Masculinity is a Health Crisis Too

August 15, 2017

What does it mean to “be a man?”  Words commonly associated with the male figure include gentleman, jock, mama’s boys, strong, tall, big, handsome, stud, rough, tough, charming, robust, protective, hero, powerful *gasp for breath*, aggressive, funny, player, cocky, arrogant, hardworking, nice, sexy, cute, short, fat, fit, bald, hot, smart, athletic and the list still goes on. Our views of men begin at a young age and often do not grow out of the childish lens.


Our culture teaches young boys that to be a man is to have athletic ability. To be a man is to be strong or “buff” like the football player out on the field. If you do not like football, then you should excel at wrestling or baseball. So often I saw boys on sports teams parade their athletic agility while simultaneously treating boys of non-physical ability as inferior. This aggression begins young and turns into complete ignorance or badmouthing with age. This could stem from the need to prove that an individual is more of a “man” than his teammates. 



To consider how deeply ingrained athletic ability correlates to masculinity, think of a time you heard someone say, “Well he is only in theater” or, “Are his parents okay with him being a band geek?” This should be enough to highlight the obvious issue! It is wrong to demote these two magnificent after-school activities, because they ARE wonderful pastimes that teach boys and girls how to enjoy self-expression, understand the significance of teamwork, and gain a sense of community, enjoying it through learning, experience, and performance. However, some parents struggle to understand and empower their children as they grow up. The concept of “being a man” overshadows the desire to guide their children to enjoy their youth safely, successfully, and in tune with their authenticity.
Athletic ability has NOTHING (0%, nada) to do with how much of a man a male can be. Neither does strength or size. Society, social media, family dynamics, and even music can portray incorrect notions about how men should be valued. Besides athleticism, sexual conquest and economic success are two other topics that we stereotype men in on, which I will elaborate on later. 

The way a man feels he is doing in the dating pool affects his attitude. Even when I was younger, I noticed boys having uplifted spirits whenever they conversed about “hitting it off”—as in getting along, seeing eye to eye, and/or being compatible—with a girl. It is rare this would happen at young ages, but there were exceptions. This type of boxed masculinity has affected the way both heterosexual and homosexual relationships form. The built up images of women from media, of how a girl must have big hips, a thin waistline, apparent breasts—we’ve all come across these perpetually harmful stereotypes—doesn’t help either. Toxic masculinity, as the buzzword calls it, stops men from being able to show emotions, leading to physical acts being the only way to elicit kind, emotional language. This leads into using sex to fulfill an emotional need and further isolates males by encouraging continual sexual conquest. I do not mean to go into “chivalry” is dead sort of thing, but the interactions between males and females, influenced by traditional masculinity, have changed the ways girls and boys, men and woman, can express friendship and actually be friends, or be in a healthy relationship. 

Harris O'Malley (AKA Dr. NerdLove) explains in “When Masculinity Fails Men,” “Traditional masculinity makes it more difficult for there to be legitimate friendships between men and women; men, after all, supposedly can’t be friends with a woman without sex inevitably getting in the way. The socially mandated distance – when every non-sexual relationship between men and women is predicated on dishonesty by definition – makes it harder for men to actually communicate openly and honestly with women and understand how women are socialized to communicate…” When friendship is not genuine, respectful,  and understanding, it extenuates that, “men are prone to misreading signals, assuming interest where none exists, or being unable (or unwilling) to take friendship for friendship’s sake rather than a way to backdoor their way into a girl’s…,” This then leads to a couple problems regarding sexual conquest.


Brown University could not have said it any better on their blog post "Unlearning Toxic Masculinity": “How men are socialized plays into the type of violence that exists in college communities. The harm and violence that men inflict is not strictly contained to self-harm. Men will often resort to violence to resolve conflict because anger is the only emotion that they have been socialized to express.” 


In American culture, growing up, I received the message that the more sex a boy or a man has, and the more alcohol he drinks, the more “masculine” and successful he feels. I did not receive this message from my family, but through the media—magazines, TV shows, movies—major playing factor. This definitely does not relate to all males though.


