Written by Don McSwiney, BA’87
Photographed by Roth & Ramberg
We have a lot of boxes in our society. There are the kind we can see and, for instance, check off on a form or fill with our most precious belongings. It’s the boxes we can’t see, however, that often hold the power to define and restrict our potential.
When it comes to societal notions about what it means to be a “real” man, such boxes can be not only limiting but downright damaging — to the individual compelled toward such a stereotypical image of himself, as well as to those around him.
A new community-led research project from the Faculty of Social Work titled ManBox is exploring our ideas of masculinity by creating actual boxes and asking men to paint and illustrate them to represent the faces they show the world — and, perhaps, who they are inside.
“It’s a heavy box,” says assistant professor and research lead Dr. Liza Lorenzetti, MSW’06, PhD’17. “I think the boxes represent the weight men feel to perform as men in society.”
For social work alumnus Will Tabak, BSW’19, it’s the walls of the box that hold the most significance. “For me, the box represents the unhealthy way that we socialize men and male children,” says Tabak, who works with the Alberta Men’s Network and is co-ordinating the partnership project in the community. “The way we teach them to believe that you can only show the world certain parts of yourself so that people will trust you and see you as a protector — basically, the generalized stereotypes that men tend to live with in society.”
When Tabak created his own box earlier this year, he described the process as transformational. He says he initially tried to rigidly control the process, which in some ways reflected his approach to life and even to his work leading the ManBox project. Tabak’s box helped him realize this and, ultimately, to let go. “I found myself trying to be very open to whatever feeling came into my head and my heart,” he says. “That was what I tried to express at the end of the journey of my project.”
Tabak is hoping to share the therapeutic boxes with men in lower-income or other marginalized communities who don’t typically have access to artistic materials, or who aren’t often asked to take part in reflective, artistic, research-based exercises like this one. He also hopes to provide the experience to men who are reintegrating into society from the justice system. “We think it might help some of these men get back on their feet,” Tabak says.
Like the artists behind them, each ManBox is multifaceted. On the one hand, they’re a tool for social change — a challenge to harmful societal ideas about masculinity. Research shows these stereotypes fuel societal issues like domestic violence, increased substance abuse and higher suicide rates among men. On the other hand, they’re also a tool for reflection built on a theoretical framework of transformational learning.
“The group’s collective project design really resonated with my experience over 25 years of practice in domestic-violence intervention,” says Lorenzetti. “We need to invest — up-front — in well-being, and in healthy relationships and self-care.” People can change, she says, “but they need to engage in personal transformation to do that and — on the ground, in the community — that’s where the change is going to happen.”