What do gender-based violence, mass shootings and mental health have in common? In addition to being three of the most pressing issues our nation is currently facing, each is partially derived from and interconnected with toxic masculinity. Coined in 2005, the term refers to harmful beliefs and behaviors that constitute society’s expectations of manhood. These include physical aggression, emotional repression and discrimination against women and LGBTQ+ folk.
As toxic masculinity rises to prominence on the world stage, it is important to acknowledge its ties to this community. The 2014 Isla Vista shooting sparked a national conversation about the damaging impact of traditional notions of masculinity.
In the spirit of continuing this dialogue, we asked students to share their experiences with toxic masculinity. As these vignettes represent but a fraction of the whole, we encourage readers to share their own stories with one another. By engaging with this issue — and one another — we can move toward individual and collective healing.
I can’t remember the last time I cried in public. The last time I remember crying outside of my house is when I watched The Water Horse at 12 years old (that shit was sad, okay?). Other than that, I’ve pretty much successfully suppressed every negative emotion I’ve since felt.
At first, I thought I was just emotionally tough. I mean, that’s what my environment taught me. Any sign of anger or sadness was weak, and simply funny to an outside audience. Whether it was my collection of friends or my soccer teammates, the rules of being a man were simple: if someone insults you, you better come up with a more brutal snipe back. If you get hit on the soccer field, you better hit the other player back even harder. If someone makes you feel vulnerable, never give them the power of letting them see it. If your “opponent” in any contentious interaction shows vulnerability, you’ve already won. Toxic masculinity at its finest.
Although I prided myself on being “one of the good guys” growing up, I still remained committed to never letting my somber emotions get the best of me. In my eyes, one of the worst things that could happen to me socially was to have my traditional definition of masculinity questioned by my peers. Not being a complete hot-headed asshole like some of my peers had already garnered enough pestering questions and insults. I was not going to concede any more vulnerability.
This worked for a good 19 years. However, it was just not sustainable. I never truly opened up to family and friends. I barely acknowledged the emotions of the girls I was involved with. I goofed around and took serious situations, frankly, not seriously enough. Overall, I pretended I was perfectly fine and in control of my life. As an assortment of family, social and other issues started to pile up, it quickly became apparent that I was not going to last this way.
Spring Quarter of my freshman year of college was when I finally broke. I remember getting off the phone with my parents and beginning to sense this growing discomfort in my chest. Soon, I was lying on the floor of my dorm, panic attack in full effect, taking big gasps of air, heart racing and wondering whether I was about to have a heart attack, my composed facade in shambles.
You know what my first concern was as I laid in my bed recovering my breath, 20 minutes later?
“I’m so glad nobody saw me like that.”
From a young age, I was surrounded by toxic ideas about what it means to be a man. As an athlete, I was taught a lot of lessons on the field that translated to other contexts as well. Men are supposed to be aggressive; we’re supposed to take what we want, and under no circumstances should we show vulnerability or pain. I was (incorrectly) told that men are fundamentally and biologically different from women in both our desires and our behavior, and that this rationalized most of the violence we enacted.
Luckily for me, I had so many strong and compassionate women in my family that I never truly internalized these beliefs. I was basically raised in a matriarchy, and I knew from a young age that there was certainly no leadership role or job that a man can do that a woman can’t do (and most likely do better). My passion for anthropology inspired me to research and discover that most of what we think about sex and gender is actually not true, and that outdated stereotypes surrounding gender roles are based on patriarchal ideologies far more than on scientific fact.
Basically, it took a lot of labor and arbitrary situations for me to become de-socialized and to grow up valuing empathy and vulnerability over traits we would consider more “masculine.” It shouldn’t be up to women to teach us this. Cisgender men created these toxic notions of masculinity, and it’s up to us to dismantle them. Recent events like mass shootings and the well-documented disparity in domestic violence perpetrated by men compared to women show that we have an issue with young men growing up entitled, ignorant, abrasive, and de-sensitized. It’s so easy in this day and age for men to dehumanize and demonize women personally or through social media, and it’s just not right. We must change ourselves in order to create the world that all women deserve.
Toxic masculinity, in my (ill-informed) opinion, is a Rolodex of traits that every man shouldn’t emulate. Regardless of your standing knowledge of the word, it feels as if it is always within earshot. A buzzword, really.
While I’ve known about toxic masculinity since high school, its relevance did not emerge until I moved to college — at the other end of the nation. My personal opinions are not matter-of-fact, but I do believe the atmosphere at UC Santa Barbara takes this phrase more seriously than in Buffalo, my hometown. And this makes sense — Southern California is a melting pot for social justice.
To me, toxic masculinity isn’t a term that I would use, ever. Its scope is too large, like shielding a pebble from the rain with an umbrella. Telling someone or saying that something is of toxic masculinity helps nobody; that’s stating the obvious. If you really want to make a difference, assess the issue individually, use more precise descriptions and identify the specific root of those actions.
While I do believe that men throughout the world should be held accountable for their actions, the use of this label ultimately highlights the actions of the lower denominations in male society and presents a skewed image of males as a whole.
This isn’t fair. Take your “men ain’t shit” tweets somewhere else. For every asshole out there, another man is working just as hard to support himself and potentially a significant other and family.
Don’t get lazy and paint the entire picture with just one color: generalizing the actions of men is unjust!
