The Masculinity Myth and What It Is Doing to Us

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The sitcom FRIENDS very subtly highlighted a question that has always bothered me, why do men not share their feelings even with their closest friends? However, it’s not that they don’t share their feelings, it’s how they share their feelings. No person is the same and thus every person, whether male of female, will always have a different way of expressing their emotions. Research however shows that people are often uncomfortable with men expressing their emotions in certain ways. Ask yourself (irrespective of your gender) this and honestly note your first response:

  • if you saw your friend crying because he felt lonely in a new university, how would you react and what would you say instinctively?
  • If your date said that he was unsure of his future and expected his partner to support him, what would you think?
  • If your uncle or father refused to light a match because of their intense fear of fire, what would you instinctively tell them?
  • If you saw a man being gloomy and anxious about a troubled relationship or a sick partner, what would you advise them?

Now replace all the male figures in the above scenario with females and ask yourself how would you react? What would be the changes in your words or tone or body language?

It is not surprising that several research studies have shown what we already know, men tend to either bottle up their emotions, maintaining a surface of composure through the use of rhetorical devices of emotional control, rationality, responsibility and successful action; or express their strong feelings externally through aggressive speech, actions or excessively dark humour.

The subtle reactions that express our discomfort in the way men express their emotions, encourage certain “norms of masculinity” that include emotional control, self-reliance, primacy for work and winning. These norms also affect the relationships that men form — it keeps them from connecting to the people around them, be it their partner, parents, siblings, friends or colleagues. Not only does it encourage certain norms but also lays out what emotions are acceptable to be expressed by men and what are not.

Research has found that there are gender differences in mental illnesses where women are more likely to be diagnosed with depression or anxiety and men are more likely to be diagnosed with substance use disorders or anti-social disorders. This means that men tend to externalise their feelings of anger, frustration but women internalise these feelings and express it in the form of anxiety and depression. While this sounds like medical jargon, it is important for everyone to know because these findings imply that, as a society, we have set a norm where it is acceptable for men to express feelings only related to anger but when it comes to being anxious, depressed or simply sad, their expression is often frowned upon.

In the process of expressing only certain emotions and trying to keep up with the norms of “masculinity” men tend to unconsciously keep their loved ones at a distant. Most mental health issues arise out of social difficulties while an 80 year long study at Harvard revealed that embracing the community and the quality of our relationships had an effect on our mental well-being. So when we flinch, raise our eyebrows, shift in our seats, ask the men to “man up” or give them advice to take charge or discuss their “lack of manliness” behind their backs and give them looks of pity, we are essentially encouraging them to push us (the society) and their loved ones away, in the process sliding them onto a track of loneliness and guilt that could have a severe impact on their health (mental and physical) if not addressed soon.

The “masculinity myth”

Gilette’s recent ad features men breaking away from toxic masculinity. Marketing gimmick or genius?

Toxic masculinity involves the notion that men should be distant, domineering and self-seeking. This concept of masculinity is often used by the media and market to drive home ideas to expand their sales. Several articles, campaigns, and research studies are trying to educate the general public about the toxicity in this concept.

However, the concept of “masculinity” in itself is a myth — a label created by us as a society to make the division of work easier.

As humans, we all experience the same set of emotions, are all subjected to similar stressors and yet we burden only a set of individuals with the unreasonable expectations to be stoic and pull through the problem, no matter what. Consequently, their failure to meet this expectation is looked down up, and men who cannot measure up to this standard are characterised as “weak”. While this has a negative effect on the process of building an inclusive society, the concept of masculinity is also creating disturbing ripples in the mental health of men, their partners and their family and friends.

Challenging the myth:

To break the culture of asking men to man up, we must begin to treat them as we treat our most loved ones: with compassion. Here are some actions that will help.

  • Actively listen to what the men have to share.
  • When you hear someone ridiculing a man’s expression of sensitive emotions, inform them about the man made nature of this concept.
  • Be self aware and keep a check on yourself for any subtle expectations you have only from men.
  • Create a healthy channel of communication and expression for the men in your life to express their emotions in a healthy manner.
  • Encourage men to seek mental help.

Vini Doshi is a Research Associate (Mental Health) at One Future Collective.

Featured image: Tom Pumford on Unsplash