Update (June 24, 2020): This post has been refreshed to reflect current research and to include additional information.
One of the struggles with understanding masculinity is that so much of the literature surrounding the topic refers only to “toxic masculinity,” or the harms that gender norms cause. Interest in toxic masculinity has grown over the past five years in search terms, peaking at the beginning of 2019 with searches relating to Gillette’s commercial.
Men are taught an early age of what isn’t “manly: “you must avoid being weak, emotional, and shy. As boys become teenagers and young adults, they are told of the dangers of being masculine through the theory of toxic masculinity. The result is plenty of guidance for “don’ts” but few for “dos.” Men are rarely told what they should be striving for.
We need to move away from conversations that focus on what not to be and into thoughtful dialogues about what being a man should be.
That’s positive masculinity.
Positive masculinity is when men use their physical and emotional strength to champion healthy behaviors and communities. Positive masculinity is the antithesis of toxic masculinity. The focus of positive masculinity is to help generations of men learn healthy behaviors and then develop more robust communities.
It’s about displaying vulnerability, emotional intelligence, and moral courage. It demands a re-examination of what it means to be a man—to redefine how the world envisions “masculinity.” Re-thinking masculinity is a little bit like practicing positive psychology. We need to identify and highlight the positive qualities of masculinity to help show men how they should behave.
Author Maeve Allen, a contributor to The Good Man Project, expands upon the definition of healthy masculinity, “I would argue that positive masculinity also means embracing femininity and not being ashamed of it. It means open-mindedness and an attempt not to limit oneself based on gender expectations.” And removing those exact limits Allen is referencing can make such a big difference in the lives of both men and women.
The statistics around male vulnerability tell us a story of the healthy men who push back on traditional gender norms and a focus on positive mental health.
A study from Promundo reveals that if we got rid of the beliefs that place pressure on men to behave within specific masculine norms, we could reduce sexual violence by at least 69% and eliminate at least 41% of traffic accidents, 40% of bullying and violence, 39% of suicides, 7% of binge drinking, and 4% of depressive symptoms among men (18-30) in the US, every year.
Not only that, men who are compassionate, vulnerable, and balanced emotionally have higher senses of self-confidence than those men who are unforgiving of their faults,according to a study conducted by the University of Texas at Austin.
Fathers who are more willing to push back on traditional masculine norms are also more likely to achieve the fatherhood ideal (developing a nurturing, caring relationship with the child) according to research conducted by The Journal of Family Issues. And these researchers add, “Children who experience warm, affectionate, and concerned parenting build self-confidence, feel loved and supported, grow up in emotionally stable households, and are nurtured.” Simply put, healthy fathers lead to healthy kids.
What we have found is critical: there is positive value for men who are more willing to be vulnerable, emotional, and compassionate tend to live longer, happier, and healthier lives.
Toxic masculinity and a history of violence.
My hand clenched Dave’s shirt. My other hand balled into a fist. A trickle of blood dripped off his upper lip. He laid across the cracked sidewalk in front of our neighbor’s lawn, which had just been cut. The smell of morning dew lingered.
Our next-door neighbor, Marilyn, stared outside her front window through the curtains and watched as I wound my fist back and thrust hard. My knuckles made contact. Red splattered off his face onto my hand. I thought I heard a crack. I released Dave’s shirt. His back slammed into the concrete. His white shirt was covered in dirt, grass clippings, and blood.
I don’t remember why Dave and I fought that day. I do remember smiling as I walked back up my driveway through the screen door and into my room.
As a young boy, I assumed violence and anger were the only way to solve problems. What different ways were there? How could I understand that my views on communication, relationships, even sex had been pre-determined by generations of men who defined what it meant to be a man around archaic stereotypes?
Boys don’t cry. Boys don’t talk about emotions. Boys fight, boys conquer.
The gender differences were clear.
Conversations surrounding toxic masculinity have been defined by The Good Men Project as “the cultural ideal of manliness, where strength is everything while emotions are a weakness; where sex and brutality are yardsticks by which men are measured, while supposedly ‘feminine’ traits—which can range from emotional vulnerability to simply not being hypersexual—are the means by which your status as ‘man’ can be taken away.” These norms have become the standard for which many men are compared to by friends, loved ones, and society.
As a child, when World Wrestling Federation champion Shawn Michaels told the world “he lost his smile” and might never get into the ring again, I stormed into my parent’s bedroom crying. Michaels stood in the middle of the ring. Wearing his signature suitcoat and t-shirt combination, his flowing hair pulled back into a ponytail, he explained to the audience at the Manhattan Center, “I know right now we’re in the middle of a time where toughness is real big here in the World Wrestling Federation, and unfortunately, all I’ve got right now for you is a lot of sorrow, a lot of tears, and a lot of emotion. I don’t have any toughness for anybody, so I guess, here you go, here’s your belt.” Michaels handed the World Heavyweight Championship belt to WWF owner Vince McMahon, his tears stained his cheeks as the camera moved in for one final closeup before a commercial.
