Society’s standards for how young men should look, think, and act are often harmful for them in the long run.
Vivian Edwards was 16 when she struck up a conversation with her father about a transgender girl at her school. Vivian was still publicly identifying as a boy at the time, but she was wearing panties in secret. She thought that maybe bringing up the other girl would make Vivian feel more like the man society told her she was. Instead, calling the girl a “shim” and a “he-she” with her dad made her feel awful. She felt like she’d have to be a boy forever.
It took a few years for Vivian to admit to herself, and everyone around her, that she was transgender as well. Her inability to show her true self is probably in part due to the unrealistic set of masculine standards placed on men by society, commonly referred to as toxic masculinity.
Toxic masculinity describes when a person opts to participate in masculine behaviors to a point that might be unhealthy for them or those around them, according to Katie Lawson, an assistant professor in psychological science at Ball State University. These behaviors include, but are not limited to: violence, taking risks, holding in emotions, and socially monitoring others, such as transgender women.
Since officially coming out in September 2016, Vivian has received plenty of backlash from strangers. She’s often heard passersby yell “Is that a boy or a girl?” at her. She doesn’t let it get to her though; Vivian views street harassment from men as an unfortunate thing all women go through.
Stereotypically “masculine” behaviors are based on gender roles. According to Lawson, there are many possible sources as to where current gender roles stem from. It could be that tougher men were considered superior, due to a “survival of the fittest” mindset in earlier times. That could explain why men who come across as aggressive or emotionless are still considered “best” in our society.
But gender roles are flexible, Lawson says. Although they are often viewed as societal laws on how boys and girls should act, they change a lot over time. Today, the color pink is limited to being just a “girl color,” while blue is for boys.
Jo B. Paoletti, a professor in American studies at the University of Maryland, wrote a whole book on pink and blue for children. It wasn’t until a few decades ago that pink grew a feminine reputation. Before then, pink was one of many pastel colors that were meant for infants, regardless of their gender.
Vivian learned gender roles were “fake” at a young age. She found pleasure in pushing the boundaries of her gender before coming out.
She liked wearing panties and playing pranks on her friends with them. When boys around her would talk about what they’d like to do to an attractive girl in Vivian’s presence, she would jokingly say the same things from the girl’s point of view. Stereotypically, girls aren’t supposed to be as open about their sexual desires, and Vivian knew that. But she enjoyed defying the male gender roles society tried to use to confine her.
According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, men die by suicide more than three times as often as women. There are many theories as to why this is, but many professionals believe it is because men are more closed off about their feelings. These stereotypes for men to keep their struggles to themselves could be dangerous for them, Lawson says.
A 2016 study published by the American Psychological Association suggested that men who consider themselves superior over women are more likely to have mental health problems than those who do not. In addition, the study found that the same type of men who were more likely to have negative mental health, were less likely to seek treatment. One of the study’s authors, Y. Joel Yong, believes that these men may have more mental health problems because they have poorer relationships with female significant others.
Michael Kehler, a research professor of masculinities studies at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada, has spent more than a decade studying pressures on young men and boys in North America. Much of his recent research has stemmed from increases in obesity in children. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about one in five children between the ages 5 and 19 in the United States is obese. That’s more than three times the childhood obesity rate in the 1970s.
High schools in Ontario, along with many in the U.S., only require one year of physical education. Kehler remembers the dread he felt about his freshman year P.E. class. He ended up getting excused from taking the class due to his good grades. To this day, he isn’t sure how he got away with it.
Kehler hated physical education, and many adults in Ontario recalled having anxiety about the same class. Because of this, Kehler decided to look into why freshman boys in particular were so concerned about going to that class. He found that much of their anxieties stem from their own body image issues. In Ontario, school locker rooms are unsupervised, which leaves plenty of opportunities for bullying and violence among students.
Kehler was surprised by how many boys went to drastic measures to avoid facing the masses in the locker room: showing up early, showing up late, changing in a bathroom elsewhere in the school. In Kehler’s case, it was trying to drop the class altogether. But he found a student’s absence from the locker room didn’t solve their problems. It was often noted by their peers.
One of Kehler’s earlier studies followed a handful of middle-class white boys in Michigan whom Kehler chose. These boys, recommended to Kehler by their teachers and peers, worked to defy the “male stereotype.” They wanted to change what was viewed as “masculine” in the high school community.
Two of the boys, whom Kehler named David and Philip for privacy, were both involved in many extracurricular activities. David was a co-captain of his hockey team. Philip was a football player and a member of his school’s production of Cinderella. Both boys were considered “accepted among their peers.”
Like in most high school atmospheres, David and Philip found that coming off as masculine was important to their male peers. They felt like, even among friends, there was always some competition to be the most athletic or most muscular.
David played his part in trying to change these standards for men. Once in class, after coming across a “muscle magazine,” he stated in front of his peers that he wouldn’t want to look like the buff body builders on the cover. In some circumstances, when people asked him about hockey, he found they were more interested in what kinds of injuries he had caused. David found that other people valued muscle and aggressiveness too much in men, and he always tried to avoid encouraging those things.
Philip, similarly, found he prefered to opt out of many conversations his male peers had. Even though Philip had played football himself, he believed that discussions about sports were often about being tougher than each other. Over time, he realized that his activities with choir and theater fulfilled him more than athletics.
It didn’t take grand gestures for Philip and David to help change their peers’ feelings about masculinity. And in her own ways, Vivian did the same. Before coming out, she pushed the boundaries of her gender roles. Not just for herself, but to challenge others, and make them uncomfortable. These acts, no matter how small, help move society away from male stereotypes that may be harmful.
To further the conversation on toxic masculinity, check out the photo essay featured in our upcoming print edition this November.