A picture of the back of a man who is facing a wall

This post is a part of a series called “Help Me Understand,” where we practice the art of dialogue about important issues. The focus is to come around the table and learn to have healthy conversations with people of diverse backgrounds in order to learn.

I remember when I first watched Taylor Swift’s music video, “The Man,” only to realize that the male lead was actually Swift dressed as a man. If you’ve never seen the video, it depicts the story of a man of great privilege—a CEO-type leader of a big company with wealth, good looks and power. Throughout the story line, the video manages to cover some important topics like the sexualization of women, gender bias in office culture and demeaning behavior toward women.

Toxic masculinity, which was once a social taboo that silenced many women, is now being placed under a microscope as people of all walks of life use their online platforms to speak out against it. The #MeToo and Time’s Up movements were possible because of the internet age and the power it has given to people to speak up. From unequal pay to sexual harassment of any kind, toxic masculinity was met with its walking papers the past few years.

Toxic masculinity was met with its walking papers the past few years.

With this trend of speaking out against injustice, it is possible to veer into extremes. It is important to not allow the actions of some men to cloud our perspective of all men. It’s important to understand what toxic masculinity is and what it isn’t. Then we will be able to disempower toxic behavior and speak up against bad behavior. We will also be able to encourage and celebrate good behavior when we see it.

I was raised in a home where I learned to value men and women for our differences. Developing respect and esteem for both genders has helped me navigate relationships in my life in a wholesome and healthy way. 

What does toxic masculinity look like?

There are a few warning signs when it comes to identifying toxic masculinity. Some of the common characteristics of toxic masculinity are aggression and violence. Whether it be verbal or physical abuse, this type of behavior demeans and belittles women. 

This behavior is a direct reflection of culture today. Whether it be the glorification of violence in movies and TV shows or men depicted in domineering roles in relationships, men are taught from a young age to present a front of strength that doesn’t allow for vulnerability. According to a report from U.S. News & World Report, statistics in 2020 show that “men are more likely to die by [taking their own lives] than women.” The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention further backs this up, reporting that in 2018, men died by suicide nearly four times more often than women.

This increased suicide rate is directly connected to the fact that men often struggle to share or express their emotions or seek mental health support in fear that it will seem like weakness. As a society, we tell boys not to cry and young men to portray facades of invincibility. Toxic masculinity confines men into social constructs that can keep them from connecting with women in ways that are mutually uplifting and healthy.

According to The Good Men Project, some signs of toxic masculinity include:

  • Aggression toward or oppression of others
  • Violence
  • Lack of emotional response or avoidance of vulnerability
  • Using sex and “sexual conquests” as a form of power and status

What does healthy masculinity look like?

Growing up, I was fortunate to have many examples of healthy masculinity in my life. I was surrounded by men who empowered women with positivity, respect and kindness. These men displayed their love for the women in their lives by creating spaces where their voices could be heard and understood. These men were admirable—hard-working, honest and vulnerable with their emotions in a way that added value to everyone around them. 

My husband is one of those men. He has always empowered and supported me. Whether it be my role as a wife or my role as a leader in a professional setting, he constantly builds me up and sees value in what I bring to the table. Instead of competing with me or confining me to be the “homemaker,” he has set the tone in our marriage to always do things together and to support one another.

Healthy masculinity respects women and seeks to celebrate them. It means acknowledging women for who they are—for the talents and gifts they bring to the table—and listening to and valuing their opinions and ideas. It means honoring the intrinsic worth of women, not just their outward beauty or what they can do for others.

Healthy masculinity respects women and seeks to celebrate them.

On an episode of NBC’s This Is Us, I was deeply moved by a scene where Rebecca Pearson’s life is shown throughout the years. She was born into a family where a woman’s sole purpose was to be a homemaker dedicated to her husband. Yet, Rebecca also had dreams of being a musician and wondered if she’d be forced into the role of a stay-at-home wife (without any choice of her own.) When she meets her husband-to-be, Jack Pearson, there’s a scene where he invites her over, and she’s immediately taken aback by him cleaning and washing dishes—without any expectation that Rebecca would do it. 

In the most simple way, the character of Jack Pearson exemplifies healthy masculinity. He represents a man who is willing to serve the woman he loves and show her honor by doing something that society would typically deem as a “female” role. His actions show a level of respect for her.

Healthy masculinity does exist beyond just TV characters. When we encounter men who exemplify healthy respect for women, let’s celebrate them! Let’s create healthy bridges to communication and mutual respect between men and women. We might be different, but we are all human. There’s more that connects us than divides us.

Have you ever encountered toxic behavior from a man in a workplace or in a relationship? What did that behavior look like? Have you ever encountered healthy masculinity? What did that behavior look like?

Image via Nadine Wassenaar, Darling Issue No. 24

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