The discussion of toxic masculinity is one that cannot wait — men need to do their part. When one adheres and conforms to the traditional constructions of what manhood is, the consequences can have hegemonic and dangerous implications for oneself and others. These constructions of masculinity are, unfortunately, imposed upon and expected of boys beginning in childhood. Equally unfortunate are the consequences for those who do not act according to a specific template of gendered norms, which historically have been characterized by dominance, assertiveness and self-reliance. These behaviors can lead to more dangerous outcomes, such as misogyny, homophobia or violence. If a man does not adhere to these behaviors, it can lead to exclusion and ridicule from others, further perpetuating the behaviors in a cycle of desired sociocultural validation.
By addressing toxic masculinity, we can work to dismantle the harmful behaviors that have been essentialized to construct what constitutes a “man.” Fighting these destructive norms does not subtract from “manhood,” but, rather, subverts repressive notions of gender and upholds fundamental tenets of how one should treat others.
I have always had an effeminate voice, though I have not always known it. I always assumed I had a normal boy voice, just like all the other boys, so why wouldn’t I? It was not until I changed schools when I was about 10 that I was confronted with my “offensive sound.” On the first day, a group of boys introduced themselves to me — obviously the cool ones I should aspire to hang around. When I began to speak, they all chuckled and said, “Is that your normal voice?” I was stunned because of course it was and replied as such, which was met with guffaws and “you sound like a girl.” Needless to say, my relationship with said boys did not end well, and going forward I strictly maintained friendships with girls in order to limit my newfound insecurity.
Hi, I am a guy. I’m short and fat, with fingers that resemble sausages. I’m not into sports, I’ve never been a fan of cars and I think beer tastes like wet bread. I’ve been told many times that I’m not a man because of these facts and I’ve been ridiculed because I’m not six-foot-plus with rippling muscles and a deep voice. It hurts, especially during the chaotic swirl that was high school. Feeling like I wasn’t what I was supposed to be and that I couldn’t do anything about it shredded my self-esteem.
Maybe to them I wasn’t a man. I am, however, a woodworker and a blacksmith. A lumberjack and a powerlifter. I can fix any problem that comes up in your house and I can build a house from the ground up. I bring smiles to the people around me and support to my loved ones. I can cook one hell of a dinner, I clean a house damn well and I know how to ask for help when I need it.
Toxic masculinity showed me what I wasn’t and tried to shame me for it. Instead, I turned around and found what real men are made of.
My life, from childhood to the present, has been rooted in ever-changing ideologies of masculinity. My upbringing was consistent with typical ideas of what it means to be a “man.” Lessons from my dad, an individual heavily indoctrinated with a hegemonic understanding of masculinity, served as an introduction. While he craved hunting trips and sports, I craved wearing dresses, carefully braiding my mom’s hair on days when he was absent. The years passed by, and as my voice grew deeper, my face hairier and my body larger, I felt myself internalizing his ideals and expectations, unaware of their impact. I became less empathetic and my words and actions danced with destruction. Not only had I absorbed my dad’s ideals, rooted in toxic masculinity—I embodied them.
As I grew older my mind became weary, my clandestine relationship with queerness yearning to express itself outwardly. Anxiously, I began distancing myself from my father and the many ideas that I had come to believe. This space allowed for a transformation; the expectations imposed by him melted away as I gained other perspectives. Experiences that broke down gender dichotomies and heteronormativity provided understandings previously concealed by my upbringing. The self-hatred I’d harbored due to masculine ideals no longer dictated my behavior. I embraced my desire to cross boundaries — painting my nails the color of the sky, holding hands with boys without fear of ridicule, chasing desires I’d stored in a closet somewhere 300 miles away.
As I get older, my growth is no longer controlled by traditional notions of masculinity. The walls that my father, and countless other men in my life, aided me in building have lost their height and sturdiness.
I’ve had to become gentler with myself and my emotions, with the emotions of others, with the words that men often produce without understanding the impact they have on others. I’ve begun to accept my mind’s fragility and how it influences my interactions with the earth and those that exist upon it. As I become aware of my errors, I feel the need for myself and all men to be constantly aware of the pain they may cause to others, as well as the pain they may cause to themselves.
Masculinity is an interesting concept we have the opportunity to observe in today’s cosmopolitan social sphere. It’s important to acknowledge that masculinity, while sometimes toxic, annoying and inconsiderate, can also be a beautiful thing. I believe that masculinity, or typical male behavior, is something that takes a long time to master. As a college-aged student, I recognize that I still have a lot to learn. To complicate things, our society is learning with us. Growing up, masculinity meant being a gentleman: holding doors open for ladies (and sometimes men), being tough and striving for success. But as I’ve grown up, I’ve realized that, like most things, masculinity is a balance. The beautiful thing about masculinity today is that you can paint your nails, talk about your feelings and still get laid. Masculinity is what you make of it. So please don’t make it toxic. You do you, however masculine you are.
Sitting in my living room with cis boys for too many days in a row is enough to make me want to curl up on my bed and not talk to anyone. I feel so limited in the way I can talk and express myself, and sometimes it feels like the only thing that will help is being alone. But when I consciously make the decision to hang out with individuals — especially women and LGBTQ+ people — who don’t enforce gendered boundaries with taunts and insults and instead welcome nonbinary expression, it makes me feel so much more free to be who I want to be.