Contributor corner: Will Storr

Will StorrWill Storr is a novelist and longform journalist. His stories appear in broadsheet newspaper supplements such as The Observer MagazineSeven Magazine (Sunday Telegraph), The Sunday Times Magazine and The Guardian Weekend. He is a contributing editor at Esquire magazine and GQ Australia. His award-winning radio documentaries have been broadcast on BBC World.

He has reported from the refugee camps of Africa, the war-torn departments of rural Colombia and the remote Aboriginal communities of Australia.

He has been named New Journalist of the Year and Feature Writer of the Year, and has won a National Press Club award for excellence. In 2010, his investigation into the kangaroo meat industry won the Australian Food Media award for Best Investigative Journalism and, in 2012, he was presented with the One World Press award and the Amnesty International award for his work for The Observer on sexual violence against men. In 2013, his BBC radio series ‘An Unspeakable Act’ won the AIB award for best investigative documentary.

He is also a widely published photographer, whose portraits of LRA survivors have been the subject of an exhibition at the Coin Street Gallery in London’s Oxo Tower.

Twitter: @wstorr

What is your feature about?

My story asks why so many men kill themselves compared to women, but what it’s really about is something called ‘social perfectionism.’ That’s different from the kind of perfectionism in which everything we do has to be of an incredibly high standard. Social perfectionism is when we fail to be the people that we believe other people expect us to be. That’s a slightly complicated notion so you might have to read that sentence again! It’s basically when we feel we’ve failed in the eyes of other people. Of course, we can be (and often are) wildly wrong about what we believe other people think of us, which is why social perfectionism can be so toxic. We can easily convince ourselves that, in the eyes of bosses and loved ones, we’ve failed in a thousand ways. But we’re often completely wrong.

This made a lot of sense to me, as contemporary thinking about the nature of the self is highly influenced by sociologist Charles Horton Cooley’s notion of ‘the looking glass self.’ This is the idea that we are what we think other people think we are. If Cooley was right, you can begin to understand just how powerful social perfectionism can be. If we actually are what we THINK other people think we are, and if we think they consider us to be a loser, then the belief that we actually ARE a loser becomes perhaps irresistible (you might have to read that last bit three times). 

What did you learn that you didn't expect?

Mainly, that my masculinity means something to me. That’s been such a surprise. I’ve never been a lad, I hated all the laddiness at school, and the ‘banter’ at some of the offices (and supermarkets) I’ve worked in. I don’t like sports and have always felt ambivalent about having the biceps of a seven year old. I’ve shrugged off the fact my wife out-earns me considerably and that I do 97 per cent of the housework. I always believed that this ‘crisis in masculinity’ was a bit ridiculous. Who cares if Dapper Laughs has a crisis? I want him to have a crisis. But the more you learn, the more you learn. Masculinity isn’t just weightlifting on a beach. Identity is crucial to psychological well-being and our culture tells us that, to even be considered man, you have to be a powerful, charismatic winner. Culture will shift, in time, but we’re in a period of great flux, with one foot in 1950s notions of masculinity and the other not knowing what it’s about to land on. For me, part of the fight of gender equality is accepting the idea that men can be vulnerable and in need of help. We’ve a way to go before society at large accepts this notion without a tut or a snigger.

Read Will’s feature on Mosaic, publishing 12 May 2015.