The Digital Issue

Toxic Masculinity and the Shifting Landscape of What It Means to Be a Man

In the ever-changing social consciousness, the discussion of toxic masculinity continues to be pervasive, essential, and evolving. Over the last several years, the attributes of negative masculine expectations have been fought against in the name of gender equality, social harmony, and mental health.

For many men, the expectations of manhood are instilled at an early age. Directions like “man up,” “grow a pair," and “don’t cry” are ingrained in boys’ psyche, instilling a fear of looking weak or cowardly. Expectations of masculinity may come from parents, teachers, and peers. While the intent is usually without malice, these sentiments plant a seed of social misalignment.

The men who genuinely internalize the idea of a traditionally masculine expectation can face some troubling issues. “The Boys Are Not All Right,” a famous opinion piece published in The New York Times in 2018 discusses the isolation, frustration, and emotional toll men can have when they don’t fit into a traditional box. This piece also adds that the conversations, treatment, and vulnerability needed to address these issues are outside traditional masculinity’s realm, closing the doors to a possible solution.

However, some men are rejecting the traditional view of masculinity and opting for a more evolved, equitable definition of what it means to be a man in 2021. They recognize the toxic effects that these toxic expectations can have and work hard to change them. Organizations, medical professionals, and young men are attempting to change this idea of masculinity, with men encouraging others to value their relationships, personality, and mental health above what is traditionally expected.

When Does Masculinity Become Toxic?

Masculinity, like any social concept, is not easily defined. Manhood as a practice is different across time, cultures, and individuals. Although, in almost every way, the attributes expected of men are socially constructed.

In Western media, men have long been shown as strong, aggressive, and emotionally incompetent, providing a characterization of what traditional masculinity is expected to be. While this can seem like only characters on the screen, research has shown that these traits are expected of the general male population.

The American Psychological Association refers to this as “masculinity ideology.” Specifically, the standards expected of men include anti-weakness, anti-femininity, violence, and achievement. These traits are more commonly known as toxic masculinity. 

Toxic masculinity is not simply about being a man in a vacuum, but about the negative impact these beliefs about masculinity can have on individuals and society. While these expectations may initially be introduced by someone else, the pressure to act that way is most strongly felt internally.

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On a societal level, boys are much more likely to have behavioral problems, aggression, and later, more likely to commit violent crimes. An expectation of being tough, dominant, and violent may make men and boys more likely to commit these antisocial acts.

However, most prominent on the individual level is the reduced likelihood that men will seek mental health services for their issues. The strain men feel to fulfill this particular role of traditional masculinity can cause serious psychological distress. Yet, men still feel pressure to avoid treatment in the interest of staying within the masculine ideology.

Men and Mental Health

Traditionally, the pursuit of mental health treatment by men has received minimal support. Expectations of strength or stoic expression may prevent men from reaching out to a mental health professional when they need it. But, it doesn’t have to be this way.

One Central Michigan University student says, “There is a huge sense of irony in going around acting as if they’re [men] not weak, but the weakest thing you can do is pretend like you don’t have any issues and choosing not to address them.”

Giving men the tools to talk about their situation and feelings may be the first step towards eliminating toxic masculinity. Generally, emotional vulnerability is seen as a weakness and avoided at all costs. Especially in a medical professional's office, being open to expressing emotions is vital for treatment.

Central Michigan University student

There is a huge sense of irony in going around acting as if they're [men] not weak, but the weakest thing you can do is pretend like you don’t have any issues and choosing not to address them.

— Central Michigan University student

Akeem Marsh, MD, child, adolescent, and adult psychiatrist, discussed some of the ways men need to change their perspective around discussing their emotions. “I try to explain to my male patients that crying is very normal, you should be crying like this, this is some sad stuff.” He discusses how this basic level of communication is necessary for us to relieve stress and express our sadness.

Without being able to express emotions, “The most you can do is suppress your emotions, and then when you do that, it’s really eating you up and hurting you on the inside,” he says.

Akeem Marsh, MD

I try to explain to my male patients that crying is very normal.

— Akeem Marsh, MD

The pressure from toxic masculinity to avoid being open to help has real implications beyond social stigma. Men are almost four times as likely to commit suicide, contributing to a significant number of deaths in men before the age of 50.

However, this does not have to be the case. Men do not have to be destined to feelings of insecurity for seeking help or expressing emotions. The goal of changing this idea will not be done quickly, but there is work being done.

What Is Changing?

In the mounting changes of the past year, one of them is the increased visibility of vulnerability. Numerous famous people have come out with their own personal stories on how they have struggled with mental health issues and encouraged others to do the same.

Most recently, the Olympics have opened the gates for discussions of mental health at the highest athletic levels. Although not competing, Michael Phelps has taken the opportunity to be more open about his struggle with depression.

Other celebrities such as Ryan Reynolds, Jim Carrey, and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson have also taken the time to discuss how mental health affects their lives. While these superstars may have more resources available to them, the visibility of their discussion cannot be replaced.

“The conversation of mental health is more open, [there are] a greater availability of resources and voices with less judgment,” says another student.

A casual conversation about mental health struggles may be the key to changing ideas around how men think about emotional weakness. The Internet offers a great place to talk openly about men’s emotions, but some organizations are bringing the conversation to those who need it most.

One organization has made it their mission to bring mental health conversation to areas where men can talk openly about their struggles: the barbershop. The Confess Project is one such organization that has made mental health discussions for men a priority of wellness. The project aims to train barbers as mental health advocates, encouraging men to share their struggles and then linking them with mental health resources.

Along with smaller organizations, big names like Gillette, The Movember Foundation, and creators on social media are making campaigns to bring awareness to men’s mental health issues.

The ability to discuss toxic masculinity in a way that is critical of its harmful effects needs to be approached with the idea of helping those who suffer from it.

Men who have internalized masculine ideology can feel anxious, depressed, and upset when these ideas are challenged. That is why it is vital that the conversation continues and support is offered to those who masculine ideology may affect.

And it is finally time to realize the manliest thing to do is to be emotional, caring, self-loving, and accepting of help. So, man-up.

If you or a loved one are struggling with mental health issues, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  3. Wahto R, Swift JK. Labels, gender-role conflict, stigma, and attitudes toward seeking psychological help in men. Am J Mens Health. 2016;10(3):181-191. doi:10.1177/1557988314561491

  4. Wong YJ, Ho M-HR, Wang S-Y, Miller ISK. Meta-analyses of the relationship between conformity to masculine norms and mental health-related outcomes. J Couns Psychol. 2017;64(1):80-93. doi:10.1037/cou0000176

  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Leading causes of death - males - all races and origins - United States, 2017. Updated November 20, 2019.