Posted on 28 February 2019
With the rise of feminism, the female voice growing in volume, and the rhetoric of masculinity being toxic. It is starting to raise a lot of questions and confusion around the ‘correct’ way to be a man.
Yes, certain masculine stereotypes such as ‘stoicism’, ‘emotional control’and ‘invulnerability’ are not helpful in certain contexts. For instance, men who have a greater desire to fulfil these stereotypes are less likely to seek psychological support. In turn, they may be more inclined to turn to alcohol and drugs whilst placing them at a greater risk of suicide. And this is likely where some of the witch hunts for masculinity come from. To put it simply, toxic masculinity is not only the dimension that includes the mistreatment of women, but also this resistance when asking for help, particularly when it comes to mental health.
Because society has raised us to incorporate all of these things into our identity as a man and to use these stereotypes as a yardstick to measure our worth, it can be a difficult pill to swallow when life gets turbulent. Stress, anxiety and depression can leave many feeling confused and emasculated as these supposedly cannot co-exist with this male image.
Why do we impose such binary stereotypes for men, especially when it comes to looking after both their physical and mental health? Traditionally we have moulded and instilled an unrealistic goal that our young boys must fulfil, that you must excel and show no weakness 100% of the time 365 days of the year – and what’s worse is that we very rarely challenge it. Instead, however, the focus is now that being masculine is toxic, simply ‘manning up’ is the issue, despite this being drummed into our heads since birth.
Throughout studying my PhD that focuses on encouraging men to look after their psychological well-being, the more I fail to understand as to why we have constructed the masculine identity to be so rigid, masculine vs not masculine. It is possible to be strong but still have rough days, it is possible to be powerful but still have moments that make you vulnerable and it is possible to be self-reliant whilst asking others for some help. Simply put, it’s time we were more realistic. It is important that we start to recognise this and begin to re-define masculinity. Most importantly, however, we need to start recognising that masculinity isn’t necessarily toxic.
This narrative is overwhelmingly negative. Other masculine traits that we pride ourselves over can be beneficial to our overall mental state. This desire to be independent and self-reliant encourages us to be resourceful and to look after ourselves better. I mean, going to the gym and smashing a great workout because you’ve been battling with a lot of stress or work anxiety is an excellent self-management strategy. This idea that masculine men are raised to protect others only transpires into them being reliable friends, patient fathers, and loving husbands. And when it comes to responsibility, this encourages men to take ownership of their physical and mental health and take proactive steps in all aspects of their daily lives.
So, when it comes down to masculinity as a whole, it’s not toxic. What is toxic is teaching young boys and men that the correct way to be a man is this pre-defined template which stops them from expressing their emotions and navigating through the world in a healthy, positive way. It’s time to start encouraging men to re-define their own identity and what it means to be a man in a way that doesn’t harm themselves or others. For instance, it requires bravery and courage to communicate your feelings in order to make sense of or solve a problem – more so than ignoring your emotions and bottling it up. So next time things get hard, try to remember that reaching out to others and expressing yourself takes courage and does not make you less of a man – and when your friends or loved ones come to you for support or are having hard days think twice before telling them to ‘man up’.
By Ilyas Sagar – PhD Candidate