What is toxic masculinity?
Let’s start with masculinity: it is a set of attributes, behaviors and roles serving to define the characteristics of manhood, and more directly, of men. Masculinity can be found in physical, emotional, psychological, biological and social settings. The masculine quality does vary upon cultural norms and expectations of socializing men, and thus through time as well. It is a fluctuating set of assumptions imposed on self-identified masculine individuals. Historically masculine characteristics, such as courage, strength and leadership, were particularly important in our ancestors facing many adversities, from war to natural catastrophes. While they were attributed to manliness, they are necessary traits to a functional society independently to who embodies them.
The toxicity of masculinity is based on an over-emphasis of masculine traits, pushed to such an extreme that negative consequences towards the individual and their surroundings are impacted by it. Examples would be domination, devaluation of femininity (and attributes deemed feminine), the obsession of sexual virility, and overly reckless aggression. When societal messages on what it means to be masculine become stained with rejection of emotional vulnerability, compassion, nurture, cooperation and intimacy, it breeds sentiments of insecurity, of not being “man enough” or a “real man”. That is what is toxic. Being a man is man enough!
Mental Health Stigma
Men, the main population to whom masculinity is vehiculed to, suffer from higher rates of drug overdose and suicide. They are also less likely to seek help or report being survivors of a crime. Some feel that they lack the language to even describe their mental state. The burden of viewing poor mental health as a weakness has led too many men to isolation. As social creatures, isolation is our worst fear; we thrive off of social connections and relationships to support us through highs and lows.
Improving men’s health starts with bettering resources catered to men, and changing what it means to be strong. The fear of emasculation is a primary cause of toxic masculinity, since it drives an individual’s decisions to match how they want to be perceived by others with how others actually perceive them. A form of masculinity in which emasculation does not exist, as masculinity is not earned but identified with, could be the redefinition necessary to socially heal from these heavy expectations from outdated gender stereotypes (although the problem is incredibly multi-faceted).
What issues can toxic masculinity cause?
Toxic masculinity may brew poorer mental health, as stated above, with social isolation, anxiety, depression, body image problems, suicide as common challenges. In youth, it may contribute to bullying, poor discipline, riskier behaviors, substance abuse, indulgence in peer pressure. In adults, this may also result in difficulty building and maintaining social relationships with any genders, as “deeper conversations” such as sharing about hardships, can be seen as a lack of emotional strength. It may also cause distance within family structures.
Even in masculine people who acknowledge the dangers of certain traits may not always find the confidence necessary to fight these stigmas. These social messages have grown up in us for all of our lives, and deconstructing its effects is a long process.
It also affects those who interact with individuals dealing with this kind of masculinity. Toxic masculinity promotes a hierarchy within gender identity, commonly called patriarchy, and defends sexism, oppression, sexual violence, gender inequality and disdain for departures from heterosexuality and traditional gender norms. It is also why feminists are allies to this fight, as everyone benefits from eradicating patriarchal rules.
Other types of masculinities to embrace
If it wasn’t clear before: masculinity is not the problem! Traits and behaviors deemed masculine are human traits first and foremost, which means they are natural and essential to social functioning. Unfortunately, it is their intense link to the definition of manhood that can cause tension.
You may understand the issues with toxic masculinity and want to reject it for yourself. You still consider yourself a masculine individual, and would like a form of masculinity not promoting traditional gender roles and in favor of gender equality. There are no mainstream alternatives, but big talks of it: queer masculinity being one form. Despite its name, queer masculinity is a type of masculinity that aims to include queer folks, particularly gay men, and thus allows for disruptions of the traditional masculine ideals. Vulnerability is embraced, alternative gender expressions are non threatening to masculinity, eradicating gender roles, emotional maturity and compassion is praised; it allows for masculine people to be fully people. Because of the word “queer” though, it has been debated as to whether non-queer people should be able to identify themselves with it. As this was created to forcibly allow queer people into masculinity, the term is loaded. Hopefully, a new masculinity that embraces the humanity of the people in it, will emerge as a mainstream contender against hegemonic masculinity.
How to end toxic masculinity
Ending toxic masculinity is “simply” leaping towards the fears of emasculation and embracing them. It is allowing to be fully human, including what is supposed to be shameful about it. This should include openly experiencing emotions and sharing them with others, embracing cooperation over competitiveness where it isn’t needed (sports are fun after all), allowing for vulnerability in conversations and feelings, being kind to oneself and others and viewing softness as a strength.
It will definitely be a process for an individual, and even more so for a society. Hopefully, as this issue gets talked about more, communities of individuals wanting to make change will emerge more fiercely, including role models pushing back against male stereotypes. Certain online forum spaces have committed themselves to engage on these topics and help foster a new masculinity together. In this collective effort, helping others is important too. Welcoming a friend to open up may give them the chance to see the strength in opening up to someone, and the positive impact of being vulnerable. Be the change!