The messages that we deliver to boys about what it means to be a man can have a powerful impact on who they become
I recently watched a fascinating documentary on Netflix titled ‘The Mask You Live In’ about the American masculine ideal and the consequences of teaching boys not to value emotions, sensitivity, connection, caring, and empathy.
Although the data that is presented throughout the documentary is related to American males, the messages that they refer to at the beginning of the documentary are all things that I remember hearing growing up in Australia:
- “Man up!”
- “Be a man!”
- “Don’t be a mamma’s boy!”
- “Stop being weak”
- “You’ve got to be tough!”
- “You’ve got to be strong!”
- “Stop crying!”
- “Boys don’t cry!”
- “Don’t be a pussy!”
- “Grow some balls!”
- “Don’t let anybody disrespect you!”
I was fairly sensitive and emotional when young, and was often made to feel like this was a weakness and that I was not masculine enough. Before I had even turned 10, I remember making a pledge to myself that I would never show anyone my emotions ever again, because then they wouldn’t be able to hurt me. I even let my mum and my older brother make all my decisions for me, including the clothes that I bought and wore, because then if someone didn’t like them, I had an excuse, and it wasn’t me that was being criticised or rejected.
Sure, the mask that I developed and the masculine facade that I put up helped me to survive in school, and prevented me from being bullied as much, but deep down I felt like I was dying inside, cut off from who I was and who I wanted to be.
Luckily, I was good at sport, a typically masculine activity, and played it a lot. Basketball, volleyball, tennis, snow skiing, little athletics, swimming, baseball and football. This kept me busy and mostly out of trouble, and meant that I maintained some positive friendships and wasn’t a complete social outcast. But I felt empty inside, disconnected from others, and miserably unhappy whenever I stopped for long enough to actually tune into what I felt.
Most of the time, I would attempt to block out what I thought, felt and desired by keeping busy and distracting myself with exercise, competition, adventure, video games, movies, TV, and rap music. I wasn’t even aware of being angry back then, but I found solace in super aggressive and derogatory songs such as 2pac’s “Hit em up”, or Eminem’s “Bitch please II”, and anything else that gave voice to the rage and discontent that was slowly building up inside.
I loved horror movies and first-person shooter video games. I idolised James Bond, Billy Madison, Stifler from the American Pie movies, and Sebastian from Cruel Intentions. None of these interests or activities outside of sport provided any glimpse of a positive role model. What they were teaching me instead was how to remain in control without being emotional, how to achieve goals through violence and overpowering others, and how to remain a perpetual adolescent who drinks, engages in risky behaviour, and degrades or objectifies women. To my adolescent mind, what these characters were doing looked pretty cool and like a lot of fun, and managed to connect with me on an emotional level in a way that my parents or teachers never could.
Society wasn’t encouraging me to be me. It was telling me I had to study hard, keep quiet, and ignore my actual interests and feelings. It was telling me to listen to and learn from my elders, because they knew what was best for me more than I ever could. Yet somehow none of these elders really seemed to be thriving either, always stressed or worried about work or money, or housework or chores, or what they ate, or how they looked.
I was being told that the most important thing in life was to do well in year 12, get into a good university, get a good job, make lots of money, buy a lot of stuff, find a partner, get married, have kids, retire, and then finally enjoy my life until I die. That seemed like an awfully long time to work hard, make sacrifices, and delay gratification. Seeing that I was already feeling so miserable, I began to wonder if there really was any point to life at all, or if the struggle and effort was even worth it in the end.
The Teenage Solution
I started to rebel against the pro-social messages that my family and school taught me. The best moments came when I felt free, out on my bike, or exploring a tunnel or dilapidated mine that wasn’t exactly safe to be going down. I loved walking along the train tracks, kicking the power boxes on streetlights so they would go out for a few minutes, and experimenting with making smoke bombs or other explosive contraptions out of anything that was dangerous or flammable enough. As long as my friends were doing something that was illegal or against what our parents said (but wasn’t causing harm to anyone else), I wanted to be a part of it. Especially drinking alcohol.
