The term “toxic masculinity” gets thrown around as much as fists in a dingy dive bar late at night. It’s slapped onto the “tough guys,” forbidden to wince at the sting of the smack. Because, you know, big boys don’t cry.
While the concept of “toxic masculinity” was once relegated to feminist literature bottled up in an academia bubble, it’s becoming an ever more familiar phrase — for better or worse. That’s because toxic masculinity is pervasive. It plagues society with stereotypes that stifle self-expression, perpetuate problematic ideologies, and poison the public with preconceived yet unfounded notions of “normal.”
The term “toxic masculinity” was first recognised and coined back during the 1980s men’s movements, which called on men to strive for authenticity and connection, and to nurture society with the integrity they found, according to a 1994 study. Today, it’s real, and it’s rife. Let’s unpack what toxic masculinity is, how it manifests, and its destructive implications — as well as what you can do to thwart its utter obliteration of all things well and good in this world.
What is toxic masculinity, exactly?
Research suggests that there’s very little difference between the male and female brain, which would mean that gender is, indeed, a social construct. Sure, you’re assigned a sex at birth (according to what genitals you possess), but gender is largely learned through socialisation.
“Men and women act and think differently; however, this is not because of biological characteristics but, rather, because of societal expectations created and forced upon anti-feminists and us,” says John Carnesecchi, LCSW, a licensed clinical social worker and the founder and clinical director of Gateway to Solutions. “There is much pressure on men and individuals identifying as men.”
While men and women aren’t all that different biologically, people, on an individual level, are. We’re neither meant to be the same nor to subscribe to society’s delineated gender biases — “beliefs and attitudes that involve stereotypes or preconceived ideas about the roles, abilities, and characteristics of males and females that may contain significant distortions and inaccuracies,” as defined by the American Psychological Association. Gender biases can, in turn, cause what psychologists call gender role strain, which is when gender role demands have negative consequences on the individual or others, according to the APA.
Boys and men, for example, may experience gender role strain if they “deviate from or violate gender role norms of masculinity; try to meet or fail to meet norms of masculinity; experience discrepancies between real and ideal self-concepts based on gender role stereotypes; personally devalue, restrict or violate themselves; experience personal devaluations, restrictions or violations from others; and/or personally devalue, restrict or violate others because of gender role stereotypes,” according to the APA.
Enter: Toxic masculinity, an overarching umbrella that encompasses the many nuanced gender biases that induce gender role strain (and a whole lot of subsequent issues for society at large). The toxic masculinity definition is manifold. Boiled down, you could call it a set of beliefs and behaviours that suggest “boys will be boys” — and they’re not to express emotions, display distress, or seem soft. Rather, they’re to “build a pair,” “grow some balls,” or “man up.”
Simply put, toxic masculinity refers to ideas about the way that men should behave that are seen as harmful, according to Cambridge Dictionary.
Of course, research shows that factors like race and ethnicity influence masculinity ideology. Among white college students, for example, white and Black men are considered more manly than Asian-American men. Despite the differences in masculinity ideologies among different groups of people, “there is a particular constellation of standards that have held sway over large segments of the population, including: anti-femininity, achievement, eschewal of the appearance of weakness, and adventure, risk, and violence,” according to the APA. Which brings us to…
How does toxic masculinity manifest?
Toxic masculinity takes the form of many disruptive and dangerous behaviours. It may look like verbal bullying and physical violence, and it may also look like sexual harassment, sexual assault, mansplaining, and more.
In fact, toxic masculinity hugely contributes to sexism (stereotyping and discriminating with regards to sex), misogyny (a “dislike of” or “contempt for” women), and male chauvinism (excessive or prejudiced support for one’s own cause or group, such as male prejudice against women). It also pits boys and men against one another in what are perhaps more colloquially known as “dick-measuring competitions” to prove alpha status. And, of course, a wealth of research suggests that it perpetuates homophobia.
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“The best examples are honestly things like incels or other men who think that the world or women, in particular, owe them something because they are men,” says Taryn A. Myers, PhD, clinical psychologist, director of academic effectiveness and associate professor of psychology and women and gender studies at Virginia Wesleyan University. “This is linked to things like mass shootings, revenge porn, sexual assault, domestic violence, human trafficking, and other very problematic issues.”
But toxic masculinity isn’t always so obvious.
“Although some areas are blatant, other situations are more discreet,” says Natasha Sandique, MA, psychology consultant at Mom Loves Best, a website dedicated to pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood. And, while overt toxic masculinity is hugely hurtful and harmful, subtle toxic masculinity is arguably worse. Because it’s normalised.
