Understanding Toxic Masculinity
This weekend on What's Up TV we explore Toxic Masculinity. Here's what you need to know.
'Masculinity’ is described in the Oxford English Dictionary as "qualities or attributes regarded as characteristics of men" and in recent years there has been an ever-growing awareness of the toxic side of these traits. However, prior to all of the media coverage it’s safe to say the issue has been affecting many aspects of society for a while. The phrase ‘toxic masculinity’ is being used more commonly these days, however, the question “what is the definition of this term?” is being used even more frequently. According to the Urban Dictionary, it is “a social science term that describes narrow repressive types of ideas about the male gender role, that defines masculinity as exaggerated masculine traits like being violent, unemotional, sexually aggressive, and so forth.” Norms include practices such as: suppressing emotion, emotional control, relationship dominance, aggression, violence, forcefulness, self-reliance, constant pursuit for status, and competitiveness/winning. Stereotypical phrases are: "be tough, stay in control, be a provider", which can all have a negative backlash on men.
Here at What’s Up TV, our main concern is about how the toxic side of masculinity affects the mental health of young men. When emotions are suppressed or released via a negative outlet (e.g. violence) there can be a resulting decline in an individuals’ mental health. The inability to converse about these problems, can result in psychological issues. One form of escapism is to numb the emotional pain by using harmful coping methods such as drugs or alcohol. Shockingly, over 2 million men in the UK are alcohol dependent.
From my research I found that a lot of mental health issues stem from 'masculine norms' or the 'rules' of masculinity, these include specific ways in which family or environmental expectations form harmful behaviours from boyhood. Joel Wong, a tenured Professor in the Counseling and Counselling Psychology Programs at Indiana University led a study which collated results from more than 70 US-based studies involving more than 19,000 men over 11 years. It focused on the relationship between mental health and the compliance to 11 masculine norms. Wong concluded, "In general, individuals who conformed strongly to masculine norms tended to have poorer mental health and less favourable attitudes toward seeking psychological help, although the results differed depending on specific types of masculine norms."
When men are going through stressful events or enduring negative emotions, they may feel like they must adhere to masculine norms which causes them to keep their true emotions buried and become fiercely self-reliant. Based on this information, mental health issues like anxiety can lead to depression, which can then, in extreme cases, lead to suicide.
As it stands, suicide is the single biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK – with 84 men on average taking their life each week. That's an unsettling figure of 12 men on average every day!
From the horrific statistic above, you will probably understand why we are covering this issue. So many more young men need to be aware that as a society we need to allow other men to feel confident in showing emotion such as crying. This is perfectly natural as it’s a feeling, and just because we’re men – that doesn't make us any less masculine.
Another issue which stems from extreme masculinity that has also been noticed in recent years, is the developing violence problem we are seeing within our communities. Between January 2018 - 2019 violent crimes have increased by 19%. In my perception, and from personal situations I have been in, I believe men accumulate to a large sum of these crimes as a lot of males believe ‘real’ men solve their unsettled difficulties through conflict. It’s upsetting to see men (prominently young males) express their emotions in a negative way.
It’s safe to say that it isn’t just males that influence the concept of toxic masculinity - women play a large role as well, in terms of shaping the practices and the expectations of their counterparts. For example, as women rely on men to be the ‘providers’, they may not understand the mental stress that they put on fathers, partners and brothers. Masculine traits are something that women can also possess. In addition, taking on attributes such as uncontrolled aggression can cause physical and mental pain which causes them to heavily take it out on men. More recently, it is the introduction of ‘female masculinity’ that we start to see women act in masculine ways, taking on masculine aesthetics.
Although toxic masculinity is such a big subject, as a society we have to ask ourselves what we can continuously do to address this issue. Here are a few things that can be done:
Speak out! – For example, instead of condoning stereotypical masculine phrases like ‘boys don’t cry, man up’. Allow your friend, partner, brother to feel comfortable talking about how they are feeling.
Be open with other men – Dare to be vulnerable, show strength by crying! Do this in the knowledge that all men go through emotional difficulties.
Don’t teach boys that they shouldn’t express their emotions – Don’t humiliate them when they’re upset, allow them to understand that it is okay to feel what you feel.
Pay attention to the environment you are bringing your child up in – As a boy, the environment you are exposed to can potentially shape the persona you carry when you are a man. Male figures need to ensure they are promoting positivity in a child’s life instead of masculine norms such as aggression, self-reliance, and competitiveness.
However, with increasing new research focusing on the foundation of male behaviour and the harms of certain masculine stereotypes it is clear to say there is a hope for a greater awareness and positive change.
Why I decided to research Toxic Masculinity
Although I was not aware of this concept, dating back to my last recalled memory, I have been exposed to masculinity, specifically the toxic side my whole life. From social dominance in my household as a child, to negative conversations during lunch breaks in secondary school – it has always been something which has been prominent in my life. However, I never knew there was a name for it.
Until I joined YMCA: Right Here, a health and wellbeing project for 11 – 25-year olds based in Brighton and Hove as a youth ambassador. Whilst working with them I was introduced to the term ‘toxic masculinity’ and helped curate an exhibition called ‘FEAR/LESS’ which challenged the way we as a society think about masculinity, and how it is having a growing impact on the mental health of young men.
During that time period I spent a long while researching masculinity, which is where my passion grew. Learning all this information about a subject that was very personal to me was really enlightening.
Being a man myself, I knew I had displayed toxic masculine traits before, especially after being exposed to it. From that point onwards I knew I wanted to pursue further work around the subject, as I believed from my personal experiences and research – I could create a piece which sheds light on the issue and subsequently improves the awareness around it. In attempt to, hopefully, make men feel more comfortable to show their emotion.
In this item, our presenter Joe Forrester caught up with Dr. Rachel O’Neill - from the London School of Economics about whether she thinks the term ‘toxic masculinity’ is negatively stigmatising men; as well as how masculinity plays a part in women’s lives.
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