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Masculinity: Ingrained Messages, Toxicity, and Gifts

Masculinity is commonly defined by a set of attributes, roles, and meanings. Some attributes are due to biological influences, while many are due to social and cultural constructs. Masculinity is typically associated with the male gender; however, at the core, masculinity has nothing to do with gender nor sexual orientation.

According to Chinese religion and philosophy, we are all born with Yin and Yang energy and we all have the ability to lean into both. In this philosophy, Yin represents feminine energy while Yang represents masculine energy. Masculine energy, or the Yang, refers to a spiritual level of resourcefulness, independence, willpower, control, clarity, stoicism, strength, and dominance.

Masculinity is also used to describe countries, cultures, and societies. Masculinity looks and means something different across age, race, ethnicity, region, culture, and class.

Ingrained Messages

The emotional, sexual, and psychological stereotyping of females begins when the doctor says: "It's a girl.” ― Shirley Chisholm

Chisholm’s quote equally speaks truth to the experiences of those who are assigned male at birth. Gender ideology informs a cultural script that organizes emotions, cognitions and behaviors. In masculine countries and societies, people assigned male at birth are often praised for male physical strength, competition, dominance, sexual prowess as well as violence. Gender roles are explicitly distinct and are passed down through generations, just as any social construct is. We soak up messages from family, peers, teachers, and leaders just as we’re taught to, right? We listen to cis-hetero-gender-conforming attitudes and we witness stereotypical cultural messages. These same messages are reinforced by marketing in the media; they are in movies, television shows, comics, music, social media, and porn. Male and masculinized characters often embody action and adventure, self-control and control of others, anger and aggression, and logic and executive functioning while lacking emotional intelligence. Toys allotted to play with, and colors allotted to wear are organized by gender. House chores are selected, sports are pre-selected, and occupations are expected based on gender. These traditional rules spell out how and what one should feel based on the sex assigned at birth and we oftentimes almost blindly adopt them into our way of going through the world.

Toxic Masculinity

We don't raise boys to be men. We raise boys to not be women or gay men. We don't affirm what a loving man is. … We're not supposed to be effeminate or care or love or be sensitive, and it's all utter BS because we are all these things. ― Don McPherson, author, activist, educator, and former National Football League and Canadian Football League quarterback (USA Today)

Toxic masculinity is a term that was coined by the mythopoetic men’s movement in the 1980s and 90s, defined as a narrowed, exaggerated form of traditionally masculine ideology. This extreme point on the spectrum shows up when ingrained, rigid messages become too much. Characteristics that are traditionally defined as feminine are not allotted. Men police other men based on a certain equation of masculinity and if you do not resemble traditional masculinity, you lack something. That if you are a man, then you can in no way resemble what a woman represents, leaving traits like vulnerability and empathy in the girl’s box. That if you like a certain color, engage in certain sexual behaviors, cannot quietly handle your emotions, then you must be gay; as if gay also means one tiny checkable box, and as if being gay makes you less of a man.

These messages that young males, and young individuals identifying with masculinity, receive in the midst of their brains developing presents a limiting hold. Telling someone to be a man, or that crying is a weakness, in the midst of their explorative and vulnerable years creates barriers for connecting in later years as well as an inability to cope with life’s circumstances. These types of messages directly impact identity development, self-concept, body image, career exploration, and choices across lifespan. Research indicates development of maladaptive psychosocial conditions such as homophobia, issues in relationships, hate crimes, abuse, low self-esteem, increased risk-taking, body dysmorphia, suicide, depression and loneliness. Oftentimes, toxic masculinity leaves men avoidant of certain career paths, certain emotions, and certain people that do not fit into this way of being, which in turn, teaches others to be avoidant.

Unlearning and Redefining: Honing in on the Gifts

Toxic masculinity is not the same as masculinity. There is vast natural beauty in masculinity. There is also vast natural beauty in the Ancient Chinese framing of the duality we all embody: the yin and yang. In some form or capacity, we all have the ability to tap into these complimentary energies, making strength and showing love not mutually exclusive. We can be determined while also feeling emotional; honest while being independent. We can treat ourselves to something that warms our spirits, and lift weights in the gym the next morning.

As humans, we’re never one thing. Rather, we are multidimensional, multidisciplinary beings and it seems only right for our natural energy to be able to resemble this.

We learn unhelpful messages from the media and the people around us, but we also learn helpful ones. It is up to us to decide and rewrite the script that most adequately resembles who we are at the core. Below is a list of questions I hope provides space for exploration and discernment. I invite you to ask yourself these questions and reflect on how they register with you.

  • What does masculinity mean to you? What does gender identity and expression mean to you? What does it look like in your eyes, on or in your body?

  • What did you learn about gender growing up? What is your experience with gender? What qualities do the men you respect have? What are your personal judgements?

  • How can you discern the energy for yourself? Can two things be true? Can you be in-touch with your emotions all while moving mountains? How can you find balance that already lies within you?

  • How do we as individuals and as a society allow a fuller range of emotions and attributes? How do we unlearn, redefine, and re-teach?

MENtorship: Supporting Healthy Masculinity

Interested in getting support around unlearning and feeling secure? Join Nick at B'well Counseling Services for a bi-weekly peer support group, 9 AM on Mondays. This group offers a space to discuss body image and wellness, sex and intimacy, emotional wellness, vulnerabilities, values and goals, and spirituality and resilience. For more information, please contact Nick at or 443. 718. 0496, opt 2.

B'well Counseling Services

B'well Counseling Services is a mental health therapy practice offering a full range of therapeutic services including parts work (internal family systems), unlearning and redefining, Life Transitions Therapy, and therapy that is specially tailored to your needs, in Towson, MD and the Greater Baltimore area. We believe in helping people rekindle their curiosity and reconnect to their core selves so that they can truly be well. We value wellness and connection over happiness because we understand that being able to experience the full range of human emotions and experiences is what helps us heal and grow. At B'well, we are dedicated to creating a space for anyone who has ever felt unwelcome because of their identity, orientation, or expression.

At B'well, Nia Jones, LGPC provides holistically-centered, whole-person care for her clients.

In March, she and B'well therapist Emily Dufrane

will be co-facilitating a pay-what-you-can 4-week

meditation group for folks seeking community & support

in their mindfulness practice.

Visit our "Learn with Us" page to read more & sign up.

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