Just consider the way we, as a society, so often speak.
“Casually telling someone to ‘man up’ or ‘suck it up’ [feeds] into the notion that showing emotion or vulnerability is unbecoming for a man,” says Sandique. “The same goes for the phrase, ‘boys will be boys.’ This expression advocates aggressive behaviour in young males as part of their masculinity rather than teaching these boys about taking responsibility for their actions. These phrases have found a way to live in some cultures and come out naturally for some people as if they’re stating the weather.”
Why is toxic masculinity toxic?
It’s important to note that masculinity in and of itself is not toxic. “The best analogy I’ve heard is that a cheeseburger is a type of burger much in the same way that toxic masculinity is a type of masculinity,” says Myers. “Therefore, masculinity itself is not inherently toxic.”
But when does masculinity become toxic? “When masculinity behaviours are dangerous and ways to control or assume power, they become toxic,” says Carnesecchi. “This toxicity can affect the physical and mental health of women, non-binary people, and men, too.”
Toxic masculinity is toxic for an infinite wealth of reasons that adversely impact all genders and, ultimately, the health of humankind. Toxic masculinity causes “gender role conflict,” problems that arise as a result of “rigid, sexist, or restrictive gender roles, learned during socialisation, that result in personal restriction, devaluation, or violation of others or self,” according to the APA.
A burgeoning body of research shows that men experience gender role conflict especially under the influence of “success, power and competition (a disproportionate emphasis on personal achievement and control or being in positions of power); restrictive emotionality (discomfort expressing and experiencing vulnerable emotions); restrictive affectionate behaviour between men (discomfort expressing care and affectionate touching of other men); and conflict between work and family relations (distress due to balancing school or work with the demands of raising a family),” according to the APA. All of this socialised pressure to conform limits boys’ psychological development and is, ultimately, detrimental to their mental and physical health even well down the line.
Toxic masculinity is largely linked to aggression and violence, according to research, and leaves boys and men at a disproportionate risk for everything from academic challenges to health disparities, not excluding substance abuse and cardiovascular complications, according to the APA. After all, the stress of fronting a hard exterior all the time, and suppressing the self, can certainly take a toll. Study after study after study show that emotional expression is key to our overall well-being — and the consequences of repression can be dangerous and even deadly.
Boys are overrepresented when it comes to psychological and social problems and learning difficulties with statistically lower test scores and bigger behavioural issues that land them in suspension far more often than girls, according to the APA. And men are overrepresented in prisons and more likely than women to both commit and be victims of violent crimes like homicide and aggravated assault.
Toxic masculinity also suggests that men treat their bodies like machines — skimping on sleep, going hard at the gym (even despite injuries), and pushing themselves past their physical limits. It not only discourages men from getting help if they’re hurt, but it also stops many men from getting preventative healthcare. One study finds that those who hold strong beliefs surrounding masculinity are only half as likely as those with moderate beliefs to see a physician for an annual physical, for example.
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However, the ways boys and men experience and perform masculinity contributes not only to negative impacts on their psychological and physical health, but also affects their relational health. As such, toxic masculinity affects girls and women, too.
Arguably, toxic masculinity is at the root of every issue on the feminist agenda — from intimate partnership violence and sexual assault to the gender pay gap. It’s hugely why women’s bodies are hypersexualised, objectified, reduced to baby incubators, fetishised upon the male gaze, used as weapons of war, and more.
Never mind that men who consider themselves more masculine are less likely to engage in “helping behaviour” and intervene if they’re bystanders to behaviours like bullying or assault. Studies suggest that they’re more likely to fall short when it comes to consoling victims, calling for help, and confronting perpetrators.
How can you help the boys and men in your life (and yourself) unlearn toxic masculinity?
The unfortunate reality is that toxic masculinity is not only the problem, but it also prevents an otherwise plausible solution: professional help. According to the APA, boys and men seldom seek the help they need because they’re taught to put on a brave face and to minimise and manage their issues, you know, like “real men.”
Worse, when they do seek support, too many boys and men are met with gender biases that may adversely affect both diagnosis and treatment. For example, while men are four times more likely to commit suicide than women, they’re generally less likely to be diagnosed with disorders like depression, according to the APA. This is, in part, because such “internalising disorders do not conform to traditional gender role stereotypes about men’s emotionality.”
Nevertheless, boys and men — and all people — still have agency to challenge hegemonic masculinity. While inconsistent and even contradictory messages can cause identity crises for some boys and men, it’s imperative that we all do what we can to unlearn the gender biases that perpetuate the problems tied to toxic masculinity.
