I am engaged in the conversation on masculinity and hypermasculinity since many years. Today I want to address the personal cost of hypermasculinity, “which is a psychological term for the exaggeration of stereotypical male behavior, such as an emphasis on physical strength, aggression, and sexuality” (Wikipedia). As I am living with a wise and highly sensitive woman, raising three children who are very different to each other, I am constantly reminded of the learning opportunities we can find among my conditioned social traits, such as emotionally withdrawing and isolation, unhealthy stoicism, unwillingness to asking for help when appropriate. My use of aggression as the main dispute solving strategy (a.k.a using anger to get one’s will through) hasn’t been so constructive in my family life. Note to self: a four-year-old is not a Lion and pose little threat other than to one’s ego.
In my everyday life, I see so many men who, like me, are struggling with their personal mental health, or is it a projection? Well, science says I could be on to something. Men’s poor mental health, (not necessarily diagnosed as mental illness, like depression or stress syndrome), is often camouflaged with alcohol addiction, unprescribed medication, irritability, and isolation. One phenomenon close to the root of the problem is this hypermasculinity. Why is that? Let me share my perspective.
Hypermasculinity and Ketosis
In the subway of Stockholm, Sweden, young girls are looking as much, or more, as young men at the giant half-naked female bodies photoshopped to perfection, or should I say absurdity? In a similar fashion, young men are now looking at similarly photoshopped, unrealistic images of men. Over the last twenty years, the hypermasculine esthetics of bodybuilder posters, once a phenomenon isolated to the gyms have now moved out in society, with the help of the Internet, on the front pages of 10 men’s health and lifestyle magazines, social media platforms, marketing, newspapers, and blogs. We see this phenomenon because body anxiety and body shame is the absolutely best buying incentive for health and training products and the young buyers are very well trained by now.
The ingraining of these hypermasculinity Ethics in the subconscious of our boys is appalling. We live in a world which pushes our boys and young men into an ongoing ketosis, hypermetabolism, leaving the rest of us to live in the bad smell of their chemical imbalance. Go to any men’s gym locker room at the end of an evening and smell the cat urine smell for yourself. In the often unmediated social media reality of the teenager, where images and appearance are the main currencies, many young men are pushed by hypermasculinity norms into training addiction and Bigorexia. Our young men are led to believe that good health is the same as a physically visual perfection, at any cost. If this is not possible on a natural way, there are always anabolic steroids or other enhancers.
Demonizing Healthy Masculinity
The ongoing demonization of healthy masculine behavior is a sad story, and in my perception, we need to include an as large spectrum of diversity as possible. There will always be different perspectives and choices men and women do, and these choices will differ from ours. In an open society, we need to welcome a diversity of gender expressions, even “traditional masculinity” or “traditional femininity.” Let me give you some examples on what I refer to below.
It is utterly sad when a strong independent woman is shamed or blamed, or slut-shamed, or put down, simply for standing in her own power in her work life or family life. God forbid if she also has a strong sexual expression as well. Let me be clear: There is nothing wrong or shameful about a strong expressive woman. But strong women tend to scare the shit out of unbalanced and immature men, and women. Even I get scared of strong women quite often, and if not scared, at least reserved or guarded.
It is equally sad when a strong independent man is shamed and blamed for toxic masculinity, destructive masculinity norms, for being part of the patriarchy, for being too masculine, or simply for standing in his power. There is a big difference between healthy masculinity and hypermasculinity, and this is “range.” For a long time, men have been conditioned to be just physically strong, but not emotionally strong, but as old social norms are changing, men are getting access to tools and processes to level up their bandwidth. There is a more holistic view on “Men’s health” which is pointing to a man that is healthy on all levels, physical, emotional and social, a man that is functional in the family life and at work, that is healthy in his relationships and being physically strong at the same time. The ongoing social revolution in men and masculinity will resolve in even new mainstream norms of masculinity and what it means to be a man. There is nothing oppressive with a strong expressive man either. Our societies need strong men to survive. But strong men tend to scare many people of both genders.
It is equally sad when a strong independent woman makes the conscious choice to be dependent on her man or someone else to provide for her when she is to be at home with her kids when they are small. When people blame her for being weak, giving away her power to a man, to be old-fashioned, to opposing feminism, to be a traitor to her sex, when this strong woman is responding to her natural impulses as a mother. We are seeing a movement of mothers and families changing family behaviors and design their work-life balance to be able to be at home parents for more years than before, supported by positions like attachment parenting and home schooling.
It is equally sad when people blame a strong independent man when he makes the conscious choice to be at home with his children or investing time and energy in his relationship with his woman. People blame such man for being weak; telling him, he is not masculine, he not the real man if he doesn’t provide for his family. The percentage of these “real men” in our population will drastically decrease as all manual, and administration work soon will be automated, watch and see. This man’s engaged parenting is also said to be against nature, in one comment in an internet thread lately, someone used the argument of “Sodom and Gomorra,” and I think this is rather spectacular in 2017.
