Many agree that masculinity has the potential to be harmful, but what about the ways that it can show up in a positive light?
Because of the way masculinity has historically been understood, it’s often associated with negativity and harm.
When discussions of masculinity arise, they often include phrases like “toxic” or “harmful,” especially within clinical studies.
It’s true that the way we’ve consistently seen masculinity expressed is often connected to harm — like sexual assault, domestic violence rates, or homophobia — but there is also room to talk about what’s been missing from the conversation: healthy expressions of masculinity.
A note on gendered language
Gender is not a binary, and society heavily influences the expectations placed on folks of varying gender identities and expressions.
We aim to be encompassing of all of these facts by using terms such as “masculine-identified” or “masculine folks,” but still use terms like “men” and “women” to refer to cisgender individuals or those who were presumed as such via clinical studies.
How is masculinity currently defined?
According to the American Psychological Association, a “traditional masculine ideology” is “a particular constellation of standards that have held sway over large segments of the population, including: anti-femininity, achievement, eschewal of the appearance of weakness, and adventure, risk, and violence.”
Masculinity is often defined through a few societal expectations that focus on:
- sex and sexuality
- strength and control
- emotionality and resilience
- physical attractiveness
How can we redefine masculinity? Real-life examples
To redefine masculinity, a first step could be to remove how “traditional” societal expectations impact our lives.
Still, there’s a slow shift toward more people pushing back against the idea that your mental health shouldn’t be addressed, including mental health professionals, celebrities, and performers.
Mental health professionals advocating for redefining masculinity
The effort to shift what it means to be masculine has a heavy presence in the mental health field.
James Rodriguez, LCSW and director of Trauma-Informed Services at the NYU McSilver Institute for Poverty Policy and Research, says, “It’s difficult for some of my male clients to just relax, breathe, and be calm. Traditional masculinity can lead to bottling things up. Some even directly express the belief that they cannot let their guard down for fear of losing their edge.”
Many therapists are combating this view, encouraging men and masculine folks to center their mental health.
For example, James Harris, LCSW and founder of Men to Heal, tries to break down the stigma surrounding mental health through clinical work and his book, “Man, Just Express Yourself: An Interactive Planner Guide for MEN, Young and Old.”
Still, mental health professionals and advocates stress that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution and that every person comes with a different set of experiences and backgrounds.
“When we talk about traditional masculinity or harmful masculinity, it’s important to do so without stereotyping men. We must recognize that masculine identity intersects with race, class, culture, sexual orientation, gender identity, and a host of other identities that vary by each individual,” says Rodriguez.
Because of this, it can be useful for intentional conversations around healthy masculinity to be culturally competent and specific.
One prominent example is Jayson K. Jones, social worker and assistant director of the McSilver Institute’s Clinical Education and Innovation Department at NYU.
Jones founded and hosts a podcast called Black Boys & Men: Changing the Narrative, in which he has discussions with others in the field about the copious stereotypes and expectations placed on Black boys and men, including those around masculinity.
Like Jones, advocates often highlight the importance of reaching young men and helping them redefine what masculinity means.
“With young men, in particular, traditional masculine ideology may lead them to engage in riskier health behaviors, such as alcohol or drug [misuse], driving at high speeds, or engaging in violence,” says Rodriguez. “It can also result in eating poorly, avoiding doctors, or otherwise not attending to their own health needs or seeking help when something is wrong.”
Healthy masculinity advocates in the media and fashion
While the push for redefining masculinity from mental health professionals is important for driving momentum, celebrities who stand out as mental health and healthy masculinity advocates often have a wider reach, bringing the issue more into the spotlight.
Justin Baldoni — who’s best known from the hit CW television show “Jane the Virgin” — is an advocate for what he calls “undefining” masculinity, detailed in his new book, “Man Enough: Undefining My Masculinity,” which aims to shift the narrative around taking care of yourself and others as a man.
The actor and writer also emphasizes the importance of mental health. Data shows that despite the overall high rates of depression and suicidality coupled with men having higher rates of completed suicide attempts, they are less likely to receive treatment or support.
Other examples we see include folks in media and fashion, breaking past gender roles and norms to both be themselves and shatter societal expectations.
Some examples include folks like Lil Nax X or Jaden Smith, who regularly wear clothing seen as “traditionally feminine” while maintaining their understanding of themselves as men, regardless of sexuality.
Others include folks rejecting the binary completely such as Alok Vaid-Menon, a writer and performer who is transfeminine and identifies as gender nonconforming.
What can I do?
While it’s a significant step forward to see more examples of healthy masculinity in the media, many people are unsure about what they can do to break down stereotypes and bring about lasting change in how masculinity is viewed.
Here are some suggestions to get you started.
Check your internal and external biases
Something important to remember is that misogyny (usually defined as the hatred of women) is pervasive.
This means that toxic masculinity has the potential to affect more than men and masculine-identified individuals.
It’s essential for people to show up as their best selves and investigate the reasons behind their thoughts and feelings that surround gender and gender roles.
Hold each other accountable
This may be a hard pill to swallow, but many people uphold misogyny and toxic masculinity through everyday interactions — often unintentionally.
It’s essential to try and hold each other accountable and address problematic behavior if it’s safe to do so. In doing so, we can help each other unlearn ingrained lessons about being masculine.
Embrace your full humanity — regardless of what others may think
Everyone should be allowed to behave in ways that feel authentic to them, even if it may not align with what society deems “masculine.”
Of course, this is easier said than done, as the current definition of masculinity doesn’t necessarily allow people to be their true selves. People are all subject to placing their limited understanding and biases on other people.
This means that a friend of yours can hold harmful understandings of what masculinity is supposed to look, sound, and feel like. Yet, their opinions shouldn’t stop you from living in a way that feels true to yourself.
If you wish to engage in behaviors that aren’t traditionally deemed masculine but aren’t actively harming you or anyone else, consider taking a step toward what feels right to you without leaning into “should” statements.
Remember that self-care isn’t selfish
Centering your mental health and emotional needs as a masculine person can feel like the direct opposite of what we’ve been taught.
But doing so is vital for everyone, regardless of gender, gender identity, or sexuality.
Even if you think of things in terms of more traditional (but not necessarily harmful) gender roles, and you hold on to the desire to provide for your loved ones — how can you do so sustainably if you aren’t OK?
Self-care looks different for everyone, but try penciling it in — in whatever way works best for you.
Masculinity is not inherently toxic — it’s just the way people have accepted its place in society.
As with anything, it’ll take time to shift the narrative entirely, but you can always begin with some introspection and spread it into your circles of friends and colleagues.
The conversations around masculinity are often negative, but there is room for that to shift.
If you’re interested in the conversations folks are having, consider checking out Baldoni’s book or Jones’ podcast.
If you have found that you are navigating some tough situations that you’d like support with, consider reaching out to a mental health professional without the feeling of shame.
Try to keep in mind that while challenging gender stereotypes and dealing with mental health issues may be difficult, you don’t have to do it alone, and support is available.