamison’s road to men’s health
“I think more men being vocal about going to therapy and sharing how it helped them will ultimately help others.”
How Chef Chew uses history to point his community toward a healthier future
Courtesy of Something Better Foods, Inc
For GW Chew — known more widely as Chef Chew — the healthy eating habits he enjoys today sprouted from a desire to fuse the traditional Southern foods he loved as a boy with the vegan lifestyle he grew to embrace as a man.
While Chef Chew’s childhood in southern Maryland was filled with his mother’s fried chicken, mac’n cheese, and scrapple, he quickly recognized the health risks of such a diet, as he lost one family member after another to various lifestyle diseases related to obesity.
By the time he was studying at Howard University, Chew had taken the personal steps to become a vegan and was tinkering with creating his own recipes for Southern-inspired vegan dishes and meat alternatives to offer to others in his community.
Things grew from there. “It was a hobby, you know, taking cookbooks and doing recipes in the kitchen and having fun — then it became a passion, and that passion became my life’s work,” Chef Chew says. He went on to open a number of restaurants, which culminated with the launch of the Oakland-based restaurant the VegHub as well as his own line of plant-based proteins and vegan foods.
Courtesy of Something Better Foods, Inc
A core aspect of Chef Chew’s operation involves educating his customers — especially other men from Black and brown communities living in food deserts — about the importance of a healthy diet. “What I found is that education coupled with access and affordability creates a real solution for communities to make that change,” he notes.
According to Chef Chew, men’s health is met by mental and cultural obstacles more than physical. And overcoming those first is a large part of the battle. After losing his father to cancer — his father having refused to seek medical treatment until it was too late (a behavior that is all-too-common among men) — Chef Chew began advocating for men to start giving more thought to making regular doctor’s visits and paying more attention to their health in general.
Chef Chew’s Better Chew brand motto is “Healthier families, one chew at a time!” And he feels at his best when doing his part to offer others something better to choose from.
Chef Chew’s road to men’s health
“That self-care piece is so vital for us as men. When we’re not taking care of ourselves, we’re not present for those that need us. If I don’t take care of me, I ain’t gonna be there for them. As men, we have to realize that we can’t go any further when it comes to being successful fathers or husbands if we don’t take care of ourselves. That’s been something I’m learning. I haven’t mastered it.”
So what can we take away about the state of men’s health through these five mens’ journeys? For one thing, listening to yourself and embracing nuance is much more effective than being forced into a mold. While men used to emphasize physical strength above all else, today many achieve health largely through consistent, helpful habits rather than the grind.
Self-reflection and self-love are at the core of achieving the modern man’s conception of health — whether arrived at through education, therapy, or engagement in one’s community.
Our prescription: Learn, reflect, and share these healthy habits with the men around you. As you may have noticed, family and friends were a common factor throughout the stories above.
Perhaps we’re at our healthiest when we realize that we’re all in this together.