Michaels told me that sorrow and tears are not what make a champion; toughness does.
What happens if you’re part of the problem?
While competing on the JV wrestling team, I was comparably undersized, pale, and lacking in any muscular development. But because I wasn’t big enough for football, not wealthy enough for hockey, and not coordinated enough for basketball, I found myself sitting on the cracked bench inside the boy’s locker room during my freshman year of high school.
Our coach, Mr. Craig, was a former military man with broad shoulders and a ginger buzz cut. He demanded toughness. Alongside me was my friend Jonathan, who was somehow less-fit for wrestling. He had enlisted because I had, and Jonathan didn’t want me to embarrass myself alone. Jonathan was a good friend.
The night of our first meet, Coach Craig had the J.V. wrestlers line up in the locker room. His green eyes scanned us up and down, his face ignoring the smell of prepubescent boys lingering through the vents.
“Jonathan. Step upfront.”
Jonathan looked over, letting me know it would be alright. I felt relief that the attention wasn’t on me.
“You’ve got quite the challenge tonight: your opponent’s name is Laurie. She’s a girl. You better not embarrass me by losing to a girl.”
It wasn’t often, but sometimes one of our opposing wrestling teams would feature a girl. The matches tended to be the same every time: the boy spends the first round just circling because he’s nervous; he’s never touched a girl before; his opponent attacks, attacks, and attacks, attempting to wrap her arms around his legs so she could slam him to the mat. This would go on for the full match time until one of them ended up winning via having more points than the other.
Jonathan had never wrestled a girl before.
“Eye of the Tiger” blared over the gymnasium loudspeakers, aggressive music intended to activate our teenaged testosterone. Wearing matching blue and black jackets, we circled up.
Jonathan’s match would go first.
He removed his jacket, throwing it to the floor. He slapped his face a few times and ran onto the mat. Standing in front of him, around 5’3”, was a slim brunette with her hair tied tightly into braids in the back. She didn’t smile; she focused. As soon as the ref called for the whistle, Jonathan’s opponent dropped to one knee, duck walked her way between his legs, wrapped her arms around his kneecaps, lifted him up, and slammed him to the mat. There was a thud. There was silence. Jonathan looked towards the rafters, struggling to catch his breath.
The ref counted to five. Within 15 seconds, she’d pinned Jonathan to the mat. When the ref declared victory, Jonathan slumped his head down and walked back toward the bench. The coaches offered no “good efforts.” His best friends did not console him. I slid away from him, toward the other end of the bench. Jonathan was alone. He buried his head buried in his hands. I didn’t want to be associated with a loser.
The following afternoon at practice, Coach Craig called everyone into a circle.
“Because Jonathan would rather embarrass us than help us win, he needs to be taught a lesson,” he said. “Grab that over there.” Coach pointed toward a used tire propped against the corner. Jonathan needed to prove his manliness with physical strength.
“You’re going to run with that until I say stop, and every time you quit or think you want to stop, I’m keeping you here another 10 minutes.” I watched as Jonathan huffed and puffed through this workout, the coach stopping practice to berate him every couple of minutes. I never said anything, I never interfered.
Ashamed, embarrassed, Jonathan never came back to practice. He never wrestled again.
I still think about that moment, how alone Jonathan felt. Everyone in that locker room betrayed him. Most importantly, I betrayed him.
Years later, I realized that I was just as much a part of the masculinity problem as anyone else. Young men deserve better and men in leadership positions need to be better.
Examples of positive masculinity.
I stood in front of my classroom, a first-year high school English teacher. It’s January; the students are riled up after returning from winter break.
“Mr. Carlson, did you hear about the fight in lunch?” I shook my head no.
Another student popped up from behind his desk, “You have to see this.” He filmed the end of the fight on his phone and posted it on social media as #StonewallHighSchoolFightWeek. That altercation was the third fight this week, and it was only Wednesday. I rambled on for a few minutes about the stupidity of fighting and the even-worse crime of posting it online so everyone could see. I told the students that fighting didn’t make them look cool; I explained that it only makes our school look worse in the public eye.
A hand went up.
“Mr. Carlson, did you ever get into a fight at school?”
“Did you win?”
I hesitated, unable to answer.
I asked myself, “Do I stay the “cool” teacher and tell them about fighting with Dave? Or do I risk being just another teacher, one who the student’s think is a loser.”
As an educator, one of the biggest struggles I saw amongst male high school students was an inability to communicate emotions. Phrases like “man up,” and “grow a pair” were focal points of their vocabulary. They told each other that boys weren’t supposed to cry, that they were supposed to behave like men.
