Ideas about masculinity vary across cultures and change over time. However, there are some common threads regarding “manliness” that we see repeatedly, such as the need to display strength, courage, independence, leadership, and assertiveness.
Masculine gender roles often emphasize admirable responsibilities like providing for and protecting one’s family. However, rigid expectations about “traditional masculinity” can also lead to harmful behaviors and attitudes—such as aggression, risk-taking, and unwillingness to admit vulnerability.
Striking a balance between the positive and negative aspects of masculine identity has been an ongoing challenge for men across history, although it’s a goal worth pursuing. After studying the effects of masculine expectations and messaging among men, the American Psychological Association stated, “Socialization for conforming to traditional masculinity ideology has been shown to limit males’ psychological development, constrain their behavior, and result in gender role strain and gender role conflict.”
In this article, learn about the complex nature of masculinity, including both its positive and “toxic” manifestations, as well as strategies that boys and men can use to support their mental health and to uplift those around them.
- Masculinity refers to the attributes, behaviors, and roles traditionally associated with men and boys.
- Stereotypical “masculine men” (or “alpha males”) possess traits including emotional suppression, dominance, ambition, and independence.
- While aspects of masculinity can be positive, such as determination and self-sacrifice, toxic masculinity is associated with poor mental health and unstable relationships.
- Men can embrace positive masculinity by practicing self-reflection, building emotional intelligence, and emphasizing respect and individuality.
What Is Masculinity?
Masculinity is defined in the Cambridge English Dictionary as “The characteristics that are traditionally thought to be typical of or suitable for men.”
While masculinity often draws from biological differences between men and women, according to experts, many of its components are social and cultural constructs. In other words, masculine traits are not something that all boys and men are “born with.” Masculinity is in fact a multifaceted construct that varies across cultures and has somewhat shifted throughout history.
There isn’t one clear meaning of what it means to be a “masculine man”; however, most agree that stereotypical masculinity includes certain characteristics, personality traits, and behaviors.
Traits often associated with traditional Western masculinity include:
- Physical strength
- Emotional stoicism, or not displaying a wide range of emotions
- Reluctance to show vulnerability
- Dominance or assertiveness
- Courage and bravery
- Independence and self-reliance
- Being a “provider and protector”
- Competitive nature
The concept of masculinity has both strengths and weaknesses. While positive masculinity embraces hard work and can lead to success, toxic masculinity discourages individualism and squashes men’s potential.
According to the Society for the Psychological Study of Men and Masculinity, “American society socializes boys and men to conform to a definition of masculinity that emphasizes toughness, stoicism, acquisitiveness, and self-reliance. And that leads to aggressive, emotionally stunted males who harm not just themselves but their children, partners, and entire communities.”
How Boys and Men Develop Masculine Traits
“We raise boys to live in a world in which they are either winners or losers, grandiose or shame-filled, perpetrators or victims. Society shows little mercy for men if they fail in the performance of their masculine script.”— Terry Real, psychologist and author on men’s issues
Masculinity is the result of a blend of influences, including social and cultural norms, biological attributes, upbringing, and individual experiences.
Here’s a breakdown of how masculine traits typically emerge:
- Biological Factors/Hormones: Hormones, especially testosterone, play a key role in shaping men’s behaviors. Starting in utero and continuing through puberty, surges in testosterone influence the development of male sexual characteristics, as well as behaviors typically associated with maleness, such as aggression, competitiveness, and dominance.
- Socialization: From the moment they’re born, boys are often treated differently than girls. Families, peers, educators, and media all perpetuate notions of what is considered “masculine.” Boys are often encouraged to be strong, hide their emotions, and engage in “male-typical” activities, like playing with trucks and superheroes or participating in sports.
- Cultural and Societal Influences: Different cultures have varied standards for masculinity. In many societies, men are expected to be providers, protectors, and the head of the household. These cultural norms shape individual behaviors and expectations. Cultural narratives also inform the kinds of professions, hobbies, and behaviors deemed appropriate for men, such as policemen, military personnel, bankers, firefighters, and doctors.
- Peer Influence and Pressure: As boys grow, peer groups become a significant influence. Boys often feel pressure to conform to group norms, which might mean engaging in risk-taking behaviors, asserting dominance, or suppressing emotions.
- Role Models: The presence (or absence) of male role models can shape a boy’s understanding of masculinity. Fathers, coaches, teachers, and other adult figures can either perpetuate traditional masculine norms or encourage a more well-rounded, emotionally open form of masculinity.
- Media: Television, movies, video games, and more recently, social media platforms, portray models of masculinity that boys and men might either emulate or reject. Heroes, villains, athletes, and celebrities often exemplify specific masculine traits, for better or worse, such as strength, assertiveness, and power.
