The Failure of Movember

I have been posting about Movember for 5 years in a row. I wanted people to know about the various problems men face but never ever talk about. It didn’t make much of a difference, mostly because of how the conversations about Movember went among my family and friends.

Me: Hey! We should all do Movember to generate awareness around Men’s Health!

I looked around at my friends and family. One half of the room was Sikh, with elder cousins who have always had a moustache, and friends who just always had a beard… including myself. 

I realised it would be more effective if all of us suddenly shaved on the 1st of November, rather than growing a moustache or not shaving it off. 

I then read reports in the news of violence against Ambedkarite men who tried to keep moustaches and realised how far from reality I was when it came to understanding facial hair and its sensitivity in India. 

So, does Movember have any context in India?

What even is Movember?

The idea is simple— men are encouraged to set their razors down and allow their moustaches to make a comeback in November, in an effort to draw attention and increase awareness on prostate cancer, testicular cancer, colon cancer, and men’s mental health. The Movember Foundation raises money for organisations that work on cancer research across the globe and aims to reduce suicide rates amongst men.

The idea was fantastic. The intentions that drove it were even better.

But the execution? Not everyone was convinced.

Since its inception in 2004, Movember Foundation has funded over 1200 projects across 20 countries and raised roughly $837 million, with annual events in countries like Canada, Ireland, Czech Republic, Spain, and more. While those numbers sound great, there’s several questions that come to mind that the foundation themselves seem to be skirting over:

  1. How are the raised funds translating into tangible actions that can prevent cancer or improve access to treatments and medication?
  2. What impact does November have on online searches on testicular or prostate cancer and online discourse overall?
  3. Who really partakes in Movember and who does it leave behind?

While the exact usage of Movember donations to effectively fight and mitigate testicular cancer is still unclear, critics of the movement have also questioned whether the discourse borne from this movement is able to draw as much attention to men’s mental health and cancer awareness as it is to the main symbol of Movember— moustaches.

A 2020 study by Sa Khan et al. examined Google Trends to review weekly internet search trends from January 2004 to December 2015 to look for spikes in cancer related searches in the month of November. The team reviewed the use of phrases like ‘testicular cancer’, ‘prostate cancer’ and ‘Movember’ to study the link between these keywords, but unfortunately found no significant difference in search frequencies through the year.

To put it simply, Movember seemed to make no digital difference in the discourse around cancer. People googled it just as little as they did in February or any other month, and the only striking and consistently popular keyword each November for the studied 11 years was ‘moustache’.

By building a campaign that seemed to put virality and simplicity above its execution, the final product was a hot mess of discourse around facial hair and appearances, traditional ideas of masculinity and manhood, ‘pussy rides’ and being desirable to cis women, and superficial mentions of cancer and men’s mental health as justification for it all.

The participants were mostly white cis men, whose everyday lives did not otherwise include the presence of facial hair, thus making their appearance in November more striking. But the culture of facial hair does not work the same across the globe.

Men of Latin, Middle Eastern, African and Asian descent often assert their statuses as immigrants in predominantly white countries by maintaining a beard or moustache. For many of us, facial hair has already been a matter of cultural pride even within our own countries. Trans men do often let their facial hair show and even grow out, and India itself has a warped relationship with facial hair where Dalit and Ambedkarite men are routinely targeted and attacked for growing a moustache.

What impact does an initiative like Movember have for a country like ours then? Would we really stop to ask our friends about their moustaches in November? Would it really spark discourse on men’s suicide risks if we saw more moustaches prop up around us during this month?

As a country that still largely thinks of its men as people who are incapable of experiencing abuse or sexual trauma, as people who are expected to be strong and emotionless no matter what, as people who must be breadwinners and gods in the bedroom with no sex-related fears or disorders ever— how are we actually using Movember to support desi men and undo some of the conditioning they grew up with?

Will we be talking about men’s sex lives in ways that acknowledge that not all of them are cis or straight? Will we talk about it with an understanding of how not all of them are looking for penetrative sex all the time? Will we ever discuss premature ejaculation without turning it into a mockery or labelling it as a personal failing? Will we look at erections and male sexuality as a fluid and ongoing journey and not reduce it to a mechanism that we expect 100% success rates from?

Will we ever discuss these things within our friend circles? Do you see yourself catching up with a friend over beers to compassionately discuss his ED with appropriate knowledge and resources to support him?

I wanted Movember to work. 

The idea and intent was great.

With Sangya Project, we would like to use November to bring a more balanced understanding of male sexual & mental health to the forefront, one that isn’t fuelled by harmful stereotypes or toxic ideas of performance. Hopefully, we will be able to do a better job in making sure that the information and resources provided to men this time has actual, tangible results.

Back to blog