Comparing Healthy and Toxic Masculinity

How do you think men should behave? Are there characteristics, beliefs, or attitudes you consider unmanly? Do you, or does someone you know, have a limiting and rigid view of masculinity?

Although a growing number of people have healthy views of masculinity – their beliefs aren’t restrictive and don’t encourage actions that have the potential to harm themselves or others – there are also strong and polarising messages in cultures, societies, and social media about what types of behaviours are acceptable for men. Among the most common and damaging perspectives is the belief that in order for men to call themselves ‘real men’ they must follow a strict and narrow code of behaviour where they must reject anything associated with femineity and seek out power.

These behavioural rules place tremendous limits on what boys and men feel at liberty to pursue and accomplish, negatively impacts their physical and mental health, and often harms the people around them. Because of the damage it causes, this type of masculinity is commonly referred to (by those who oppose it) as ‘toxic masculinity’.

There isn’t anything problematic or inherently toxic about masculinity or for men to enjoy things traditionally associated with their gender, such as playing sport, driving and fixing cars, or fishing. Healthy masculinity involves someone being comfortable with themselves as a man without feeling the need to act in ways or avoid doing certain things because they’re considered ‘too feminine’ and encouraging the same behaviour in others.

If you have beliefs about masculinity that discourage you from doing certain things and promote damaging behaviours, rethinking your interpretation of masculinity can be incredibly valuable.

Anyone can benefit from understanding the common beliefs and consequences of toxic masculinity, including women. You can recognise the harm they’re causing and be in a better position to encourage someone to change unhealthy beliefs if you can help them understand how they’re harmful, not only for the people who are impacted but themselves as well.

Toxic masculinity is limiting, damaging, and authoritative as it places an almost endless set of conditions on how you can behave and what you’re allowed to do. This is why life is better when you use your own beliefs and values to form a healthy perspective of masculinity, gender roles, and what is and isn’t acceptable for men.

What is masculinity and when is it unhealthy?

Masculinity is based on the qualities, attributes, and behaviours societies typically associate with the male gender.

There is nothing inherently toxic about masculinity, and some very positive qualities are considered masculine, such as wanting to protect others, provide for family-members, and showing determination or courage. Under the right circumstances, it can motivate positive behaviours, such as commitment to finishing a task or keeping a promise, showing bravery during times of uncertainty, or pursuing ambition.

Certain aspects of gendered masculinity can seem natural and are entrenched in beliefs about what’s normal for men – such being less emotional than women, having more authority in public and private life, and being less likely to ask for help – but these are all social constructs. Understanding that these are cultural norms and not biological can make it easier to question them.

Masculinity becomes unhealthy when it encourages behaviours that are harmful both for the individual and how they treat others. The most common and damaging of these include:

  1. Suppressing emotions

One of the most prominent features of toxic masculinity is that men must deny and suppress all emotions because are logical rather than emotional. The only acceptable emotions for men are anger and lust.

Insisting you’re not upset by something, such as a huge disappointment or a betrayal, is incredibly challenging and forces your mind to work hard to suppress natural reactions. And suppressed emotions don’t go away. In time they emerge, typically as the only acceptable emotion for men who practice toxic masculinity to feel – anger.

People who suppress their emotions create the illusion of being less bothered or unaffected by difficulties, but they’re actually more impacted and for longer than those who allow themselves to experience and learn from their emotional reactions.

  1. Pursuit of power

According to the beliefs of toxic masculinity, power, authority, and control over others is one of the most important indicators of manliness. Therefore, men must attempt to gain dominance over those who are considered weaker than them, especially women because all women are inherently weaker than men.

Wanting to gain influence isn’t inherently harmful, but when power is a status symbol and damaging behaviours are considered acceptable methods to gain this power, then the belief that one must be powerful becomes dangerous.

Men can refuse to listen to others, compromise, change their minds, or admit when they made a mistake because they’re afraid it will make them appear less powerful. They can also mistreat people in an attempt to assert their authority, which has the potential to create conflicts and drive people away.