I couldn’t forget how I abandoned Jonathan at the wrestling meet. I believe in the ideal that we are to leave the Earth a better place than how we found it, and that meant learning from my mistakes and working with an entirely new generation of young men to hopefully change the narrative to one of a more healthy masculinity.
The first thing I did as a teacher was change the language of the classroom. Phrases such as “Man up” morphed into “Be courageous.” I changed “Boys don’t cry” to “You got this.” “Be a man” became “Be the best version of yourself you can possibly be.” Simple word choices can make all the difference.
I designated my classroom as a community-building space. One of my rules was that all students were to be respectful and kind during our discussions. I know it’s obvious. And when any student acted out in class, I didn’t dole out detentions. Instead, we had a conversation. I wanted to know what was really going on, and most of the time the real problem started at home. My displays of empathy were purposeful.
I wanted my male students to have at least one positive, masculine role model in their lives.
And slowly, I watched my students grow, particularly male students. It wasn’t how they interacted with me, but it was how the young men interacted with each other that was important.
Students who were reserved and “tough guys” began to open up during small group discussions. Many shared personal stories about their lives and pushed back on others when they felt like they were being boxed into toxic masculine norms. I never had the courage to call out others when they perpetuated toxic masculine traits, and it caused me a lot of pain; it meant the world to me to see a classroom of young men not make the same mistakes and the social impact their choices could make on generations of other men.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but together we were creating community groups, and men’s support groups that exemplified positive masculinity. My students were pushing back on the male identities they felt suffocated by. We saw value in engaging with uncomfortable conversations and I wanted to invite students to continue pushing back on gender roles.
Positive masculinity in action.
What was happening in my classroom was starting to happen across the country. Tony Porter and Ted Bunch, founders of A Call to Men, began a program for middle and high school boys entitled “LIVERESPECT” that promotes healthy manhood, challenges harmful masculine norms, and decreases language that degrades women.
A spokesperson for the company said the program was designed for “young men who see how culture is trying to box them in but want to do things differently. They see that there’s room for equality without anyone having to lose anything. They see that there’s no one way to be a boy and they are bravely charting their own course. Not always without consequence—but with conviction.” Boys gender identity wasn’t pre-determined.
Instructional programs such as LIVERESPECT featuring community outreach, mobilization, and mass media campaigns more effectively change behaviors in men than single-topic programs. That means single-issue interventions are less successful than programs that attempt to holistically talk about toxic masculine behaviors to change them.
Times are changing for boys of all ages. Justin Birckbichler, men’s health activist and founder of A Ballsy Sense of Tumor, has noticed a shift away from traditional gender roles in elementary students. He told me over e-mail, “Working in an elementary school, I see plenty of boys sharing how they feel with their peers and teachers, without fear of shame or embarrassment. They use deep breathing and other actions to help manage their emotions and aren’t afraid to accept (or even ask for) a hug when they need it.” By learning how to communicate in a healthy way, boys are learning how to build boundaries and healthy friendships, both of which are necessary for long-term health.
Men’s support groups are also becoming easier to find. Imagine it being like a masculinity workshop where for a couple of hours a month, men come together to highlight non-traditional male strengths: vulnerability, empathy, and introspection. Groups like Evryman and Tribe Men’s Group are constantly doing important work to help make men be the best men they can be.
The boys are going to be alright.
My last year as a teacher, I decided to try something new with my creative writing classes. I believed that if I shared a piece of my writing that was honest and vulnerable on the first day of school, the students might feel more comfortable sharing their work.
I knew that that 13.6% of men believe that men with depression could “snap out of it,” and 9.8% of men surveyed believe depression isn’t a real medical illness. But I wanted my students to know and understand that I suffered from mental illness, and it did not make me weak. By opening up to anyone about it, it made me strong. It leveled me up as a human being. I wanted to practice healthy masculinity in front of them.
So a few minutes before the bell, I asked my students to come back together around our center table to listen to one of my pieces. I talked about my depression, and how I was so worried about what I thought people would think of me. Some of that piece morphed into my Johns Hopkins Thesis and then into an article I wrote about comedy and depression. The students needed to understand that their fears of vulnerability were reasonable, but that it was okay to share themselves.
As I read aloud, I felt my voice crack, my eyes unable to look up from the page. The same fear that prevented me from being there for Jonathan manifested. Even as an adult, I don’t want to be judged. That fear of not being masculine enough never quite goes away no matter how much conditioning you work through.
After I finished, the room was silent. I lingered at the front of the room, waiting for the bell to ring. I felt awkward, open to criticism from the critics I most needed to be a mentor to. As the ding echoed over the speakers, an 11th grader came up to me with his Adidas backpack clipped together in the front.
“You know, Mr. Carlson, it’s okay. I cry sometimes too.” The student stood there, our silence filled the room. I smiled at him and shook his hand. I thanked him for opening up to me.
It was then that I knew the boys were going to be alright.
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