Toxic Masculinity and the Shifting Landscape of What It Means to Be a Man

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Toxic Masculinity and the Shifting Landscape of What It Means to Be a Man

How do you move forward with no real road map? That's the question facing men in search of a new definition of masculinity, one that rejects the precepts of toxic masculinity.

«We haven't yet found a way to create or sustain on a mass scale less toxic or even healthy masculinity,» says Raymond Buscemi, Psy.D.

, core faculty member with The Wright Institute Master's in Counseling Psychology Program.

Toxic Masculinity and Opposition Identity

Toxic masculinity — defined by the psychiatrist Terry Kupers, Professor Emeritus with the Clinical Psychology Program, in a 2005 study of men in prison as «the constellation of socially regressive male traits that serve to foster domination, the devaluation of women, homophobia, and wanton violence» — undermines the scope of the human experience. Looking at the traditional definition of masculinity in the United States, Buscemi says, is «looking at the history of men ejecting from their minds anything that might undermine their ideas of what it means to be a man. And the things that undermine what it means to be a man, historically and largely unconsciously, are things identified with the feminine. We have a history in this culture of a creation of an identity that hasn't really amounted to being much of a statement about what we are, but rather reflects what we are not. 'We are not women. We are not women. We don't do things that women do.' You have this kind of development of an identity, a deep culture-social identity of being a man. But at its heart, you have a profound emptiness, a lack of what it actually might be to be a man whose manhood is not defined by the fact that he's not a woman.»

Defining an entire gender identity in opposition is especially problematic given our increasing understanding of the nonbinary nature of gender, and leaves little room for the natural spectrum of emotions.

Buscemi elaborates: «Up until recently, boys and men were shamed for expressing any genuine feelings except for anger.

And that's a terrible message to send to a human being who is capable of experiencing feelings we don't even yet have words for.»

A culture that defines masculinity in opposition to the female puts men in what Buscemi calls the «bind of the polarizing position.

» He says, «Anytime you're in a polarized position, if there's any hint that you might be moving in some way to connect with what you think of as your opposite, it's going to trigger a profound reaction that is based in fear.

You get to this point where we use this phrase (toxic masculinity) to identify a form of masculinity and this idea that there's something really sour or threatening or toxic at the heart of masculinity.

And for a lot of men who might not be in the business of developing consciousness around gender identity but who are in touch with their own sense of loss — loss of opportunity or loss of privilege — those moments aren't experienced as opportunities for developing consciousness, they're just experienced as an attack.»

Toxic Masculinity in Current Culture

The current social and political landscape have drawn attention to a particular aspect of this defensive stance: «I'm beginning to wonder, how come the only men who are actually forming publicly known, publicly active groups of men all seem to be organizing those groupings around hate,» Buscemi notes. «We're not seeing a mass movement of men in the streets demanding equal pay for women. We're seeing men in the streets threatening women.»

So how do individuals and the wider culture begin to reframe masculinity in a healthier way? «It starts within a man and the only way that men are going to be able to do that inner work is when men feel ready, willing and able to do that work. I don't know what might create those optimal conditions, but I do have a sense from listening to the men I know and the men I work with that there's an intense level of dissatisfaction in the lives of a lot of men.»

Introducing Male Fragility into the Toxic Masculinity Conversation

Part of the solution could be a reframing of the conversation from one centering on toxic masculinity to discussions around the concept of masculine fragility. «I think the phrase we should actually be moving toward is not necessarily toxic masculinity, but masculine fragility,» notes Buscemi.

«I think we should bring this more in line with the conversations that white people are now being encouraged to have among ourselves about our identities as white people in a highly racialized culture.

White fragility is a way to begin this conversation in terms of how well white people have done at developing strategies for avoiding having conversations about race (the classic one being 'Yeah, but I'm not a racist.').

I wonder what it would be to develop a similar idea around masculinity — not devaluing or diminishing the toxicity aspect, which I think is very important, but somehow also speaking to the fragility that's at the heart of it.»

Learn more about the Wright Institute's Master of Counseling Psychology program.
Learn more about the Wright Institute's Doctor of Clinical Psychology (Psy.D.) program.


The Changing Landscape Of Masculinity And Men’s Mental Health In The Workplace

Toxic Masculinity and the Shifting Landscape of What It Means to Be a Man

By Bernie Wong


November is widely known as “Movember,” attributable to the organization that’s dedicated to raising awareness about health issues specific to men such as prostate cancer, testicular cancer, and men's suicide and mental health.

When it comes to mental health, “the numbers for suicide are actually going in the wrong direction in the U.S., as well as globally,” shared Mark Hedstrom, Movember’s U.S. executive director. “About 800,000 individuals take their own lives globally and 500,000 of those are men.

