STUDENT BLOG: Exploring toxic masculinity

FUNMI SOWOLE explores the pressures of being a boy in today's society and asks some of our sixth form boys how they feel about issues surrounding toxic masculinity 

TOXIC masculinity has been defined as a set of behaviours and beliefs, including suppressing emotions, maintaining an appearance of hardness, and violence as an indicator of power.

So, if we were to sum it up, it’s the result of boys learning that there’s a need for them to be tough all the time and, if they're not, they’re feminine or weak.

It is important to be really clear - this is not an attack on men, or masculinity - it is not an accusation that men are toxic! On the contrary, this is something that plays a key role in men's mental health and is cited as one of the leading reasons for the high incidence of suicide among young men, as well as playing a role in creating and maintaining stereotypes which are equally damaging for men and women.

This social conditioning can cause boys and men to laugh when they want to cry, to invalidate their own and others' emotional responses to events and circumstances, or to use violence instead of speaking about what’s made them angry, upset or fearful.

"Toxic Masculinity will repeatedly reject femininity in all its supposed forms. When a man smashes against gender norms or supports femininity, it has a stigma attached. ‘Real men’ cannot behave in that way. If they do, these men will be abused, shamed or humiliated by a society embarrassed by the fact they are not conforming to masculine ideals.”

This is what some boys in our year have to say regarding the perception of how men should behave. Do you recognise yourself or your friends in these responses?

Do you feel comfortable talking about your feelings to other people?

“No, I don’t but I’ve never been into sharing feelings.”

“I feel fairly comfortable talking about my feelings to most people I’m close with, however I know many of my friends do not feel like this and are less comfortable doing so.”

“Yes, I feel comfortable talking about my feelings to close friends and family. However, sometimes I feel that if I have an issue it won’t be taken as seriously because I am a male, or that I don’t express my emotions outwardly as often – for example by crying.”

“I do but I get the initial stigma about talking openly about your feelings as a man and how for some it seems like a daunting experience, but once you do so and are well received you feel a lot more confident talking about your feelings again.”

Are there certain standards you feel you have to live up to solely because of your gender?

“I feel there are standards for boys that you have to live up to however it does not bother me as I don’t know any different, it’s always been a thing.”

“Yes, to an extent but I only try to live up to standards that have a good effect on me.”

“The idea that being a man is about not showing weakness is one that is very toxic as everyone faces challenging circumstances but facing weakness is a greater strength than showing no weakness at all.”

“Not personally, but I know some boys feel they cannot show their feelings because of their gender.”

Do you care more your physical wellbeing over your mental wellbeing?

“Yes, however by keeping in shape I am in turn helping my self-esteem.”

“No, not really.”

“I think both are linked and if you look after yourself physically this will help your mental health, but I would say that focusing on your mental health is increasingly important especially with increasing pressures.”

“Yes, but I need to focus on my mental health more.”

Do you think society’s perception of what it means to ‘be a man’ affects how you behave?

“Yeahd, I definitely think it does, but I don’t really mind because I think you can be a man in your own way.”

“No, I don’t.”

“I think that the perception that society has on what it is to be a man is outdated in the same way as the traditional idea that ‘women belong in the kitchen’. There is no reason to tell a man who is upset or showing emotions to man up, what he needs to hear is support.”

“Yes, less so now and was more when I was younger, but it has definitely influenced who I am now.”

We need to help those around us to help society as a whole. As a sixth form let’s actively stop playing into and invalidating someone’s feelings just because they are male and should ‘man up’, instead let them know that they can express such feelings to you whenever they need to.

If someone’s upset and you tell them: “Don’t be a girl,” remember that you are equating strength, resilience and emotional numbness with masculinity, which is destructive for both genders, and dismissive of everyone's emotions.

It takes a huge amount for anyone, of any gender identity, to be vulnerable in front of someone else. If someone is trusting you with their emotions, don't be embarrassed, but be proud that they feel safe and confident in your friendship, and be the supportive, caring listener that they know and trust you to be.