Rather than trying to earn respect through establishing an esteemed reputation, some men with unhealthy beliefs about masculinity think they deserve to be respected because of their manly nature.

  1. Responding to all threats and challenges – real and perceived – with aggression or violence

This goes hand in hand with the need for men to have power as they’re encouraged to gain this authority through violence or the threat of it.

Aggression is itself considered a sign of masculinity so men and boys are encouraged to become aggressive, even when there are much better responses and this type of behaviour isn’t warranted.Men and boys get in fights at higher rates than women because toxic masculinity claims that this in an appropriate response to tense interactions, teasing, and differing opinions.

Men are also more likely to experience avoidable conflicts that aren’t resolved in healthy ways, since negotiating and compromising are considered weak.

  1. Refusing to ask for help

According to toxic masculinity, men must be entirely self-sufficient so they can never ask for help, even if someone else could do a better job or they don’t have the ability or resources to do what they’re attempting. Men can end up experiencing burnout, getting frustrated or overwhelmed by when they’re attempting, or not do something that would require help. (This is apparent in the common cliché of men refusing to ask for directions.)

While challenging yourself to figure something out on your own or pushing yourself to finish a difficult job can be a valuable quality and character-building experience, it’s also important to know when you’re driving yourself too far or don’t have the skills to do a well on something important and you would benefit from asking for help.

  1. Not taking care of themselves or admitting when they’re sick

Some men believe that taking care of themselves is an act of weakness. They don’t eat a balanced diet, drink enough water, get enough sleep, or do exercises that would improve their health. Self-care is also considered unmanly so when they’re feeling run-down, they’re unlikely to take a break or do something that would help them recover.

This refusal to take care of themselves also extends to getting medical help. Men in are less likely to go to the doctor for regular check-ups or when they notice something is wrong with their health because in their minds, admitting that something might be wrong with them and asking for professional help is unmanly. This is why men experience health problems that reduce their quality of life and preventable deaths at higher rates than women.

  1. Expecting men and women to conform to rigid gender roles

Toxic masculinity asserts that men and women are inherently different so it’s following nature for men to be providers while women take care of the home and family. Men’s needs are given priority and women are expected to cater to men, even if it comes at a cost to themselves. If a man or a woman isn’t content with their gender roles, they can be discouraged from following their interests.

But there isn’t any biological truth to this belief it and it severely limits what men and women are able to do with their lives. Men who feel that they always have to be the protector and provider can become exhausted – there can be times when they’re not able to provide due to circumstances beyond their control, such as losing their job or not being able to work because of an injury or illness. They might want to turn to their partner to reassure them or make decisions in certain circumstances, but toxic masculinity says this is unacceptable.

This places severe limits on what men feel capable of doing, while also encouraging them to restrict the women in their lives.

  1. Not participating in ‘unmanly’ activities

People who believe in the ‘traditional’ notion of manhood are likely to have very strict and specific beliefs regarding what is acceptable for men to do.

These rules affect all areas of life – how to dress, how to speak to others, what jobs to take, which chores to do, which hobbies are acceptable, what to watch or read, and much more. Some men refuse to take care of their children, clean up after themselves or make a meal because they believe that these tasks are unmanly and the responsibility of women.

This is one of the most restrictive aspects of toxic masculinity as it makes so much off limits. Men can feel forced to deny things they like because they’re not considered manly enough. They can also feel like they have to pretend to be interested in some things to ‘be a real man’, such as cars or sport. Their lives become very inauthentic and therefore less enjoyable.

  1. Policing other men who aren’t confirming to this version of masculinity

Studies have shown that the majority of men don’t enjoy living their lives this way – they want to engage with their emotions and feel at liberty to do what they like doing without worrying that it isn’t considered masculine enough. But these attitudes about gender persist because they’re transmitted and upheld, mainly by men.