When we look at the trend in the U.S. context, about 75% of those suicides are men.” 

We talked with Hedstrom further as well as Dr. Zac Seidler, Movember’s director of health professional training, to learn more on what’s contributing to the unwavering stigma surrounding men’s mental health both in and outside of the workplace.

Traditional beliefs about what it means to be a man have historically focused on a stoic confidence, discouraging emotional expression.

In a Movember study conducted this year, 58% of men reported that they think society expects them to be emotionally strong and not show weakness in front of others.

This has real impacts—Mind Share Partners “Mental Health at Work 2019 Report” in partnership with SAP and Qualtrics found that men were significantly less ly to have sought treatment for mental health despite similar rates in overall prevalence of mental health symptoms. 


According to Seidler, financial and career fears based in gender stereotypes play a part in the ongoing stigma surrounding men’s mental health as well. In the Movember study, 34% of U.S.

men fear their job could be at risk if they discussed their mental health at work. “For many men, holding down a job and being able to provide and take care of their family is still a central part of being a man,” Seidler explained.

“If they feel they aren’t living up to that standard, they class themselves as failures.”

While gender norms are changing—with an increase in stay-at-home dads, men reporting a desire to spend more time with their families, and dual household incomes now the norm—old beliefs are still hard to break, and are negatively tied to physical and mental health outcomes. Fortunately, more public examples of modern leadership using vulnerability and transparency as a tool to champion culture change have emerged, and we predict these perceptions to shift over time. 

The Message Behind The Moustache

Paralleling the end of outdated stereotypes about men are conversations about “toxic masculinity.

” While strategies to end these unhealthy beliefs and behaviors are essential, Hedstrom warns that leading with this language can put men on the defensive rather than offering actionable solutions.

“We're not saying that there aren't things that men need to do differently. That's absolutely why we're here.” Hedstrom said. “We believe that men can focus on positive masculinity.” 

Leaning on positive traits, altruism, has played a key role in Movember’s marketing initiatives to reach men and address the stigma. One example is their “Grow a mo, save a bro” campaign, which calls on men to grow a mustache (and teaches them how) during the month of November to encourage conversations about men’s health. 


This approach leverages both fun and seriousness, as Hedstrom explains: “The fun is the mustache.

We're taking a very masculine feature… some call it gamifying a man's face, and get them to be competitive with each other to all of those things and tie into a real authentic connection.

” The serious side is what Movember calls internally a «Trojan horse,” where the fun approach allows men to engage a more serious conversation, ultimately bringing awareness to challenges they face. 

The Changing Landscape Of Masculinity

As awareness about men’s mental health has grown, so have conversations about issues of mental health and diversity within these communities. Specifically, Mind Share Partners’ report found that LGBTQ+ respondents were more ly to experience symptoms of every mental health condition anxiety or depression compared to non-LGBTQ+ respondents, and transgender respondents twice as ly. 

“The effects of traditional masculinity on gay men, trans men, non-binary, and other gender expressions are important to address in this conversation,” Hedstrom acknowledged.

In response, Movember has dedicated tailored content such as the “Mo LGBTQ+ Fundraising Challenge” and featured stories LGBTQ+ actor and producer Justin Mikita who shared his struggled with anxiety and depression.

“There’s a lot of inherent shame in the queer community, and as a gay man, I know that many of my friends and those within the LGBTQ community have had to go through a journey with their mental health, including myself.”


Hedstrom also shared how his own lens of masculinity has changed over time. “I’m a Gen-Xer and I wasn't really attuned to how I was raised with the lens of masculinity within my own family.

” Despite his father having had depression his whole life, it was only in the past seven years when his father began to struggle more that Hedstrom recognized its impact. “I've moved to a very different conversation with my father and my brothers, as well as my mother.

And that navigation—with three boys who are all [Gen] X-ers and our inability to have these conversations and showing our emotions—has dramatically changed in those five years.”

Generations and the LGBTQ+ community are just two of many groups and identities with unique experiences and needs when it comes to mental health. These conversations at the intersection of mental health and diversity, equity, and inclusion will only grow in coming years.

What It All Means For Men’s Mental Health At Work

From awareness, to education, to concrete strategies for self-care and supporting others, there are many ways to support men’s mental health at work. Seidler suggests that findings ways to tackle the stigma around discussing mental health in a workplace setting that doesn’t discourage men from getting the help they need is vital.

“This can start with leaders encouraging conversations about the tough stuff and reassuring staff that they won’t face discrimination for speaking openly and that they will be supported,” he added.

When top executives champion mental health in their workplace, men can focus less on the possible financial and career repercussions they might face, and more on getting the support they need.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.

Bernie Wong is a senior associate at Mind Share Partners, a nonprofit that is changing the culture of workplace mental health.


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