Masculinity does not have to be harmful, but when it is, there are many ways this affects the health of individuals and society.

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When it comes to masculinity, we commonly hear of its toxic nature.

Often, the way toxic masculinity affects society is discussed. The effects it can have on an individual have also been researched, but usually from the perspective of the victim of violence or aggression.

While these both continue to be valid concerns and points of research, there are also health effects to consider. A 2015 national survey showed that almost 9% of men had depression and anxiety daily, but less than half of those polled ever talked with a mental health professional or took medication for their symptoms.

Toxic masculinity — aka harmful masculinity — is a set of behaviors and values that are connected to a traditional and potentially antiquated understanding of gender roles.

Masculinity is not inherently toxic or problematic. What can be is the traditional and widely accepted understanding of the term and the harmful ways it can show up in society.

With toxic masculinity, weakness is always a negative and often perceived as relating to femininity.

This is where misogyny and toxic masculinity overlap. In misogyny (often defined as the hatred of women), femininity is labeled as a negative, rather than just something that exists.

According to a 2020 U.S. study, toxic masculinity can create the belief that “proper” masculinity has to look a particular way, which can include aggression, hostility, and hyper-resilience.

This might look like:

  • The desire or expectation of “toughness.” This can be mental or physical toughness, or both, and sometimes translates into aggression.
  • Equating feelings and emotions as weak. This might lead you to not display feelings or emotions, being insensitive to others’ feelings, or even avoiding them entirely.
  • Discrimination. This can present as homophobia, transphobia, or other versions of discrimination based on harmful ideologies, like fatphobia.

Harmful masculinity can show up in everyday conversation, sometimes in subtle ways that you might not immediately realize.

It might be the assumption that a man can lift more weight in the gym, or the idea that multiple sexual partners is reasonable for men but not women.

Some other examples of toxic masculinity in conversation?

  • “That’s girl stuff.”
  • “Man up!”
  • “No homo!”

Toxic masculinity has the potential to affect both the individual and the people they interact with.

Effects on society

Buying into this harmful understanding of masculinity is a major contributor to rape culture. This is the idea that sexual assault is the fault of the survivor instead of the perpetrator.

You might have heard that “boys will be boys,” which notoriously rids “boys” — who are usually grown men — of personal responsibility, due to what they understand masculinity to encompass.

One example of this is when women or feminine-presenting folks are asked questions about their behaviors after an assault, assuming that the incident was in some way their fault or could have been avoided, instead of the putting the fault on the masculine person.

This traditional understanding of masculinity doesn’t just affect people who are assigned male at birth or those who identify as men.

Internalized misogyny is when individuals who are often harmed by misogyny unconsciously adopt some of these ideologies. Because misogyny and toxic masculinity commonly go hand-in-hand, women, nonbinary, and feminine-identifying folks are also subject to harmful behaviors based on these understandings.

This might show up as someone judging their masculine partner for personal choices they deem feminine, or judging another feminine friend for engaging in activities they consider masculine.

Effects on health

Experts suggest that one implication of toxic masculinity is that asking for help is considered a sign of weakness.

In a 2020 study, they discuss how North American understandings of traditional masculinity equate femininity and weakness, informing men and masculine folks’ attitudes around health.

The researchers said that data supports the theory that there are “associations between adherence to traditional masculine norms and depression, anxiety, hostile behaviors, and other adverse mental health outcomes.”

In other words, people who stick to the traits of toxic masculinity may have lower mental well-being.

They also note how this might look like not acknowledging mental health concerns, in addition to worsening those concerns.

But research in 2014 and 2021 suggests that these beliefs can affect things like sexual health and adequate sleep, respectively.

What’s more, a 2011 study suggests that men and masculine folks from differing ethnic backgrounds and lower socioeconomic standings are even less likely to reach out for assistance. This means it’s more likely that people from marginalized communities will have inadequate mental health resources.

While it may be difficult to address and challenge toxic masculinity in your life, there are ways to break through the stigma and barriers.

Question your current understandings of masculinity

Try thinking about what you presently consider masculine, and then interrogate where those beliefs came from and how they look in practice.

Consider asking yourself questions like:

  • Have I ever denied myself something because I felt it was feminine?
  • Have I judged someone else for not being masculine enough?
  • Have I found myself adhering to any of the potentially harmful behaviors from above?

Even if you choose to not share these findings with anyone else, thinking intentionally about how you may personally lean into toxic masculinity is progress.

Be OK with where you are

The traditional — and toxic — understanding of masculinity is widespread and can affect anyone.

Rather than feeling shame about where you are right now, know that it’s OK to acknowledge any areas that you feel you may need to address.

Even those who find themselves educating others on the dangers of rape culture or advocates for gender parity did not begin where they are right now — everyone has learning experiences.

Challenge those who value your opinion

It can be a challenge to push back against widely accepted understandings or behaviors, but nothing will change if everyone stays silent.

For example, if you hear a masculine friend make a comment about refusing to see a therapist even though they’re having a rough time, consider asking why, and be willing to have a thoughtful and patient conversation.

Additionally, it’s important to support those who are often recipients of these toxic beliefs — particularly women, feminine-presenting folks, and members of the LGBTQIA+ community.

While people from all of these marginalized groups are capable of advocating for themselves, because some men and masculine folks choose to assert their masculinity with violence or aggression, there can sometimes be a hesitance to be vocal.

Toxic masculinity is pervasive — but masculinity does not need to be toxic or harmful.

However, harmful masculinity is connected to traditional beliefs of what masculinity means. This makes it important to be intentional about recognizing how it shows up in everyday life, and having conversations about the origins of your beliefs and how they connect to larger issues in society.

Regardless of your gender identity and expression, you can be a perpetrator or victim of toxic masculinity.

If you feel like you’ve leaned into harmful behaviors, being honest with yourself is a great starting point. But you can always reach out to a mental health professional if you want support processing situations and unpacking feelings.