Men are primarily responsible for enforcing toxic masculinity by calling out men who don’t confirm to gender norms. Men risk being mocked, humiliated, shamed, excluded, and even physically attacked by other men if they’re considered guilty of doing anything too feminine or not being masculine enough.

Those who don’t enforce rigid gender norms and expectations risk facing the same consequences, so even ignoring someone else’s behaviour has the potential to be punished, trapping men in ways of acting that they don’t enjoy.

All of these rules and conditions can be condensed into the one most important rule for men to follow: never show weakness.

But almost anything can be considered weakness so obeying this rule highly limits what is acceptable for men and they’re forced to suppress or deny a great deal of themselves.

Living life determined to never appear weak is like always wearing a suit of armour. But this is exhausting and limiting. You can’t do many things you’re capable of or let people in to find out who you really are because you’re always forced to put up an impenetrable front.

In order to have genuine relationships and have true self-confidence, you have to let others know who you really are without your armour. This can feel risky because you’re opening yourself up to rejection and criticism – you’re making yourself feel vulnerable.

Being vulnerable is often confused with being weak, but vulnerability is a strength. It takes courage to have difficult conversations and reveal your thoughts and feelings without putting up a strong front. Vulnerability includes things like apologising to someone after hurting them and explaining why you reacted the way you did, thanking someone and telling them how important their actions were to you, or asking for help.

Being vulnerable isn’t the same for everyone. Some people would feel vulnerable revealing their favourite movie because they’re worried they’ll be teased, while others wouldn’t feel vulnerable sharing the same information because they aren’t afraid to defend their preferences or worried about not meeting others’ expectations.

Being your authentic self can feel dangerous, but it’s necessary to developing a genuine understanding of who you are.

A full medieval set of knight's armour
Following the rules of toxic masculinity can feel like wearing a heavy suit of armour

Women are also negatively affected by unhealthy beliefs about masculinity and gender roles, even if they aren’t close to someone who has these beliefs. Women can be barred from many areas of life (especially those with the greatest potential to make a difference such as leadership roles and political positions), trapped in unequal relationships, and are at an increased risk of being abused or killed because of the assertion that men are stronger, more capable, and deserving of control.

Inequality is itself dangerous; anyone who is considered unequal or less than is at an increased risk of experiencing violence because they’re seen as less human. Toxic masculinity states that all women are inferior and any men who aren’t considered masculine enough are also thought of as weak and unequal, so toxic masculinity encourages unfair treatment and potentially violence towards a large number of people.

When inequality driven by toxic masculinity is widespread in a society, very few people benefit. Some men do enjoy certain advantages – fewer responsibilities in the home, a greater chance of advancing in their careers due to less competition from women, and an inherent sense of superiority. But the costs are high; they must sacrifice all but the strongest parts of themselves while distancing themselves from others and who they really are, which keeps relationships largely superficial.

A common justification for toxic masculinity and rigid gender roles is that it’s associated with someone’s religion and/or culture. There are many cultures and religions that normalise patriarchy and misogyny, but that doesn’t make them healthy or positive.

Every religion has leaders who teach equality, tolerance and acceptance. And cultures aren’t static – they naturally evolve to new understandings of what types of behaviour benefit the majority, including healthier beliefs towards genders and masculinity.

Belonging to a religion or culture with traditional beliefs that restrict women and encourage unhealthy attitudes towards masculinity can act as a strong barrier to believing that you should change. But there are plenty examples of groups and individuals who have changed their beliefs and behaviours and are very grateful they made this decision.

Even the most deeply ingrained beliefs about masculinity and genders can be challenged and unlearned.

How to adopt a healthy masculinity

How would you describe your beliefs about masculinity and gender roles? Are their things you don’t do because they’re too feminine? Do you know someone who would benefit from adopting a healthier perspective of masculinity?

Adopting healthy masculinity means giving yourself permission to do things even if you or others might not think they’re manly enough, and not doing things specifically to show how manly you are.

Unhealthy views of masculinity are highly limiting, so your life has the potential to improve if you give up any restrictive beliefs you may have and give yourself the freedom to do things you previously thought were off-limits.

