“Toxic Masculinity.” On an almost daily basis, I see this term being used in social media. When people want to encourage men to be more open about their emotions, they’re going against toxic masculinity. When male to female relationships and/or friendships end or get compromised, toxic masculinity is often cited as one of the main reasons. It’s becoming such a common issue in today’s era as it covers such a wide array of actions and behaviors: from how men dress, treat other people, view women, and even how they view themselves. But if it’s such a prevalent issue, why do we rarely see it getting addressed?
The term “toxic masculinity” is often defined as the strict adherence to exaggerated masculine traits that have a negative impact on society. These traits are embodied through the sayings “men don’t cry”, “men should always be strong”, “the more dominant you are the more manly you are”, “it’s a shame to get beaten by a girl”, and many more. These are standards overly glorified by patriarchal societies (which compose of most of the societies in the world) that are both sadly hard to live up to but also hard to stop aiming for.
Think of the typical male lifecycle. From a young age, boys engage in rough and competitive play. The individuals that often win in these activities get praised and thus feel good about it. Since it makes them feel better about themselves, they’ll want to start winning more and more until they eventually can’t stand the thought of losing. For most boys, this cycle is often halted since winning all of the time is difficult, but for those who do win most of the time, an over inflated sense of self-esteem is likely to develop and this frequently remains as the person grows up. They’re also taught that they should never lose to girls so that adds more fuel to the fire.
This is supported by Erik Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development. According to his theory, children from ages 5 to 12 belong to the “Industry vs Inferiority” stage. This is the stage of life wherein a child’s group of friends become very significant to them and turn into a major factor for their self-esteem. Children will want to gain their friends’ approval by displaying competencies and behaviors that the group values. If a group of young boys are taught by their parents to value traits that only emphasize strength and competitiveness without being taught to also value kindness, open-mindedness, and equality, then the other members of the group will also follow. Their peers will most likely conform and try to mold themselves into what their peer groups value to avoid being outcast, making them feel inferior.
There’s also the issue of how we choose our role models. This is where media and literature play a big part in. All too often people watch movies and series where the male protagonist is a stereotypical, macho guy who never loses. The guy has the best skills, is tough as a rock, has the best body, and gets the pretty girl. Yes, people are aware that these are fictional stories, but being exposed to them constantly subconsciously affects our standards over time. Men see the females around them fall in love with these characters or celebrities leading them to think “That’s what I should be like to get attention. That’s what I should be like to get admired. That’s what I should be like to get loved.” This can also give men an “ideal self”(person who they aspire to be) that’s too hard to reach. The more incongruent a person’s real self and his ideal self is, the more likely they’ll have a lower sense of self-esteem and the higher the chance for emotional distress is.
Even though women are the ones who mainly complain about toxic masculine behaviors, a lot of them unknowingly reinforce it. Growing up in patriarchal societies, men would want to feel superior to women and thus want to be admired by them. If women’s standards fall for the stereotypical tough, athletic guy with a dominant personality then men would also want to work towards that standard. This is hard to counter since even in older times women have been taught to look for strong and capable men to ensure a better life for themselves and a better chance for survival. There are even instances where women themselves make fun of men that are more open with their emotions.
Reinforcement from peers also plays a big factor. Men these days are often praised for their ability to acquire women as sexual partners. This leads to men thinking that the more girls they get, the cooler they are or the higher their social ranking gets when in fact this shouldn’t be something to be proud of, since a lot of males that have this mentality use manipulation as a means to ensure their “success rate” in acquiring women to boost their self-esteem. It also promotes cheating or adultery.