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“The biggest thing we can do to stop toxic masculinity is to undercut the system that feeds it,” says Myers. “We also need a societal change, in general, to rid us of patriarchal systems that make men believe they are still ‘best’ and entitled. We need an equal rights amendment. We need reproductive freedom so men don’t feel they can control the bodies of those with uteruses. We need equal pay for equal work and strictly enforced sexual harassment policies. We need to stop celebrating celebrities who engage in domestic violence and sexual assault because they are ‘amazing athletes’ or create ‘art.’ We need to have a law enforcement system that believes victims and survivors and immediately takes steps to stop violence and abuse in its tracks…”
Of course, dismantling patriarchy is no simple undertaking.
“Young boys go from being more emotional than young girls to possibly being angry, selfish men not because they choose that path as boys but because that trajectory into manhood is their best option,” says Owen Marcus, cofounder of EVRYMAN, an online community for men breaking the mould. He notes that, while toxic masculinity shouldn’t be tolerated, change is complicated. “A man may continue toxic behaviour because that is how he learned to survive his childhood. Bullying others protected him from being perceived as weak or being bullied.”
In order for men to heal from this kind of childhood trauma, he says, they need to relax. And, in order to relax, they need to feel safe. But being told to change causes stress, which may only exacerbate the manifestations of toxic masculinity. Rather, Marcus suggests that society must give men the safe space to want to change. Only then, he explains, can they unpack what “drives their dysfunctional behaviour.”
Men’s groups are one surefire place to create this kind of change. “In my decades of working with men, I’ve learned that men need to feel emotionally safe to be vulnerable,” says Marcus. “Put them in a group with other men who are authentic, and most men will gradually open up.”
He adds that, while many might assume that putting a group of hyper-macho men in a room together will only breed more toxicity, “a set of simple agreements and a little guidance” can help them “cut through the BS to get real.” In his experience, one man’s courage to reflect on and question his own toxic behaviours can ignite a fire under the rest of them. Collective modelling, support and accountability are essential in these environments, says Marcus.
Parents and teachers can also do their part in bringing up boys with better values.
“Tell your sons you love them, hug them and tell them you’re proud of them; it gives them permission to feel vulnerability and engenders sensitivity,” says Vijayeta Sinh, PhD, clinical psychologist and founder of TherapyCouchNYC. “Encourage boys and men to share their feelings. Normalise them crying and expressing grief or sadness.”
She also adds that it’s important not to gender things — like, ahem, kids’ toys. And reminding boys that it’s okay to ask for help, encouraging them to apologise when they’ve done wrong, showing them that they’re worthy of “tenderness and affection,” and giving them the space and liberty to define their own identities are immensely important.
“Parents, teachers, and loved ones should teach young children to communicate their feelings, understand it is okay to express all types of emotions, treat all individuals with respect, and accept and love their physical appearances without having to conform to what the media portrays,” agrees Carnesecchi. “Parents must also be aware of what their children are viewing on social media. Often, boys will be persuaded by social media and friends.”
As for the rest of us, awareness and education are vital, says Sandique. They’re a first step in the right direction.
On a personal level, she shares the significance of being cognizant of how toxic masculinity manifests in society. Keeping mindful allows you to recognise instances of toxic masculinity, communicate your concerns surrounding it, and help others unpack and unlearn their own preconceived and deeply ingrained notions of masculinity.
“On a social level, it will take active effort, collaboration and deliberate questioning to work against these exaggerated and toxic machismo traits,” she goes on. “This will create dissonance to these damaging patterns of thinking and behaviour we have been so accustomed to for so long. You can try talking to your family, friends, or people in your community about gender in general — identities and expressions and their perspectives on these. It may be a tough conversation at first, but try not to get defensive. Instead, be open-minded to the exchange. Let this discourse be a gateway for change.”
Carnesecchi also stresses that open communication is critical. Initiating honest conversations, speaking up and challenging limiting and damaging gender stereotypes is something we can all do. “It may be difficult to change the mindset of the older generations; however, if we instil in the younger generation’s new values and behaviours, we have a chance to change the stereotypical assumptions of being a man,” he says.
Sure, we live in a world short-circuited by 24/7 demands — with the ability to have everything from a stuffed-crust pizza to a dinner date with whom to share it, quite literally, at our fingertips. And immediately. We’ve learned to want what we want when we want it, and get it right then and there. But deconstructing dumb, yet, deeply entrenched views isn’t something we can have delivered direct to our doors.
“Since toxic masculinity is embedded in most, if not all, societies, eliminating toxic masculinity will definitely not happen overnight,” says Sandique.
Respect and resiliency. Persistence and patience.
This story first appeared on www.shape.com
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