Toxic Masculinity

Putting on facades to fit into traditional masculine stereotypes can produce harmful behaviors from
suppressing emotion

Be assertive.

Be aggressive.

Be a man.

That’s what males like Ryan Macgilfrey (12) have been taught their entire lives.

According to psychology consultant Ray Willliams, this mentality is attributed to toxic masculinity, which is a term used to describe the traditional norms of behavior among men in modern-day society and the way it can lead to detrimental social and psychological effects such as anxiety or depression.

“Toxic masculine norms include dominance, extreme self-reliance, and the suppression of emotions,” Williams said. “Everywhere, we see evidence of spreading toxic masculinity—in how sports games are played, to the portrayal of heroes and the recruitment and success of abusive CEOs.”

For Macgilfrey, the urge to exert this type of strength was most reflected through football.

Football in its nature is a game of aggression—a battle to run the fastest, tackle the hardest, be the strongest.

“You feel the need to outshow yourself to teammates as well as other teams,” Macgilfrey said. “At times I felt pressured by friends and athletics to be big, which became part of the reason I got into weightlifting.”

Day in and day out, Macgilfrey began to tag along to the gym with his older brother. He would pick up the iron bar, and each month the plates would slowly increase in size and number.

It was clear that Macgilfrey was making progress with his physical fitness. His biceps were big, his legs were toned, his abs were noticeable. But to the side of him would be his brother who had bigger biceps, even more toned legs, and bulging abs. So still, Macgilfrey felt as though he just wasn’t good enough.

“I did go through moments of self-doubt at first because I consider my brother one of the most masculine people I know,” Macgilfrey said. “At some point when you’re just having a bad day it makes you question whether or not it’s worth it. You ask if you have the ability to become what they are, and you get in your head a lot when you start comparing yourself to others.”

According to Williams, this internal strife can be attributed to the male tendency of seeking to become the “alpha male,” or the dominant person, in social situations.

“In the eyes of these alpha males, expressions of emotion and affection suggest weakness,” Williams said. “Compassion and empathy convey vulnerability, leaving anger and rage as the only acceptable expressions of their emotions.”

For Macgilfrey, weightlifting started out as a way for him to prove his worth to others, but it grew into a means for him to prove his worth to himself.

Even when his teammates praised him for his remarkable physical transformation during his junior year, Macgilfrey couldn’t help but see the small, scrawny kid he once was freshman year whenever he looked in the mirror.

“[When I first started], I found that it was destroying me mentally because I constantly saw myself as less than I actually was despite the fact that I was improving,” he said. “Even though weightlifting or whatever athletic activity I was doing helped me release some of the stress and negative emotions I felt from my personal life, I can consider myself physically strong, but not mentally strong because I just push everything away and try to take out the frustration through weights.”

Wizdom Powell, a University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill Department of Health Behavior Associate Professor, said that men tend to adhere to gender norms that encourage them to not share emotions and be self-reliant without seeking the help or support of others.

“[Men] can have poorer mental health outcomes, particularly more depressive symptoms because suppressing emotions cuts them off from the social networks and social supports that might help them get through a difficult time,” Powell said.

Social Science teacher Bruce Steel was not all too different from Macgilfrey when he was growing up, as he too felt as though it was necessary to be aggressive in order to show power.

Being the youngest in a household of nine children, seven of whom were boys, he became conditioned to act as a fighter—to be tough at all times, and to never cry if hurt.

Each of his brothers were elite athletes who were strong, lifted weights, and always took the opportunity to compete. Even though Steel was their little brother, they would physically beat him up and never let him win the fights.

The people who forced Steel into his first fight were his brothers. He was put face-to-face against his own friend, Travis, and his brothers stood to the side with Travis’ siblings, egging each of them to take the first hit.

Travis broke, and took a swing at Steel. And another. And another.

So Steel, out of defense, took a swing back.

