What Does Healthy Masculinity Mean? (Read Time - 5 min)
What is Healthy Masculinity?
We have seen many changes in our society of late in how we are responding to #maleprivilege, #power, and the idea that ‘#boyswillbeboys.’ The terms ‘#healthymasculinity’ and ‘#toxicmasculinity’ are being thrown around more and more and it is important to understand what these terms mean, how we can begin to hold ourselves and each other accountable, and what the cost/benefit is of both. The following is meant to be an introduction and beginning exploration of what these terms mean and to provoke both thought and conversation that will bring about social awareness and change.
The #metoo movement and the awareness that it has created around male abuse of privilege and power in society has been important and late to occur. Metoo has sparked awareness by many to no longer accept the social inequity of gender roles and an call for an #accountability culture to emerge; the world will be better for it.
In Toronto, we need look no further than the recent Yonge St van attack and, more recently, the events between students at St. Michael’s College School. These events have spurred many others to come forward with their own stories to raise awareness of the experiences that they have endured. For example, Dan Carcillo (@danielcarcillo13 on instagram and CarBombBoom13 on twitter), a former NHL player, has come forward to share his experience of hazing while part of the OHL. His accounts of what he went through are difficult to read and enraging at the same time.
As well, think about Brett Kavanagh and Dr. Blasey-Ford’s testimony of her own experience and how she described it affected her life. Everywhere, there is evidence of a negative experience as a result of this unspoken ‘code’ of masculinity that is in need of change.
In a project by voicemalemagazine (https://voicemalemagazine.org/what-is-healthy-masculinity/) they asked ‘several members of its national advisory board, and other colleagues and allies, to address in short essays their thoughts about the challenges inherent in trying define “healthy masculinity.” Each individual wrote on this topic. They are all worth visiting to learn more.
As I read each and every one of them, there was a passage that stuck with me from Michael Kimmel, ‘We need men who are secure enough in their convictions to recognize a mistake, courageous enough to be compassionate, fiercely egalitarian, powerful enough to empower others, strong enough to acknowledge that real strength comes from holding others up rather than pushing them down and that real freedom is not to be found in the loneliness of the log cabin but in the daily compromises of life in a community.’ Interestingly, Kimmel has received allegations of sexual harassment against him. An interesting dichotomy, to be explored more deeply in future posts, of how one can be toxic and healthy simultaneously. Important to note, that one’s healthy work can not outweigh, nor undo, one’s toxicity. I leave this passage here as I think it is imperative to highlight that ALL people need to be accountable to their actions, at all times, in all situations, with all those that they interact with.
On the same page, Patrick McGann outlines the following. He labels it healthy masculinity, but I wonder if it is not something that all humans should be striving for in an attempt to be holistically healthy? As you read below, omit the terms of masculinity and read them as #humanity.
• involves the ability to recognize unhealthy aspects of masculinity (humanity)—those features that are harmful to the self and others
• leads to the replacement of harmful, risky and violent masculine (human) attitudes and behaviours with empathetic behaviours and attitudes that benefit men’s (human’s) mental, emotional, and physical well-being and increase their ability to role-model nonviolence
• is based on supporting gender equity and other forms of equality
• includes social and emotional skills used to positively challenge in yourself—and in others—unhealthy masculine (human) attitudes and behaviours that harm the self and others
So rather than asking what is healthy masculinity, should we be talking about healthy humanity instead?
While several of the others posit the notion that there is no such thing as ‘healthy masculinity’ as the notion of masculinity is a social construct and therefore inherently flawed. Defining masculinity as healthy or unhealthy, perpetuates power imbalance and inequity. Jackson Katz states, ‘what does it mean to be a “healthy” man when the very idea of what it means to be a man is so contingent on the maintenance of an economic and social order in which men are arranged hierarchically in relation to one another and as a group are in a position of dominance over women?’
A psychologist named Y. Joel Wong examined traditionally “masculine” characteristics (including self reliance, emotional control, sexual promiscuity and power over women) in a meta-analysis of 74 studies of more than 19,000 men. Traditionally masculine characteristics were associated with poorer mental health, including depression, distress, and low self-esteem. Dr. Wong concluded that traditionally masculine characteristics may interfere with men’s relationships with others. And poor relationships may result in poor mental health.
So how do we become ‘healthier’?