Unfortunately, the way that young men are conditioned to view sex and alcohol, and their need to be dominant and have power over others also contribute to instances of sexual assault and other forms of interpersonal violence on college campuses. Some males feel superior to other males when sex is accomplished for the first time, or accomplished again and again, or when extreme quantities of alcohol are drunk. I will never forget when a friend of mine stated, “once someone gets out the wine, I will get soft,” suggesting his true emotions will come out after he takes an alcoholic beverage. He is not the first.


On top of all of this is the outlook humans have on economic success, with gender roles as well as history impacting it. Many men place their value in what occupation they have and how much money they make. If they are not prosperous on the financial and occupation paths, not only is a toll taken in their mental health, as well as their significant other's, but men literally feel their worth as a man failing. Then the issue of failure rises, which has its own problems. It is a degrading cycle.


(Source: Be A Man: Joe Ehrmann at TEDxBaltimore 2013)


Taking a look at the holistic effect traditional masculinity has on guys, Harris O’Malley found, unsurprisingly, “... it’s the fragile nature of masculinity and the constant need to be forever on one’s guard against the potential consequences of gender atypical behavior that takes greatest toll on men. A study on masculinity and aggression from the University of South Florida found that innocuous – yet feminine – tasks could produce profound anxiety in men. As part of the study, a group of men were asked to perform a stereotypically feminine act--braiding hair in this case– while a control group braided rope. Following the act, the men were given the option to either solve a puzzle or punch a heavy bag. Not surprisingly, the men who performed the task that threatened their masculinity were far more likely to punch the bag; again, violence serving as a way to reestablish their masculine identity. A follow-up had both groups punch the bag after braiding either hair or rope; the men who braided the hair punched the bag much harder. A third experiment, all the participants braided hair, but were split into two groups: those who got to punch the bag afterwards and those who didn’t. The men who were prevented from punching the bag started to show acute signs of anxiety and distress from not being able to reconfirm their masculinity.”

This issue does not target only heterosexual men, but also targets gay men, because gay men, first and foremost, are men. We’re not immune to the cultural conditioning that comes with growing up in a society that views femininity as “weak” and “lesser.” Sexism among gay men persists because of misogyny, truly the root of homophobia.


Just think about it. Gay men are stereotyped as feminine because like women, they have sex with men, and society has a negative association with femininity. It’s an insult to walk, throw, or talk like a girl. When a gay man is beaten up, or taunted as a “faggot,” it’s because he’s viewed as being like a woman. Which is the “worst” thing a man can be. 

As Nico Lang writes in his blog, “We can all benefit from a little education, and instead of brushing off accusations of sexism…we should just listen. But if gay men don’t evolve past their own misogyny, it’s not because our sexuality gives us a pass. It’s because we refuse to learn.”

“Unlearning Toxic Masculinity” states that, “In 2000, the World Health Organization (WHO) acknowledged the need to pay greater attention to the shorter life expectancy of men and identified a lack of understanding of the role of ‘masculinity’ in shaping men’s expectations and behaviors as a primary causative factor for the health disparity between men and women.” They determined that risk-taking behaviors and lack of willingness to seek help were among the reasons for negative health outcomes that men experience.


This lack of willingness to seek help is not limited to physical injury and illness. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention reports that the suicide rate for men is about four times higher than it is for women. Dominance stresses the minds of boys, for some, to the point where they don’t want to exist anymore. This issue, often referred to as toxic masculinity, is mentally, physically and emotionally unhealthy. 


Our ideas of masculinity have roots in early development and do not change much. They are seen in athleticism, relationships, and occupations. Attempting to adhere to the strict guidelines of what it means to “be a man” leads to higher suicide rates, more accounts of sexual assault, and earlier deaths. This is why masculinity is a health crisis. Men do not have a lot of spaces to have open and honest conversations about the different things that they are dealing with, like how they cope with emotions or deal with conflict, and this should change. Programs that promote healthy outlets for men to deal with emotions, both as organizations for the public and as clubs in schools would assist to validate men’s vulnerability, without the need for alcohol to show emotion. Everyone, from children to the elderly, need to encourage men to show their true self in friend groups, at family dinners, and so on. 



Works Cited 


When Masculinity Fails Men,


 Unlearning Toxic Masculinity,


Sorry, Gay Guys, I’m Not Here For Your Casual Misogyny




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