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Sex + Relationships

Unmasking Toxic Masculinity

Last week I viewed a documentary called The Mask You Live In created through The Representation Project that was being shown on Akron’s campus. It addressed how society’s definition of masculinity is harming boys and men in more ways than we may be aware. The statistics mentioned in this article are credited to this documentary that now can be found on Netflix. The film opened with a quote by George Orwell, a man way ahead of his time. He says, “He wears a mask and his face grows to fit it.”

Most of us wake up everyday and put on a mask. It could for our jobs, for our families or even for us. Often time we don’t take these masks off until we are safe in the comfort of our own solidarity. Just how harmful is this process? Are the effects of this more impactful on males in our society today? After viewing this documentary, I do believe that for men and boys today especially this concept of a mask is more harmful to their development and contribution to society.

This film includes commentary by many different doctors in psychology, including Philip Zimbardo, youth advocates, Joe Ehrmann former NFL player turned coach, and different boys and men who share their experiences growing up. The film includes many different points of views across an array of upbringings, race, cultures and sexual orientation.

This whole process starts at a very young age. Through process called pruning, we get rid of the networking in our brain that we don’t need. An example of this is the reason why learning a language later in life is harder. Your brain thinks, “I don’t need the skills I did when learning and developing the English language because I know it now.” And the brain dumps out these tools. For men today, these “tools” that they are tossing to the side are critical to emotional health.

Men in particular express their fear, grief and loneliness as anger. They do this because of the toxic masculinity our society has shown them they must replicate. Women are the only ones who can be afraid, sad or lonely, while for men this is a sign of weakness. There were many stories of the men speaking about their struggle with showing their true emotions. They put on this mask that showed others they had it together, when underneath the mask they were desperately wishing they could talk to someone, cry it out or even just express it.

One important point brought up in this film was the difference in the way boys and girls show signs of depression. Girls become more isolated and quiet. Boys can also share the isolation piece, however they become more violent and act out in classes and at home. In boys the diagnosis is a conduct order instead of depression. When we should be asking why they are acting out and how to help, we expel these boys from schools increasing their likelihood of spiraling further into trouble. And as they grow it only adds to their inability to have a stable and productive life. They can end up going down a darker path that could have been rerouted if we would have taken a closer look at these signs.

Boys in adolescence are 5x more likely to commit suicide and suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death in boys. When research shows that there is a 90% overlap in psychological evaluations between girls and boys.The 10% difference is comprised mostly of outside makeup. We should be asking why are these tragedies happening so much in boys? The answer is in part this toxic masculinity that has taken over our society.

This masculinity issue contributes to many problems today. Especially for men of color this is one additional issue that results in their higher rates of incarceration. In all men it is part of their results in depression and suicide. Self-medication is a contributing factor to depression. Men will drink and get into drugs so that they don’t have to feel. Men who have experienced child abuse and neglect are 9x more likely to use mood-altering substances. They search for numbness because they feel as though they have no other outlet.It is also pointed out in the film that men that grew up with a harsh father figure or without one at all, are at an increased risk of falling into these patterns. Males today commit 94% of mass homicides. But this gender difference is not discussed.

Society tells us to “be a man”, that men are strong and have to provide and protect. This is a huge weight on their shoulders. If they feel as though they are not doing these things that add up to being a man, they feel as though they have failed. In media especially, there are only a few type of men shown. And the ones who express more emotions are looked at to be weak. We have the womanizer, superhero, good, all-star athlete and in many of these stories, sexual conquests play a large role.

In the film they use the line “I’d like to tear that up” as an example. The words “tear” and “that” do more than we realize. “Tear”, aggressive and violent actions compliment the word “that” which implies that women are objects much like a chew toy of a rabid dog. Another example used is the saying “you play like a girl” when as little boy was asked how he would feel if a coach said this to him, he responded, “I would feel destroyed.” We are teaching them to think what girls are capable of is something to be ashamed of.

So what happens to the boys and men who aren’t good at sports, or don’t think about sex 24/7? Who are more interested in the arts?  Or those who are gay? What about the ones who want to break the “bro code” because they believe justice needs to be brought to the situation? They get ostracized in many cases. They get called a wuss (and that’s the nice version). They feel as though they aren’t man enough, that there is something wrong with them. This is not the case, and the amount of women you sleep with does not determine your manhood.

We all have emotions, being emotional is part of being human. We need to pay attention to warning signs. The misconception that men don’t “feel” is hurting us as a whole. If you have boys and men in your life encourage them to find creative outlets, encourage conversations, let them know that you are willing to listen and truly do so. Encourage them to take of the mask of masculinity and embrace their humanity.

Hello! My name is Alexia Santiago. I am senior Psychology major at The University of Akron. I am originally from Boardman, OH. I sing and write poetry but what I enjoy most is helping others. I live by three words; Gratitude. Empowerment. Kindness. Our thoughts become reality, I try to keep mine positive. I am excited to share my thoughts with you all!
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