A website out of the UK put forth the following as a way for men to have healthier relationships with themselves, first and foremost:
‘[A man] must know, understand, and be in conscious, ongoing relationship and dialog with:
- his wounds
- his history
- his needs
- his anger
- his sadness
- his grief
- his joy
- his strengths
- his weaknesses
- his purpose in life
- his shadow
- his power’
The interesting component that stands out from this list is, his power. As a cis gender male in Western society, I was born into a tremendous amount of privilege and there is a high amount of power that comes with that. I believe that I have a responsibility to be aware of this power/privilege and how I respond to it continually and ensure that I am conscious of when it is becoming negative in my life and for others.
Now, lets talk ‘toxic masculinity. The Good Men Project defines it this way:
Toxic masculinity is a narrow and repressive description of manhood, designating manhood as defined by violence, sex, status and aggression. It’s 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.
This definition is problematic in that it speaks to a ‘narrow’ view. While it is a section of how manhood is described, it is certainly not all encompassing of what it means to be a man for many. However, it is important that this conversation include reference to both the healthy and the toxic components that are identified with masculinity and what it can mean to ‘be a man.’
One of the challenges in engaging men to discuss masculinity is how to create a collaborative and invitational discourse. I have a history of working with individuals that have both experienced and used abusive behaviours in relationships. One thing that I learned very early was that if I wanted to get any buy-in to want to move forward, the best way to do this was to invite people into the conversation. But what does that mean?
I recall meeting with an individual that felt that they were experiencing abusive behaviours toward them from their partner. They spent some time explaining how poorly they were being treated and how difficult this was for them. Throughout this conversation, I could hear clues that the abusive behaviours were bilateral. I also recognized that the experience of such behaviours that this person had endured, was something that needed to be heard, validated, and processed. In validating the frustration, pain, hurt, and shame that they felt, I was able to disarm them and invite them into a safe space to discuss their own use of abusive behaviour toward their partner. When I did so, there was no push back, there was no ‘yeah, but…,’ there was only silent reflection and an epiphany that the relationship was unhealthy both ways and that this person was acting in a way similar to what they were so frustrated with.
Now this is a very simplistic view, and this person and I met several times to work on boundaries, choices, healthy coping skills for the relationship, and how to identify what a healthy relationship looks like. However, had I simply shown up with a narrow view stating that they just were wrong and not taken any time to understand their lived experience, then I believe they would have not come to see me a second time. By no means am I condoning any abusive behaviour, nor am I saying that any such behaviour is warranted or acceptable at all, in any context. What I am saying is that we need to understand where these behaviours are coming from in order to change them and to amplify the notion to people that all behaviour is a choice and help them learn to make healthier choices.
Princeton University has the following table on its website. The article states that the first list can lead to men not taking care of themselves, not recognizing that others need help, and in some cases actually hurting other people, while the second list allows men to take care of themselves, recognize when others need help, care for others, and contribute to a more respectful culture for all regardless of gender identification.
Adhering to male stereotypes:
- Avoiding help-seeking (medical attention, emotional support)
- Not showing weakness, presenting as tough, expecting other men and boys to be tough(er)
- Restricting emotions to “acceptable” ones for men (anger, happiness, jealousy, lust)
- Caretaking exclusively, being the “breadwinner”
- Pressuring other men to behave in stereotypically masculine ways
Allowing a fuller range of emotions and behaviours:
- Asking for help when needed
- Showing vulnerability
- Expressing a wide range of emotions (sadness, fear, shame, kindness, tenderness)
- Developing healthy relationship skills (active listening, communication, nonjudgmental support, asking for and giving consent)
- Feeling comfortable in emotionally nurturing roles
- Calling out/in other men who engage in behaviours that are disrespectful or aggressive
All to say, that there is no easy answer to what #healthymasculinity is, but rather that this is an important discussion that needs to continue and should include everyone. As a culture, we need to move forward in a way to achieve equality and equity for all humans regardless of gender. For men, we need to normalize the ways that they can be better humans rather than simply better men. We all play a role in creating a healthier, and more equitable society. As a male, I am challenging myself to continually check in how I am arriving to situations where I have privilege and power, and to ensure that I am not perpetuating any of the toxic or unhealthy traits mentioned throughout this piece.
Please feel free to share this on your own social networks and let’s help broaden, and normalize, the conversation in a collaborative and invitational way. If you are, or know, someone that is struggling and may benefit from chatting with someone about anything related to the above, or in general, then please do not hesitate to reach out to me directly.