Hans Reihling, Ph.D., LMFT
Man Up!? How to escape the straight jacket of (toxic) masculinity
Updated: Apr 27, 2022
“Don’t be a sissy, toughen up” is a phrase familiar to many boys and men. If you have a male body, you’re supposed to man up and demonstrate invulnerability. Needless to say that we as males are human and can’t be strong all the time. What if dudes and bros allowed themselves to act in feminine or gender non-conforming ways?
We commonly assign fixed gender identities to others and ourselves based on biological sex or the outward appearance and sex organs. If we want it or not, we expect somebody with a beard and broad shoulders to act masculine, which in American popular culture means to be tough and in control. But evidently, nobody can be like that all the time.
As a researcher and relationship counselor, I have encountered many men who want to let go of the behaviors associated with toxic masculinity. They wish to become ‘new’ men for the sake of their own well-being and happiness in relationships. For males struggling to define what it means to be a ‘new’ man in this time and age, there are ways to escape the gendered straight jacket.
When cisgender men make assumptions about how we should act depending on having a male body, the outcomes can be devastating. Emotional stoicism may help us at work or in sports, but not when it comes to intimate relationships or the ability to reach out to get help when needed.
‘Manning up’ may result in an uphill struggle that leads to out of control sexual behaviors, aggressive acting out, substance misuse, and overwork. I have documented the link between these problems and men’s gender ideals in long-term qualitative research. It also became clear to me that biological sex does not set your behavior in stone.
Human behavior is shaped by cultural representations, categories, and codes, language, and conventions that differ depending on when and where you grew up. What we as men do, often unconsciously, follows cultural scripts that define some behaviors as masculine and others as feminine.
When social scientists study human behavior, they commonly start with a particular identity group or category in mind. I followed the same approach when I decided to study men and masculinities for my doctoral research. My focus on different types of masculinity was important, but it also made me disregard the situations in which men act in ways that are seen as feminine in mainstream popular culture or their local communities.
Moreover, the focus on masculinity made me blind to behaviors that could be defined as androgynous, a mixture of feminine and masculine. Of course, some social actions performed by men may not clearly fall into any particular gender category and could be defined as neutral. Think of your life — what activities are not clearly defined as masculine, feminine, or something in between? There is no problem with leaning into one or the other direction, but you may cut yourself short if you comply with rigid norms all the time, no matter whether they are self-inflicted or forced upon you by other people.
At some point, on my journey, I had an insight: Straight men embody femininity, too. In fact, we commonly perform different gender identities but are fighting our inner gender diversity. The result is a debilitating emotional strain. This simple realization helped me take off the cultural blinders of conventional gender ideologies.
For a man to reach his full potential as a person and human being it is vital to go beyond endeavors to ‘man up’ in a conventional way. And this may be most challenging for guys who have been told from early on that it is not okay to show vulnerability.
There may be no way around exploring male femininities. Innumerable studies have shown that ‘manning up’ puts men’s health and lives at risk, no matter if it’s about road rage, homicide, or suicide. Moreover, manning up can make the lives of women and children miserable, and this is not only the case when it comes to intimate partner violence or plain child abuse.
We need to ask ourselves when it is appropriate to let go of cultural norms of what it means to be a man altogether, such as being strong, in control, and action-oriented all the time. This is a radical proposition because the main approach to changing ‘toxic masculinity’ has focused on the reformation of masculinity and not on the cultivation of men’s internal gender diversity.
Perhaps gender activists and health professionals back off from asking men to allow themselves to act in a feminine way because of the disgrace associated with male femininity in popular culture. Innumerable boys and men have been disciplined and punished for being ‘too soft’ or been fearful of being denigrated for showing their tender inner reality.
While female action heroes tend to get credit for embodying masculine traits, I can’t think of male action heroes who embody femininity. Men don’t get credit for acting more feminine. On the contrary, the characteristics tied to femininity are often seen as inferior to masculinity. Listening is less valued than debating, yielding is less valued than controlling, and being attached is less valued than being independent. But for a man to embrace and accept himself in all his humanity, he may have to embrace personal qualities and behaviors that are culturally deemed feminine.
First, becoming more comfortable and at ease with behaviors and parts of yourself that are not seen as masculine can reduce shame, guilt, and feelings of inadequacy. What if you could freely be neutral, androgynous, or feminine when it is appropriate or adaptive for a particular situation? For example, if you need help when feeling overwhelmed. It doesn’t mean you have to become different than you already are; just value all your human capacities. For some men, there may also be tremendous joy in activities that have traditionally been seen as a women’s domain, such as childcare.
There is no need for men to become all feminine or women to become all masculine, although for some people this may be the way forward. Don’t embrace other gender identities, unless it makes your life easier and more joyful. So instead of trying harder to ‘man up,’ the relationship issues and mental health problems are more likely to be addressed when you can allow your full potential to come forward, masculine, feminine, neutral, or gender non-conforming.
We all have much more in stock than these narrowly defined gender roles. Try to label everything you think, feel, and do for a day in terms of gender or non-conforming to gender and notice that there is no way to be rigidly masculine or feminine all the time. This may be the first step to becoming kinder and more accepting of you as a unique person.