“I kept asking him why he was doing it because it didn’t make sense to me why my best friend at the time was hitting me,” Steel said. “Even though we were friends after that, the whole concept of guys making other kids fight was a rude awakening for me. I wasn’t a bad kid, and it’s almost like they were trying to manipulate me into something that I wasn’t.”

According to Powell, the norms around masculinity vary by race and social location. For example, a man who’s a provider and a breadwinner may display masculinity in that sense. Men who feel marginalized and oppressed often times put on a masculine act as a response to those threats to their humanity. When people are feeling social pressures, they may act in a particular way because doing so allows them to recoup that part of themselves that gets chipped away by those social exposures.

“I think a part of why [my brothers] did that was because we are such a product of the people who influence us,” Steel said. “My dad was a very typical hardworking male, never really talked, never really gave hugs when we were young. He was always just kind of gone. That silent strength taught us all to be silent and not to complain about things or get emotional about things. And it took me a long time, well through high school and beyond, to get out of that mentality.”

Though his father never directly taught or ever told Steel to “man up,” it was evident that he served as a model to his children in the way he held his [outlook] in life of never calling in sick to work, and simply dealt with any circumstance thrown at his way day in and day out.

For both Steel and Macgilfrey, different aspects in their lives have demonstrated that their day-to-day activities and interactions have been tainted by toxic aspects of masculinity.

While it is true that exemplifying certain traits of masculinity such as assertiveness can be advantageous on the football field or the weight room, Powell emphasizes the importance of emotion regulation, or the strategies individuals use to manage, cope with, and sort through the various emotions that come with daily living.

“Strategies come down to expressing yourself,” Powell said. “Suppressing emotion in [and] of itself isn’t necessarily harmful. It’s when you do it habitually because that suppression will cause a rebound in some other areas; like whack-a-mole: you hit it down in one place and it pops up in another.”

In Steel’s case, the suppression of emotions often came out in the form of anger. In high school, he recalls always feeling the need to challenge and confront others.

“I thought every time someone said something I had to go stand up and defend everybody, and that’s not necessarily healthy,” he said. “There are ways to defend people without being physical or getting angry at every little drop of the hat.”

Steel said that although this mentality of having to take down every person served him well as an athlete, the drive to be a competitor and the all-star completely enveloped his life.

“I didn’t realize the emotional damage it was doing to me from thinking that I had to be tough in every single area of my life,” he said. “It works for some things to act like that in certain situations, but you lose your morals, your ethics, and your sportsmanship because you’re basically willing to do whatever it takes to win the contest.”

Inside the weight room and on the football field, Macgilfrey similarly pushed aside emotions. He’d tell his teammates that he had a bad day, but he’d never say why or go into detail as to why he felt that way.

“I don’t want them to see what’s going on inside because a part of my brain has been wired to think that I’m tougher if I don’t open up,” he said.

But outside of the weight room and the football field, Macgilfrey is able to find emotional comfort in people he’s most close to, especially his girlfriend.

“When you have someone that you really trust with that kind of emotion, and someone you can open up to, it really helps you mentally,” Macgilfrey said.

For Steel, this person is his wife.

“She changed my viewpoint because she was just as strong as I was, and she didn’t need me to be there for her unless she wanted me to be there for her,” he said. “It’s different than depending on me; we became interdependent on each other, and because I had a rough childhood, she was empathetic to that so I was able to open up to her about those types of things. It was cathartic to finally tell people the things I had been holding inside for such a long time, which was manifesting itself in anger before.”

Finding an outlet prevented Steel and Macgilfrey’s senses of masculinity from becoming too toxic, as they grew out of the mentality of constantly comparing themselves to every person in the same room as them.

Steel’s philosophy now is that nobody is better than him, and he’s not better than anyone else.

“I’m just the best Bruce Steel that I can be, and all you need to be in life is the best person you can be—constantly evolving, constantly changing, trying to become a better person,” he said. “The scariest thing in the world is accepting yourself for who you are, but sometimes you need to let yourself be vulnerable.”