- Personal Experiences: Events in a boy’s life, such as challenges faced, failures, successes, traumas, and relationships, can also shape their understanding and expression of masculinity. Overcoming adversity, for example, might reinforce notions of resilience and strength. However, for some boys and men, challenging experiences lead to self-limiting beliefs, self-doubt, and poor self-esteem.
Meaning of “Toxic Masculinity” and Its Implications
“One of the most harmful aspects of toxic masculinity, at least for men, is the deprivation of the full range of emotional expression. This leads to an increased incidence of depression and isolation and a lack of meaningful connection with others. The result is an epidemic of loneliness in America and the health impacts are huge.”—The Good Men Project
While some traditional masculine traits are constructive, they can become problematic when taken to harmful extremes, leading to “toxic masculinity.” Toxic masculinity refers to cultural norms around masculinity that encourage domination, devaluation of women, homophobia, and violence which men use to exert power. Dr. Wizdom Powell, a psychiatry professor at UConn Health, considers this type of masculinity to be a distortion of traditional masculine traits and one that tends to be harmful to both men and women, as well as children.
Another issue surrounding toxic masculinity is that it stifles individuality, even at a young age. As the author of Real Boys, Dr. William Pollack, said, “As soon as a boy behaves in a way that is not considered manly, that falls outside the ‘Boy Code,’ he is likely to meet resistance from society–he may merely be stared at or whispered about, he may be humiliated, he may get a punch in the gut, or he may just feel terribly ashamed.”
Examples of Unhealthy/Toxic Masculinity
- Using physical strength to intimidate or harm others.
- Belittling perceived “weakness” in others, such as vulnerability and displays of emotion.
- Viewing women as inferior to men or as objects that should be dominated and controlled.
- Suppressing emotions (other than “acceptable” ones like anger) in order to appear strong and unaffected by others, and expecting other men and boys to be “tough.”
- Blaming others instead of taking ownership and responsibility for one’s problems.
- Avoiding help-seeking (medical attention, emotional support).
- Being the “breadwinner” but resisting being nurturing in other ways.
Problems and Concerns with Toxic (or Traditional) Masculinity
- Pressure to Conform: Men might feel compelled to fit into the “man box” or adhere to rigid stereotypes, which can suppress authentic self-expression.
- Emotional Suppression: Discouraging emotional openness can lead to mental health issues such as depression, poor or shallow interpersonal relationships, and unresolved trauma.
- Neglecting Their Health: Men may avoid seeking medical attention, therapy, or support, or discussing health concerns due to perceived weakness. Instead, they might appear to be stronger than they actually feel, further neglecting their health.
- Strained Relationships: Emotional distance and an inability to communicate feelings can strain romantic and familial relationships. This contributes to loneliness and low self-worth, perpetuating the problem.
- Aggression and Violence: Masculinity associated with aggressiveness and dominance results in higher rates of violent crimes by men.
- Risk-taking Behavior: Men are more prone to reckless behaviors like substance abuse to prove masculinity, which can lead to injuries, addictions, and health issues.
- Workaholism and Neglect of Family: Men are pressured to focus on work identity above all else, leading to a lack of work-life balance.
Ways in Which Masculinity Is Beneficial
“Masculinity, in and of itself, is natural, good, and necessary for the survival and evolution of our species. Positive masculinity is how masculine energy—when consciously-calibrated, wisely-timed, and smartly-appropriated—is courageously life-giving, boldly empowering, and fiercely impactful to individual men and everyone else in their lives.”—Men’s Resource Center of Michigan
Masculinity, when channeled in healthy and constructive ways, offers a range of benefits both for men and the communities they live in. At its core, positive masculinity emphasizes strength, but not just in a physical sense. It promotes emotional resilience, the capacity for self-reflection, leadership, responsibility, and the ability to protect and provide for others.
Ways in which masculinity can be utilized for the greater good include:
- Leadership: Men can leverage the traditionally masculine trait of leadership to mentor, teach, and guide teams, communities, and younger generations toward positive outcomes. For example, men can share wisdom and experience to help others navigate life’s challenges. They can also collaborate in group settings, value the contributions of all members, and delegate tasks to work towards a common goal.
- Protection: Using strength and courage to safeguard vulnerable people and promote security within communities is a positive example of masculinity.
- Responsibility: Men can embrace the role of provider and protector, ensuring the welfare and betterment of their families and friends. Upholding ethical standards, acting with honesty and authenticity, and leading by example are other ways to live by the principle of responsibility.