One of the most effective ways to begin moving away from unhealthy and limiting beliefs about masculinity is to realise the harm they do, not just to other people but yourself as well, without giving any of the implied benefits.

Even if it’s not directly communicated, the assumption that drives toxic masculinity is that men who deny all but the strongest parts of themselves – shut down their emotions, gain power and control over others, and don’t engage in anything feminine while making sure other men do the same – will be rewarded with a happy life where they’re respected by other men and adored by women.

But this isn’t true. Some people do submit to aggression and defer to strength, but this isn’t the same as being respected or admired. Toxic masculinity is more likely to drive people away and instil fear in those who are less capable of leaving, such as partners, children, and colleagues. The cost is high and the rewards are limited.

You may have a number of beliefs relating to masculinity and gender roles that feel natural and are difficult to recognise. In order to challenge them, you should start paying attention to your thoughts and impulses – think about what you stop yourself from doing and why. If you want to give a friend or family member a compliment but stop yourself because you don’t want to seem too affectionate, ask yourself if these thoughts are justified and what you stand to lose or gain.

Additionally, pay attention to your instinctual reactions and consider if they’re appropriate. If someone brushes past you at a bar or accidentally knocks in to you and you become angry, consider if this is necessary or if you’re feeling that way to maintain your image.

Reconsider masculinity and accept that people can be manly even if they acknowledge their emotions, have interests and hobbies that aren’t traditionally associated with men, or avoid aggressive confrontation. Expand your view of what it means to be a man to include many different ways of thinking, feeling and behaving so you feel capable of and comfortable doing what feels right for you without being limited by notions of masculinity.

Ask yourself what you think are positive masculine traits you would like to demonstrate and consider how you can honour these in healthy ways. If you want to protect your family, this can include protecting them from disease by preparing healthy meals. Bravery can be having uncomfortable conversations with the people you care about or asking for help even if you’d rather try doing something alone. Being disciplined can include taking care of your physical health by eating vegetables and your mental health by taking breaks when you’re feeling overwhelmed.

You likely already practice healthy masculinity in some ways. Identify these and consider how they represent your strengths so you can use these strengths in more areas of your life.  

Making any change, including adopting a healthier perspective of masculinity, requires addressing your mindset. This is often difficult, but it’s even more challenging if you’re not used to listening to and learning from your emotions. Some people are able to make changes on their own, but others make much more progress by working with a professional.

Professionals know what questions to ask you to help you recognise your unhealthy beliefs and attitudes, suggest exercises that can help you discover new things about yourself, and act as an accountability partner who will let you know where you’re making progress and the areas where you still have work to do.

As you’re working on changing, it’s important to be patient with yourself. Changing habits is often very difficult and takes longer than you think it should. When you catch yourself doing or thinking something limiting notice that you did that without beating yourself up – you returned to your old ways of thinking and behaving because you responded automatically but now that you’re paying attention you can correct yourself.

Although it can be difficult and uncomfortable, making positive changes is worth the effort it takes because of the improvements it brings to your life and the lives of the people around you.

A bird leans forward through the squares of a wire fence
Choosing to give up limiting beliefs about masculinity can feel liberating

Adhering to the standards of toxic masculinity means living a life designed to please others and follow rules that aren’t your own.

Instead of carrying around the fear of being ridiculed for doing something that isn’t considered manly enough – like being calm with your children, getting emotional if your partner hurts you, showing compassion to a friend going through a hard time, or asking someone for help – understand that this is an unhealthy mindset that’s often imposed on others with painful consequences.

There can be very good reasons for conforming to traditional or widespread versions of masculinity, but you have plenty to gain by distancing yourself from these beliefs.

It might not be easy and you could face resistance from others, but it’s also possible that choosing to change your perspective of masculinity could motivate others and make the people you’re closest to very happy, while also improving your own life.

Life is better when you feel free to live it the way you want and don’t set unnecessary limits on yourself, as well as putting unfair expectations on others.

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