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MENtal Health: An interview with Owen Sharp, CEO of the Movember Foundation

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It can be difficult to imagine now, but there was a time when everyone was clean-shaven. It was a world of beardlessness and misery. Then, one evening in 2003, tucked in a bar in Melbourne, a group of men schemed to bring moustaches back into fashion.

But, they decided, if they were going to bring them back, they were going to do it for a good cause. The cause they settled on was men’s health, particularly prostate cancer, a taboo subject. Growing a beard, they reasoned, was a visible way to draw attention to the cause.

Image credit: Owen Sharp, CEO of the Movember Foundation

The origins of Movember

With beards being so unpopular at the time, growing one would raise the question: “why do you have a beard?” From there, a conversation would begin that would bring men’s health issue in the public spotlight and open it up for discussion.

After sending an email to their friends, thirty men signed up to take part in the annual tradition that has come to be known as Movember. So goes the story, according to Owen Sharp, the global CEO of the Movember Foundation.

Now in its 15th year, Owen and I sat down to discuss how Movember has changed since its inception.

“In the first couple of years,” he tells me, “it just happened in Australia and then over the next few years it rolled out globally.”

And global it has become. Last year, over five million “Mo bros” or “Mo sistas” participated in Movember from over twenty countries. It’s come a long way from its quaint beginnings in a Melbourne pub.

Moustaches are now much more popular than in 2003, so at the start of the month, “when everybody turns up not with any facial hair, that’s almost the weirder bit”, Owen says. The question is no longer “why do you have a beard?” but “where did your beard go?”

Movember's impact

It is difficult to argue that Movember hasn’t been a raging success, as conversations about men’s health have skyrocketed in the past 15 years.

With increasing acknowledgement of men’s health issues beyond prostate cancer, Movember has become a pioneer in pushing conversations about men’s health forward: “We’ve expanded what we do and what we talk about, particularly the breadth of issues around men’s health and the programs and the activities that we fund.

“The big thing that’s really been an addition from when we started is mental health and suicide prevention. That’s become a bigger and bigger part of what Movember does.

"I think Movember have been part of the change and I think we’re also in a world where we do talk about mental health, particularly from the perspective of men’s experience.”

Embracing male vulnerability

The experience of men and what it means to be a man has been a question of political urgency in the last few years. With the rise of the alt-right, anti-feminist movements and the election of figures like Donald Trump, the worst and most destructive aspects of masculinity seem to have emerged on top.

“There are... lots of conversations moving fairly quickly about what it is to be a man. I think Movember can’t be naive to that. We can’t ignore that conversation going on. Our job is to have a voice [which makes] sure the positive aspects of masculinity are reinforced.

“The debate at the moment should not just be about what are the negative sides of male behaviour and male attitudes, they have to be [also] about what can be the positive things about it and what are the things that men need to change, from a positive point of view. I think their own health and their engagement with their own health... [from] the widest physical and mental health point of view can be a positive contributor to that.”

The question of mental health, masculinity and vulnerability recurs across our interview. “[Movember] thinks acknowledging the existence of vulnerability is really important and it’s about having the mechanisms to know when to reach out and share concerns," he says. "And also for us, as men, and for people with men in their lives, to know... it’s okay to say ‘I’m struggling.’

"Sometimes the moustache can be a great way to have those opening conversations.”

For Owen, the visibility of the moustache makes it somewhat of a symbol of masculine vulnerability: “It’s a very tangible thing. It’s a badge of belief in the issues of men’s health that you can wear on your face and you can say ‘I care about men’s health, and I’m doing something visible to not just raise money for it, but actually to start the conversations. Why am I growing a moustache? I’m doing it for men’s health. I care about men’s health’.

“It’s those conversations that, in many ways, are the biggest contributors to what we do. They’re the things that start the dialogue that often leads to people thinking differently about men’s health and hopefully, in many cases, men changing their behaviour, to be a bit more engaged in their health.”

Image credit: Owen Sharp, CEO of the Movember Foundation

Are moustaches too exclusive?

But if one wants to encourage men’s engagement and acknowledgement with their own vulnerability, why choose moustaches as the starting point for that conversation? After all, moustaches are not something that all men can grow, and to centre masculinity around moustaches excludes vulnerable groups, such as trans men.

Furthermore, the moustache can mean different things in different cultures, and to shave one’s moustache at the start of Movember against a backdrop where facial hair is expected of men could be problematic.

On this subject, Owen said “We fully appreciate that growing a moustache does not work for everybody – people from certain cultures, people working in some of the services, trans men and of course women. In fact, men who are having treatment for prostate cancer such as chemo or hormone therapy are often unable to grow facial hair.

“We have people from all of these groups who support Movember, and that is one of the main reasons that we have other ways of taking part or fundraising such as undertaking a MOve challenge or hosting an event.”

While Owen denies a deliberate linking between masculinity and moustaches by Movember, I find it difficult to disassociate one from the other in the context of European and American culture, where a man’s beard can stand-in as a symbol of his fertility, dominance and power. Think of all the beards on violent and dominating men in movies: your Clint Eastwoods and Seaon Connerys, men who shoot the bad guys and show no quarter.

Movember works to open up that symbol, to allow vulnerability to find a home there. They put it on a face and invite others to join in, that there is a power in being vulnerable, in opening up about that vulnerability, and inviting others to be vulnerable with you.

As Owen tells it, “moustaches are at the core of who we are, of what we do. We’ve certainly broadened how people can be involved, but I think to keep it as the essence of who we are is really important... we don’t all have to be this archetypal kind of strong and silent male all the time.”

Is it exclusionary then? Yes. But in an environment in which masculine violence against minorities is only increasing, particularly in America and Europe, perhaps it is worthwhile that Movember should so tightly grab this symbol with its toxic implications and teach it to be nurturing and kind.

It is, after all, impossible to speak for all men: such a gesture is always normative and misses out those men who do not fit into the traditional model of masculinity. However, I feel Movember’s goal to bring vulnerability to a symbol of masculinity that typically denies it is worthwhile.

And, of course, Movember is not limited to the growing of moustaches! There are plenty of other opportunities to get involved: charity runs, hosting fundraising events, and donating. And what’s more, this is not just limited to November, but all year round. Check out their website here if you want to get involved.

This article is part of The National Student’s MENtal Health content series which is led by Laura Brown. You can see more from the series here.

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