“You aren’t man enough.”
“Come on, don’t be a ______.”
What do these phrases have in common?
You guessed it: They all reinforce toxic masculinity.
Toxic masculinity is one explanation for male violence and sexism. This term distinguishes “toxic” traits, like aggression and self-entitlement, from “healthy” masculinity.
It has grown to the point where Gillette used it in a viral ad against bullying and sexual harassment. Around the same time, the American Psychological Association introduced new guidelines for therapists working with boys and men, warning that extreme forms of certain “traditional” masculine traits are linked to aggression, misogyny, and negative health outcomes.
What is toxic masculinity?
So, what does “toxic masculinity” actually mean?
Before we deconstruct this term, it’s important to clarify that all men are not inherently toxic. Masculinity isn’t inherently toxic either. Rather, toxic masculinity is what happens when boys are taught that they can’t express emotion openly; that they have to be “tough” all the time, and that anything other than “tough” makes them “feminine” or weak.
Toxic masculinity isn’t just about acting like a man. Instead, it’s about the cultural pressure for men to act in a way that’s unhealthy or harmful.
In general, toxic masculinity includes themes of:
- Mental and physical toughness
- Maintaining an appearance of hardness
- Violence as an indicator of power (think: “tough-guy” behavior)
- Not displaying emotion; suppressing emotions or masking distress
- Heterosexism, or discrimination against people who aren’t heterosexual
- Independent to a fault
- Emotional insensitivity
It perpetuates domination, homophobia, and aggression.
Moreover, though toxic masculinity typically shows up within guys, it can be upheld by anyone. (Yes, that means that ladies can also perpetuate toxic masculinity, even unintentionally!)
For decades, nearly all male characters onscreen — James Bond, Gaston of Beauty and the Beast, and Vincent Chase of Entourage — were walking, talking examples of this particular brand of masculinity. It’s easy to see why we all adopted toxic masculinity as a norm without questioning the large-scale, long-term effects on young men across America.
In reality, there is plenty of room for guys to be masculine without being toxic or engaging in hurtful, reckless, or aggressive behavior.
What does toxic masculinity look like?
Toxic masculinity doesn’t just involve obvious displays of swashbuckling or bravado. Often, it shows up in subtle ways you may not even recognize.
For example, how often have you heard:
“Nah, that’s gay.”
“Boys will be boys.”
“You _____ like a girl.”
“Real men don’t cry.”
“You’re too soft.”
All of these phrases dismiss men for failing to conform to heteronormative standards, or for showing emotions. They send the message that guys should not show friendly affection, hold accountability for being considerate, and be void of “feminine” emotions like sadness.
Where does toxic masculinity come from?
It’s hard to pinpoint a single source that creates toxic masculinity, but it is reinforced on reality TV, in books, and by societal attitudes.
In other words, toxic masculinity is what we reinforce when we don’t allow the guys in our lives to express emotion openly.
Why is toxic masculinity such a big deal?
Toxic masculinity affects nearly all boys and men, which leads to larger societal impacts. Bear in mind that, while toxic masculinity is one contributing factor, it isn’t always the sole cause of these issues.
Promotes unhealthy habits and behaviors
Toxic masculinity can lead guys to shirk self-care and push themselves to their physical limits by skimping on sleep or working out even while injured.
Boston College researchers found that men who tended to buy into toxic masculinity were more likely to drink heavily, use tobacco, and avoid vegetables. They were also more likely to normalize risky choices.
Toxic masculinity leads guys to think that aggression and violence are acceptable solutions. Over time, this line of thinking prevents guys from learning better coping skills and communication techniques.
Toxic masculinity ideology also tends to treat women as objects, which contributes to ongoing issues, like sexual harassment and sexual violence. Phrases like “Boys will be boys” enables guys to be aggressive toward others without accountability or consequence.
Reduces altruistic behaviors
In 2019, researchers found that toxic-masculine types are less likely to engage in “helping behaviors,” such as intervening with a bully, consoling a victim, or stopping a physical assault.
Adolescents and teens who don’t fit inside that narrow definition of “manliness” tend to be ostracized because of it.
Stigmatizes mental health
Through the lens of toxic masculinity, stress, depression, and anxiety may be viewed as weakness. When guys are discouraged from talking about their feelings or getting help, this tends to lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness.
What to do about it
So, how can we support men in breaking free of masculinity rules that do more harm than good?
The first step is practicing self-awareness. Be completely honest with yourself about whether you’ve internalized these beliefs. Do you think it’s OK for men to cry? Do you think it’s acceptable for guys to talk about their insecurities? How would you react if your guy friend refused to jump in while your group was bullying someone else?
The next step is talking to others. Talk to the men in your life — your brother, father, uncle, cousins, friends — and get the conversation going. You might find that someone else in your social circle also questions the status quo.
Then, your final step is taking matters into your own hands. Decide how to define manhood and masculinity for yourself. What makes sense to you? What seems right to you? Do you want to continue acting a certain way because you’ve been culturally programmed, or would you rather set an example for those around you?
A Word From A Brighter Day
If you need to talk about the negative effects of toxic masculinity, a counselor can help you recognize how you’re being affected and help you overcome the unhealthy patterns that keep you feeling stuck.