I’m home in Sydney for a few weeks, visiting family and enjoying the crisp early spring after a long, sweaty New York summer.
Last week I opened our local paper to find an article about a plan to build and open a men’s shed in my suburb. What is a men’s shed? you’re probably asking if you’re not one of our many Australian readers. (If you are one of our many Australian readers, you might be bored by my explanation of men’s sheds, so please go watch this video of a baby wombat while I break things down for all those Feministing folks not lucky enough to live in the Land of Plenty).
A men’s shed is a space where men of a certain age can go to be with other men. I know that sounds kind of vague, or kind of man-cavey, or kind of like a front for an organization that “helps men reclaim their manhood,” but that’s not it at all. Basically, men’s sheds hope to counter some of the isolation that men often feel when they hit retirement age and have a lot of time on their hands, and seeks to create community for them where they can discuss their problems or learn new skills or just be, and not be alone.
They’ve started springing up around Australia in the last few years, particularly in rural areas. I don’t live in a rural area, but I can see why we’d need a men’s shed around here. As the official site of the Australian Men’s Shed Association puts it:
Most men have learned from our culture that they don’t talk about feelings and emotions. There has been little encouragement for men to take an interest in their own health and well-being. Unlike women, most men are reluctant to talk about their emotions and that means that they usually don’t ask for help. Probably because of this many men are less healthy than women, they drink more, take more risks and they suffer more from isolation, loneliness and depression. Relationship breakdown, retrenchment or early retirement from a job, loss of children following divorce, physical or mental illness are just some of the problems that men find it hard to deal with on their own.
Good health is based on many factors including feeling good about yourself, being productive and valuable to your community, connecting to friends and maintaining an active body and an active mind. Becoming a member of a Men’s Shed gives a man that safe and busy environment where he can find many of these things in an atmosphere of old-fashioned mateship.
I think it’s a pretty great concept. I like the idea of using social networks to promote public health (though I’d like to have a bit of a chat with the man who’s quoted in the news report as saying that the new shed in my town is “a huge win… for the wives of the men who will be glad their husband won’t be following them around the house”).
I also really like the way that men’s sheds take an existing element in the culture – the old custom of a shed out the back – and use it to address an existing problem in the culture – the fact that adhering the dominant definition of “masculinity” means not talking about your mental and physical health. As the AMSA puts it, “because men don’t make a fuss about their problems, these problems have consistently been either ignored or swept under the mat by both our health system and our modern society.” The hope is that at a men’s shed, men feel safe and free to talk about those problems, and are given the tools to begin solving them.
Australian readers, you should be done with that fabulous video by now. And you’re back just in time to jump into the comments section and tell us about your experience, if you have any, of men’s sheds. Have you been to one? Know anyone who’s been to one? Tell us about it!