It seems to me that gender politics in some places works in the same way as destructive peer pressure; where a particular behavioral norm is thought of as being right for everybody, which is truly seldom the case, especially as we are getting more and more diverse as societies. I have been on both the executive and receiving and of this dynamic.
Of course, Hypermasculinity is destructive and dangerous, and these men and their families will most probably suffer from cost of poor mental health when strength, aggression, and sexuality is the only values men subscribe to.
Healthy masculinity is not toxic
Healthy masculinity is not toxic, at all. There is a misconception that powerful masculinity is a threat, much like the misconception that powerful femininity is a threat. I would rather say that healthy powerful masculinity is very rare in our society. We need to celebrate strong masculine men protecting our families and our society, in our police forces, fire forces, our military forces and elsewhere.
Currently, many boys are confused by having two different learning perspective in place at the same time.
1. A powerful masculine expression is dangerous as men by nature lack self-control = The boy has to deny his masculine power not to hurt anyone.
2. Hypermasculinity is the real masculinity = The boy has to deny his basic human need of love and connection and become hypermasculine.
These two opposing learning perspectives lead these boys as they become men in the false belief that they have to choose between being powerful and kind, choose between strong and connected. Men are literally dying for connection; I heard at a seminar that 50 % of men older 50 years lack someone with which they can have deep, meaningful conversations.
I once had a discussion about what healthy masculinity look like with a wise woman I know. She said that the protection from a balanced man is two folded. First, he is protective against threats from others, second; he is protective against his own impulses. She gave the example of the martial artist. To excel in the dojo, she said, one need to be balanced and relaxed, both physically, emotionally, and spiritually. One needs to be ready but not tense. Imbalance in oneself or one’s opponent can be intensely painful both inside and outside the dojo. In my humble opinion, the most dangerous martial artists are some men with brown and blue belts with a masculinity complex, who is claiming their worth by hitting and throwing younger or lighter men, or men with lower ranks way too hard. These immature martial artists do this to get attention and approval from older men, to get status in the social hierarchy, or just to feel power over someone, camouflaging their inner insecurity and powerlessness. Sure, this phenomenon is probably present in some women too, but I have never experienced this in any of the dojos where I have been training.
A man with a healthy masculinity, like the balanced martial artist, has cultivated his inner and outer strength and has, at the same time, cultivated the self-discipline that has to go with it to be constructive in life. If a man should guard and escort a woman through a forest, he needs to be strong, balanced, and relaxed enough to protect her from the threats of others, and at the same time have the self-discipline not to harm her himself. Of course, some women don’t want any protection, and this position is of course perfectly fine. Other women are longing for a man to protect her, which is equally fine. Life is large. Today, many of us can choose which core values we want to guide our life and relationships, and this is, of course, a personal choice to some extent. Depending on which country you live in, and the laws, culture, costumes and which masculinity norms are present. All this is, of course, in many cases not a free choice at all, the world is big and diverse, so is our human culture.
Healthy masculinity is one of the most precious and beautiful things in the world, like healthy femininity. To be grounded, as a man, by another man’s deepening presence, or to be challenged by another man to raise the standard with which you hold yourself accountable is great gifts. Or when an older man has the confidence in you, and you receive the gift of self-confidence needed to take the next step on your journey. A healthy masculine gender expression is not toxic; I avoid the term “toxic masculinity” altogether as it is not constructive and inclusive enough. Trying to reach out to the hearts of men and use this term is like when the stand-up comedian CK Lewis tries to get back to terms with someone in his audience after he tells this “stup*d a*s mo**er-fu**er to sh*t the fu*k up.” It is simply not constructive.
We need to give young men keys to the culture of healthy masculinity
There is an urgent need to give young men keys to a culture of healthy masculinity. There is an urgent need among young men to have older men as mentors and better examples. There is also an urgent need for us to design environments where our boys can flourish and live up to their potential, this is simply not the case in many school systems.
Many of our school systems are not designed to fit the basic needs if our boy’s nervous systems. Testosterone spikes throughout the day push boys and young men into involuntary physical activity, boys and young men need to move on a regular basis to be healthy. This basic need of boys, which in most cases is not met at school, then often gets branded as behavior problems or overactivity. Much of the overactivity is due to overstimulation and under activity. We need both self-discipline teaching and innovative service design which meets boys mobility needs.
We also need to allocate resources to mentoring programs, to get boys who lack natural entrances to the healthy masculine culture chances to engage in positive experiences with older men. If we don’t provide positive role models for boys who lack it in their family system, they will try to find it in destructive peer-pressure structures, with hypermasculinity norms, bigorexia or any, and I do mean any other, source of identity constructing activity including ISIS and organized crimes.
In no way do I want to demonize the gym or the internet, they are all here to stay, and they are a mirror of the values of our society. But we as adults need to monitor and take responsibility for the engagements of our teenagers. Of course, this is easier said than done as social media and the social lives of teenagers are getting increasingly more complicated and diverse. If we don’t build a self-reflecting and examining resource in our young boys, to counterbalance their daily impressions of what it means to be a man they will be an easy target for the digital hypermasculinity propaganda of our time, with leads to suffering for themselves and their loved ones.