As we explore the challenges facing boys and men in society in general and the boys and men we love specifically, it may be jarring to hear educators refer to the external expectations of men as “toxic masculinity.” Let’s be clear: no one seriously talking about toxic masculinity is saying that men are toxic; they are pointing out how toxic these external expectations are – for men and all of us.
In my book Unmasking, I share my research on the issues facing men, the challenges men pose, and what we can do about it. Of course, I’ve also been a man my whole life. I’ve learned we need to give boys and men permission to let go of who they feel they must be and be who they are.
Men in my research described the external expectations they felt pressured to live up to. They assumed manhood came naturally to all the other men and did not feel they measured up. They each shared a secret they thought was only theirs, yet we soon found out they all shared the same secret – they put on a performance or a mask to hide aspects of themselves that didn’t feel manly enough and to portray an image others would see as manly.
Toxic masculinity, patriarchy, and gender expectations have consequences for us all. This masking results in societal harm, the oppression of women and transgender people, placing some men above other men, limiting men’s relationships, and undermining men’s well-being, authenticity, and humanity. Despite men as a group objectively having power and benefiting from how society is organized, individual men often feel powerless. As a result, men are hurting. Men are both being hurt themselves and hurting others.
By helping men recognize these external expectations and see how toxic they are to all of us, we can help them gain mask consciousness and begin unmasking and becoming toward their own authentic masculinity.