I was lifting weights at the gym this morning, and a man roughly my age walked in behind me as I was doing dumbbell bicep curls. He walked up to the dumbbell rack, then paused.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him discreetly turn around and check how much weight I was lifting. He then shifted one step to the right and picked the dumbbells five pounds heavier than what I was lifting. There was no one else there to impress, except maybe his own ego.
A few years ago, a pair of male coworkers and I were talking about how hard it is to stay in shape at our age. One of them said to us, “I’m pretty much sucking in my gut at all times no matter where I go.” The three of us laughed hysterically because we had all done it too. Then we wept for our fragile egos.
These stories are microscopic examples of the cultural norms surrounding men. These norms are the result of a brand of masculinity that has permeated Euro-centric cultures for decades. Yes, I’m talking about toxic masculinity.
Wait guys, don’t go! I get it. This buzzphrase seems to be constantly shoved down our heterosexual male throats these days. I see it everywhere myself. I am not a huge fan of the phrase because I feel like it’s turned into a gross overgeneralization of males. But it’s certainly a real thing and it poses a problem for the psychological well-being of men everywhere.
Don’t mistake my specification of heterosexual males as an exclusion. This topic applies to all men because toxic masculinity is imposed upon all who would call themselves men.
It seems in order to be considered a “real man,” one must drive trucks, drink beer, know how to change a tire, be able to grow a beard, enjoy action films, shoot guns, watch sports, play sports and know the names of every member of every team of every league of every sport in every state. Sports.
In addition to this laundry list of things a real man must do, there is perhaps a longer list of things a man must not do. A man must not show any negative emotion besides anger, care about personal hygiene, possess even a modicum of artistic ability or expression, eat kale, watch his weight, ask for directions, get help in any way or cry at any movie besides “The Shawshank Redemption” or “Saving Private Ryan.”
I fully realize I have just written every stereotype about men. There aren’t many men who actually fit every one of these criteria, but the cultural pressure on all men to meet all or most of these standards cannot be overstated.
Advertisements aimed at men are perhaps the most obvious example of these cultural pressures: “Use our beard blades to murder your face hair until it’s dead.” “Our pheromone-infused body wash will merge your flesh with sex magnets so that every chick in every room will want to eat your meat sword.”
I was raised in a home surrounded by women. I have no brothers and four sisters. I am also five-foot-seven and my greatest athletic achievement was scoring one three-pointer at a Jr. Jazz game. It went in the wrong basket.
It was inevitable that most of these criteria would never be imposed upon me in my formative years, at least from my family. Once I started attending school, I was flabbergasted by some of the things that were apparently expected of me by virtue of my status as a boy.
I have always been obsessed with my hair. If my hair isn’t perfectly coiffed, it’s a bad day. If you see me around campus wearing a hat, I am probably not in a good mood.
I’ve also always put serious effort into style. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve set foot in a grocery store in gym shorts. And forget about flip-flops or Crocs. Ugh.
This, apparently, means I’m gay, according to the countless attempts at insult I’ve received from my fellow males since junior high. The irony of these statements is that men who hurl these insults are often mostly concerned with “getting laid” as often as possible. My wife regularly reminds me that she was initially attracted to me because I take care of myself.
As the result of eons of reinforcement, men have grown accustomed to getting what they want. This unfortunately includes women. The #MeToo movement is a perfect example of the threats toxic masculinity presents to our culture.
Part of my upbringing included a strong focus on respect for women. My dad regularly reminded me how important it was treat my sisters and all other women, especially as I grew old enough to date, with the respect they deserve. It’s sad he had to specifically teach me that, as if “being nice to others” wasn’t enough.
I realize this may sound like virtue signaling. I don’t include this example to self-aggrandize but to highlight an important concern: this obviously isn’t taught by enough parents.
My wife and I were blessed to welcome a beautiful baby girl in August. The prospect of sending her out into the same world as scum like Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby makes me want to lock her in her room until she’s 30.
This is the most egregious result of toxic masculinity. Never mind the psychological harm its expectations may cause men. The actual, measurable, physical harm it brings to countless women all over the world sickens me, and it should concern all of us.
I may have been teased throughout my youth (and even in adulthood at times) for not looking or behaving within the parameters of what is considered a “real man,” but I’m grateful for a father who set an example of what an actual man is. If there were more fathers like him in the world, there would be far fewer douche-bros.
Parents, teach your boys that it’s okay to cry. It’s okay to like “girly” things like romance films or art. Teach them that they are never entitled to the affections of another person just by virtue of “being a nice guy.” Teach them that there are no such things as “alpha males” or “beta males” and that the size of the vehicle they drive has no bearing on the status of their masculinity.
And please, for the love of all that is holy, teach them that it’s okay not to like sports.