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Stereotypes of the Sleep-Deprived: Is It Manly to Be Tired?

Man in white shirt sitting at his desk, yawning and rubbing his eyes

iStock / LumiNola 

Key Takeaways

  • Belief in traditional masculinity can have negative effects on the health of men and masculine folks.
  • Research shows that being sleep-deprived is seen as more masculine, which leads to an unhealthy cycle.
  • Sleep is a necessary part of a healthy lifestyle, and all adults should strive to get 7-8 hours a night.

A recent study conducted by the University of Oregon and the Association for Consumer Research contemplated the reasoning behind male sleep deprivation and stereotypes about masculinity.

Previous research showed that many people associate having agency (being goal-driven, independent, in control, etc.) with masculinity. This study suggested that the “sleep-deprived masculinity” stereotype comes from accepting the idea that more agency in an individual is equivalent to heightened masculinity, resulting in a need for less sleep. 

"In American society, we have an ethos of rugged individualism that is not exclusive to men but is definitely amplified by masculine ideology. It’s the idea that we live in a meritocracy, and you can do anything if you put your mind to it and are willing to exert yourself hard enough. If you are not successful, then it’s your fault." said Dr. James Rodriguez, PhD, LCSW, a psychologist with over 25 years of providing mental health services to children, youth, and families. He's also the director of Trauma-Informed Services at the NYU McSilver Institute for Poverty Policy and Research.

Previous studies have examined sleep from varied perspectives, but they have not looked specifically at gendered experiences.

What Did the Study Show?

Researchers conducted a handful of small studies within the larger study in an effort to test and showcase the relationship between sleep and traditional masculinity. The goal of these procedures tested both perceived masculinity, felt masculinity, and the effects of social judgment—all in relation to sleep habits.

One of the many experiments asked 144 participants (male, female, and nonbinary) to imagine a man buying a mattress. Participants were then assigned at random to one of two scenarios: the man said either "I sleep a lot. I get a lot of sleep," or "I do not sleep a lot. I don't get a lot of sleep."

The participants then answered questions in reference to how masculine they felt the man was, based on an 11-characteristic survey. They chose the accuracy of each description on a scale from “1—Not at all” to “5—Perfectly.” This study, among others, provided evidence that there is a link between sleeping less and perceived masculinity.

After analyzing all of the individual studies, researchers came to four main conclusions:

  1. "Sleeping less is bidirectionally related to conceptions of increased masculinity,
  2. The sleep-deprived masculinity stereotype is mediated by agentic inferences about males,
  3. The sleep-deprived masculinity stereotype results in relatively positive evaluations of males who sleep very little, and relatively negative evaluations of males who sleep a lot, and
  4. The sleep-deprived masculinity stereotype can affect men’s self-perceived masculinity."

There were some limitations to this study, namely that this study focused mainly on masculinity in males and showed inconsistent results when replicated with masculinity and femininity in females. The study authors also noted that their study focused on participants in the United States—while studies about masculinity in other cultures have produced similar results to masculinity research in the U.S., more research is needed on which cultures subscribe to this masculinity stereotype about sleep.

What is Traditional Masculinity?

Traditional masculinity 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,” according to the American Psychological Association.

James Rodriguez, Ph.D, LCSW

We must remember that many young males are socialized into a traditional masculine identity, rather than simply born with it. That identity can lead them to live lives that are counter to who they are. It can lead them to bottle up their thoughts and emotions, and deny their felt needs.

— James Rodriguez, Ph.D, LCSW

Those who subscribe to traditional masculinity are known to hold beliefs in unequal gender roles, putting pressure on both the individual and those they come into contact with. Because these beliefs and stereotypes are taught and supported by society, they can be hard to unlearn.

“We must remember that many young males are socialized into a traditional masculine identity, rather than simply born with it," Rodriguez said. "That identity can lead them to live lives that are counter to who they are. It can lead them to bottle up their thoughts and emotions, and deny their felt needs.”

This can have negative impacts on their sleep if they feel pressured to subscribe to the stereotype that "manly" men don't get adequate sleep.

Why Is Sleep Important?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that adults get at least seven hours of sleep per night. However, the average American gets less than that, with men making up a majority of those who are under-rested.

A characteristic of the traditional masculinity cited in the study is the belief in rigid differences between men and women, equating to what the researchers call “The Masculinity-Equals-Not-Feminine Stereotype.” This stereotype results in an extreme pushback from men toward anything perceived as feminine, including tasks like grocery shopping or receiving proper healthcare. Because taking good care of yourself can be seen as feminine, the researchers found that neglecting the necessity of sleep fits into this stereotype.

But a lack of sleep can have both varied and dangerous effects on emotional, psychological, and physical health, gender identity aside. 

“The parasympathetic nervous system, which involves rest and digestion, must be properly engaged to bring you back into balance. Even stopping to take a deep breath can help to bring the parasympathetic nervous system back online the way it should be. Certainly, getting enough sleep is a healthy part of regaining balance," Rodriguez said.

Society can often support negative stereotypes about masculinity by not only pushing individuals to engage in behaviors that are counterproductive to their health, but also by fostering environments that do not offer intuitive alternate solutions.

The results of these studies support the idea that adhering to stereotypical masculinity can impact the overall health of men and masculine individuals. Because men are reportedly less likely to seek and receive medical attention for their mental and physical needs, the negative effects that sleep deprivation has on the body are likely to go unaddressed. This neglect of self and lack of coping skills can lead to violence among men and masculine folks. Researchers concluded that these dangers can go beyond individuals and affect larger society if left unresolved.

What This Means For You

While there are competing messages about what defines masculinity, neglecting your health and skimping on sleep is never a good idea. Sleep is necessary for humans to function optimally, regardless of how you identify. Pushing against societal norms and expectations, such as the amount of sleep one gets equating to their level of masculinity, can be difficult—but it is beneficial in the long run.

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Article Sources
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