Men don’t show emotion or weakness. They’re physically stronger than every woman in the world, and they never ask for help. They have the final say in every decision, they’re the breadwinner of every household, and they’re strictly disconnected from all intimacy.
These and several other stereotypical roles of masculinity have been in place for, at the very least, hundreds of years. But for a species that questions everything, it took until quite recently for us to start asking ourselves why they existed in the first place, and why they were deemed necessary.
Biology is the go-to answer. Men are born with a higher potential for muscle growth, and women give birth. So, in a heterosexual couple, it may seem natural that the man goes out and provides while the woman takes care of the child.
A perhaps more surprising answer, though, is the media. It too has helped implant these stereotypes of the “ideal man” into the minds of millions: so many male protagonists are strong, athletic, handsome and brave. Think of superheroes, like Captain America or Superman, or pretty much any movie with Sylvester Stallone (save Spy Kids 3).
These portrayals show men what they should strive to be. But if personal preferences and assets land well outside these lines, what happens then? Are they failures?
Of course not. And it goes the other way, too: Being genetically strong or athletic doesn’t make you more of a “real man” than someone with opposite traits.
Unfortunately, these beliefs are still ingrained into our culture, and sometimes more subtly than we think.
On top of that, the constant insistence of these roles has been proven to be harmful. For example, men with typically masculine traits are not only likely to have decreased mental health, but they’re far less likely to seek treatment.
A lot of men are told from a young age that boys don’t cry, to walk it off, or to take it like a man. Because of this, they can tend to keep themselves bottled up, and either not have or not utilize a healthy outlet to ventilate their negative emotions.
This not only has the potential for men to hurt themselves by refusing to seek the help they need, but it’s bound to pop up behaviorally in other ways. In short: if men don’t talk it out, they’re likely to act it out.
With this in mind, the American Psychological Association recently released new guidelines for practice with men and boys, stating that male treatment will be more effective if psychologists take those stereotypes of masculinity into account.
The APA did note that the guidelines may come off as unnecessary, considering men are such a highly privileged demographic. However, they did state that “men commit 90 percent of homicides in the United States and represent 77 percent of homicide victims” and that they’re “3.5 times more likely than women to die by suicide, and their life expectancy is 4.9 years shorter than women’s.”
Clearly, these stats are a problem, and something needs to change:
We need to redefine masculinity, because our current definition is oppressive, inaccurate, and inhuman.
All humans need to be able to show emotion, intimacy, and vulnerability while feeling relatively comfortable in doing so. Abiding by socialized masculinity is harmful, and should be treated as such.
To clarify, I’m not saying we need to alter biology, just culture. And if we know anything about the human species, it’s that we’re culturally subject to change. I mean, we’re obviously not cave people anymore, and we don’t wear powdered wigs either. Stuff gets different.
In addition, we live in a more progressive age where people can do and be whatever they please, regardless of commonplace beliefs. It’s a beautiful thing.
So, masculinity needs redefining. But what do we define it as now? We can begin with the following: Integrity, accountability, consciously talking out instead of acting out, and good moral values that line up with good moral behavior.
It’s not quite as articulate as I’d like it to be, but it’s a pretty good start.
On a related note, if you’re worried about any man in your life, please consider reaching out. Personally, I’d be in a much darker place if no one did for me.
And if you’re a man going through a rough patch—remember that you’re not “weak” for accepting help, or reaching out yourself.
There is no one way to be a man, for that matter, there is no one way to be anything. Don’t let your gender (or society’s belief in what your gender should represent) get in the way of what you want to do with your life.
If you’re a woman and you want to ride motorcycles and become a bodybuilder, or if you’re a man and want to, say, write for a women’s empowerment magazine, then absolutely go for it.
Do what you want to do, and be confident in who you are.5
Also published on Medium.