‘I constantly got reprimanded for dancing at parties, people called me boy-girl and eventually I just stopped because everyone said that’s not how men should behave including my family.’-Malik, 24
I had a chat with Malik, a 24-year-old queer, effeminate man on his experiences with TM. His struggles date as far back as his childhood. Although he loved dancing at parties, he got reprimanded for doing so. Eventually, he was forced to stop because ‘that’s not how men should behave’. But whose place really is it to say how men should behave and how they shouldn’t? His story was profound and painful as he constantly had to hear phrases like ‘what is this boy doing’, ‘that’s not how men walk’ and it almost seemed as if his very existence was a curse. In high school, he got called ‘boy girl’ and was beaten up by his parents for not being ‘manly’.
When asked about the impact of TM on his mental health, he let out a long sad sigh; I have lost jobs and opportunities for not being a ‘manly man’, my confidence has taken a hit. Sometimes, I feel I was born wrong, Malik said. My life in high school up until university felt like one blow after another, my self-esteem was shattered, I didn’t feel like he was worth doing anything or being here. The few men that came close to me were only there to take advantage of me, he continued. Malik started asking girls out even though he wasn’t attracted to them to make him feel like ‘one of the boys’.
To date, Malik asserts he feels anxious and uncomfortable passing a group of guys for fear of being groped and harassed and has never had a space to express his feelings. Malik feels his situation is better as other queer effeminate men get stabbed, robbed, raped, stalked and harassed, and at the extreme-killed. That’s painful.
First off, this article has the perfect title because, toxic masculinity is a lot to unpack, there are so many nuances. According to the New York Times, toxic masculinity is the outcome of teaching boys that they are not allowed to publicly express emotions and they have to be strong and any alternative makes them feminine or unmanly. TM doesn’t necessarily mean that all men are profoundly toxic. It’s not healthy for men to internalize messages that they must be tough and it’s horrible for girls and women to be exposed to men who feel secure in acting violently.
I needed context so I decided to discuss with a few men centering on their experiences with TM from the family dynamic, workplaces through sexism, to friendships to interpersonal and personal dynamic. A lot of brands like Gillette with its #Metoo advert, The Good Men Project on Medium, are doing their part to start the dialogue and curb TM. It’s seen to be the root cause for certain social anomalies like rape, murder, shootings, gang violence and online bullying.
When Kwame reached out to me on Twitter to chat about TM, I didn’t expect the turn the conversation will take, he explained his friendship with his childhood friend Andre where there was always the reward and punish dynamic. He constantly got picked on for being too emotional although his friends were aware that his dad was going through a financial crisis. He was constantly gaslit by his group of male friends with them switching stories about him. His downward spiral came from being abused and too ashamed. TM took away space for him to express his emotions and took a toll on him mentally by making him overthink, overanalyze, second guess his actions, and feel anxious. His heart seemed heavy.
Beyond this, TM plays out in the mental health of men, although research has shown women to suffer from depression more, men have more successful suicidal rates than women. A study by the Office of National Statistics postulated that in 2019, suicide rates for men in England and wales totaled 16.9 suicides for every 100,000 men, this pales in comparison with 5.3 deaths for every 100,000 women in England and Wales, 2019. There definitely are so many factors that play into these numbers but at the top of the list is TM.
Although suicide being deeply layered and complex with contributing factors varying, a core reason why men have higher suicide rates is seen in phrases originating from childhood like men don’t cry, we tell boys from childhood to be strong and encourage them to bottle up their emotions and fears. Men are less likely to seek help than women and a lot find vulnerability to be embarrassing. All through their lives, boys and men are taught to be strong and self-reliant which is inherently problematic, men need love and support too.
Temidayo, 25, founder, ManUp Initiative seemed relaxed, cheerful as we chatted a bit about what led him to start his initiative which is aimed at changing the narrative and influencing young men to break cultural norms. He describes TM to be ‘when my idea of masculinity brings harm to another person or myself’. Like Malik, he found TM to be rooted in societal norms, culture, uninformed ideologies/mindsets, parents instilling values that feed your patriachical mindset and who you’re exposed to. A personal experience of TM for him was when he was expressing to guys at work that he watched Frozen 2 and comments like ‘isn’t that a girls movie?’ and ‘for Halloween did you dress up as a ballerina?’ were thrown his way. This just proved to him that there’s so much more unlearning to do.
Growing up, his mum broke ideas of gender roles so it’s never been so prominent in his personal life. In his friendships, he’s not scared to have certain conversations which is so healthy.
The negative effects of TM are clear as day, it hurts our mental health, leads to promiscuity, violence, not engaging in caregiving, violence, being dominant, not being a feminist ally, problems with dating and interpersonal relationships, higher depression, and anxiety levels, substance, sexual and spousal abuse. There is absolutely nobody, not one person who wins with TM.
A few ways we can do better as a society include;
Being positive role models and showing men and boys that there are different ways to be a man, a man can be kind, loving and show emotions. We also need to train young boys and men that they don’t need to stick with archaic norms of TM, through this, we can reduce mental health struggles, gender based violence and domestic violence. Furthermore, Boys should be educated on how to healthily deal with negative feelings. TM needs to be addressed and men need to learn that emotions don’t devalue them/make them weak. Moreso, women of color should be hired, promoted and uplifted, at home, in society, and in the workplace. Finally, there’s no shame and embarrassment in gaining professional help when you’re struggling, and self-medicating with alcohol and substances doesn’t help.
The idea of living is to be free and not bound by something so subjective-masculinity. There’s a lot of learning and unlearning to do, but these conversations need to be had. We all deserve to be happy.
*Names changed to protect anonymity
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