All these factors have two things in common: self-esteem, and love and belonging. Self-esteem is a very important part of a person’s mental health no matter what sex or gender. Every individual has the need for love and belonging. If people think that conforming to toxic societal standards would mean they’d get loved, then a lot of individuals would do it. These are even a part of psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
While there is nothing wrong with men being taught to be strong, competent, and to play a role as a provider, there is something wrong when they’re taught that they can’t be anything other than that. It’s systematically wrong when men are led to think that that’s the only way they can have a healthy level of self-esteem or that’s the best way they’ll get accepted in society. There are billions of men in the world and these restrictive social standards can’t possibly fit for all of them. There’s a very diverse range of personalities and preferences that men have that can’t be confined through stereotypical norms and gender roles. There are and will always be men that will cry more easily than others, be more open about their emotions, have more female friends than male friends, show more affection easily towards their friends, and even have a more feminine taste in clothing yet still be heterosexual. There’s nothing wrong with this and society needs to realize this.
Yes, the stereotypical model for a man does work for a lot of people, but it also doesn’t work for a lot of others. This is because there’s so much pressure and restriction that comes with the traditional gender role. It doesn’t allow a lot of room for failure or weakness, when in reality, we will all still have our own flaws. Think about the men who aren’t able to meet the standard. The ones who failed to be the provider, the “beta males”, those who failed to meet their ideal version of a strong, tough guy compared to their friends, those who have a lot of problems that can’t express themselves, and those whose personalities just simply don’t fit in with their peers. Upon reflection, they may think of themselves as failures or losers and get demoralized. Their self-esteem might drop to dangerously low levels. Low levels of self-esteem can even lead to depression and actually is one of the symptoms for the disorder. This is probably one of the reasons why numbers of male suicides are usually much higher compared to women’s. There are countries that have male suicide rates ranging from 75% to as much as four times higher than women’s suicide rates. Based on this connection, we can actually say that toxic masculinity might literally be killing men.
Furthermore, while a lot of men don’t open up about their emotional issues, cry or show their emotions, this doesn’t mean that those issues disappear. They don’t just go down the drain, but instead manifest in other ways such as aggression, attention-seeking, over competitiveness, and more.
One of the possible solutions for this lies within the root causes of the problem: self-esteem and need for love and belonging. While we can’t change the fact that a person needs to have a healthy level of self-esteem, we can change what people’s views on what can boost their self-esteem are. The standards for self-esteem can vary according to what behaviors, skills, and traits the environment that a person belongs to values. There’s nothing wrong with valuing strength and competence. But instead of just overemphasizing those traits, why not equally value empathy? Why not put emphasis on humility, openness and emotional intelligence?
We can have a large impact on the people around us and just a little encouragement, support, and acceptance of men with non-harmful but non-stereotypical behaviors can go a long way in terms of emotional support. Be that person that gains the trust of the class “tough guy” enough for him to share his problems. Be that one friend that supports your guy friend’s hobby that’s viewed as “unmanly” as long he doesn’t harm anyone. We should also not tolerate our peers showing traits that we know to be toxic. It all starts with how we treat our friends, family, and raise our future children. Aside from solely basing our world views on societal roles and norms, why not we also try to view things on a more logical and scientific standpoint that teaches us that men have the same capacity for emotions that women have? This would show men that there’s nothing wrong with having and expressing emotions since it’s just a part of being human, as well as teach us that women have the same cognitive capacity or level of intelligence that men have overall which means that there’s completely nothing wrong with a woman being more intelligent or working herself to a better social or financial position.
In the end it’s not about the sex or gender role.
It’s about the individual.
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. (2018). Suicide Statistics. Retrieved Dec 9, 2020. From. https://afsp.org/suicide-statistics/?fbclid=IwAR0DToLHhfPRw25azcuhI8VyF8AO4B83NbHX0oNktgdC3WQZgfkTf1EYRds
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Latham, T. (2011, Apr 28). The Psychology of Men, real men don’t talk about their feelings, or do they? Retrieved December 8, 2020. From. https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/therapy-matters/201104/the-psychology-men?fbclid=IwAR1gybUDN16ZeQIFjghfHUmUMJO6TlfIpFKAP-PBikyhjwtEq2dzVv9NK54
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