- Emotional Resilience: Cultivating the capacity to handle stress, overcome obstacles, and remain focused and strong in the face of adversity is an example of positive masculinity in action. This is not about denying vulnerability or suppressing emotions but instead about using logic and emotional intelligence to “respond instead of react” when life gets challenging.
- Advocacy: It’s possible for men to use their voices, power, and influence to champion causes, uplift marginalized groups, and foster equality and justice.
How Men and Boys Can Foster Healthy Masculinity
“Research shows that MOST men don’t personally agree with ‘real men’ stereotypes. Unfortunately, many go along with the expected attitudes and behaviors because they think most other men endorse them. What that means is that most men actually support a fuller range of human emotions and behaviors.”—Princeton University UMatter
The key to positive or healthy masculinity lies in challenging harmful norms and redefining masculinity in more inclusive, empathetic, and emotionally intelligent ways. Boys and men can defend themselves against the negative effects of toxic masculinity by focusing on these steps:
1. Build Emotional Intelligence
- Gain Self-Awareness: Encourage men to understand themselves and their feelings so they better understand others. Tools like journaling, meditation, reading, and deep conversations can all help.
- Identify Emotions: Men are often taught to respond to all types of negative feelings with anger, however naming nuanced emotions and expressing them correctly helps men to respond to and regulate their emotions healthily. Using an emotion list or emotion wheel is one way men can start to get in better touch with their emotions.
2. Embrace Vulnerability
- See Vulnerability As a Strength: Rather then being viewed as a weakness, asking for help and showing vulnerability is actually a reflection of confidence and courage. Men and boys should be encouraged to go after what they want, show that they care, and express that they’re hurt or scared.
- Open Up to Build Trust: Vulnerability is necessary to build deep bonds with people because it displays authenticity. If men wish for other people to be genuine toward them, they must do the same.
3. Improve Communication Skills
- Express Feelings Thoughtfully: Men (and women) should strive to think before speaking, especially when dealing with intense emotions such as anger, fear or disappointment.
- Practice Active Listening: Listening to others with our full attention is a sign of respect, a great way to learn, and one of the keys to forming meaningful relationships.
- Resolve Conflicts Respectfully: Boys need to be taught healthy conflict resolution skills, such as using words, not fists, and not escalating disagreements unnecessarily but rather looking for solutions.
4. Question Masculine Stereotypes
- Engage in Self-Reflection: Self-awareness and reflection on ingrained beliefs and societal norms help us all to grow. Continuously seeking personal growth and understanding allows men to avoid falling into traps about stereotypical manliness.
- Be Authentically You: Recognize that masculinity is not monolithic and that men can define it for themselves outside of cultural constraints.
- Think Beyond Anger: Boys and men should be encouraged to express emotions beyond just anger. Talking helps process feelings, as does reading and writing.
5. Teach Consent and Respect
- Emphasize Respect: The importance of mutual respect and understanding in relationships and interactions should be taught to men at a young age.
- Empathize With and Understand Others: Recognize and value the equality of all genders by challenging sexist beliefs, such as the notion that women are unintelligent or incapable of handling responsibilities.
- No Means No: Young people need to grow up knowing that pressure or coercion is unacceptable. Men should model respect for women as equals instead of engaging in behaviors like catcalling or objectifying. They can also discuss what real consent looks like with boys (it’s freely given and enthusiastic).
6. Support Gender Equality
- Share Domestic Duties: Today, many women expect men to help with chores around the house and childcare. Men can lead by example to normalize these behaviors for younger boys.
- Call out Sexist or Homophobic Comments: This makes it clear that they are unacceptable and looked down upon, instead of glorifying them.
- Promote Women Leaders: Challenge ideas that men are naturally superior by supporting women in positions of power.
Embracing Positive Masculinity for a Fulfilling Life
In an age where the conversation about gender roles is evolving, it’s crucial for men to redefine and reclaim their own sense of identity in ways that uplift, empower, and unite. By fostering a deeper understanding of themselves and their potential, men can leverage the best aspects of masculinity, paving the way for compassion, growth, and positive change in the world.
To explore more about the complex topic of masculinity and gender expression, you can utilize some of these resources:
- Journal: Start a journal to better understand your early influences and experiences and how they shaped your notion of masculinity.
- Therapy: If you deal with problems like self-doubt and lack of confidence, consider working with a therapist who can help you adopt more empowering thoughts and behaviors.
- Read: Gain wisdom from experts in the field of masculinity and gender studies by reading books like The Mask You Live In by Jennifer Siebel Newsom, The Masculine Self by Christopher Kilmartin, and Boys and Sex: Young Men on Hookups, Love, Porn, Consent, and Navigating the New Masculinity by Peggy Orenstein.
Want to learn more about what it means to be emotionally intelligent? Check out this article:
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