When I was getting drunk, staying out late, and getting up to mischief together with my mates, I no longer felt dead inside. Instead, I felt excited, happy and alive. I didn’t worry about tomorrow, or the future, and just enjoyed the moment for what it was. Being free from the pressures and constraints of societal and parental expectations, genuinely connecting with my feelings and others, and allowing myself to just be me.
Unfortunately, the night would always end, I would have to rejoin ‘the real world’, and the mask would go right back on. With this, the emptiness and disconnection would return…
The constraints of idealising hyper masculinity
“Our boys are born with empathy just as our girls are, and yet we socialize that sensitivity, emotion, and empathy out of them.” – Jennifer Siebel Newsom
In ‘The Mask You Live In’, they explain that there are typically more similarities between boys and girls than there are differences. Yes, more males fall on the masculine end of the masculine-feminine spectrum, and more females fall on the feminine end. However, there is approximately a 90% overlap between the two populations if you assess 50,000 boys and 50,000 girls, with results being normally distributed for both males and females. Given this, there is actually a large percentage of children who identify as girls that are more masculine than some boys, and a similarly large percentage of children who identify as boys that are more feminine than some girls. Yet if you looked in toy stores, or on the TV, or even in playgrounds or school yards you’d never realise this.
Males and females do begin with small biological differences at birth, due to having an XX or an XY chromosome, and these biological differences do widen further once children reach puberty. Even so, the gender roles that we now perceive to be normal are still much more socially created rather than biologically predetermined. Thanks to the media, the entertainment industry and marketing, we are now seeing hyper-masculinity and hyper-femininity as the ideal.
If you don’t believe me, pay attention to the first answer that pops into your head when you read these questions:
- What are girls favourite colours?
- What are boys favourite colours?
- What toys do girls play with?
- What toys do boys play with?
If you instinctively thought 1. pink and purple, 2. blue and red, 3. dolls, make-up and ponies, and 4. cars, balls, and action figures then you have proved my point. Most children do not fit into these categories naturally, but are instead socialised into these roles as they grow and are encouraged to do so based on what their parents and the TV says, or what their peers do.
If boys are generally 90% similar to girls, and yet socialised to disavow anything that even resembles femininity, how whole or authentic can they really grow up to be? Of course we all want our children to succeed in life, but can this even be done without feeling pain, vulnerability, sadness, and fear, or knowing how to effectively deal with these emotions when they arise? Surely it has to be damaging to continue to encourage boys to switch off from themselves at such a young age, and to externalise their emotional pain by lashing out at others if they feel vulnerable, insecure, disrespected, or under threat…
The consequences of idealising hyper-masculinity
Based on the research presented in ‘The Mask You Live In’, the consequences are:
- 1-in-4 boys report being bullied at school.
- Only 30% of boys that are bullied notify adults, because it is also considered “weak” to get help or tell on someone else.
2. Drinking and Drugs:
- By age 12, 34% of boys have started drinking
- 1-in-4 boys binge drink (have five or more drinks in one sitting)
- The average boy tries drugs at age 13
- Both drinking and drugs are often used to treat loneliness
- Also the only time where they can often be emotional, connect with their friends, and tell their friends how much they love them.
9.3% of Australian males between the ages of 16 and 54 are likely to meet criteria for substance use disorder in the past 12 months, with 1-in-3 (35.4%) expected to experience a substance use disorder in their lifetime. The highest rate of substance abuse is found in males under 24 years of age (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2007).
- Every day, 3 or more boys in the U.S. commit suicide
- For boys, suicide is the third leading cause of death
- For 10-14 year olds, the suicide rate for males is 3 times that of females
- By 15-19 years of age, the suicide rate for males increases to 5 times that of females
Five out of the nearly 7 people that die of suicide in Australia each day are males, which equated to 1,885 male deaths by suicide in 2013. For the 15-19 age group, 34.8% of all male deaths are a result of suicide, with each suicide likely to profoundly impact at least another six people for the rest of their lives (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2013; 2015).
4. Mental Health
- Fewer than 50% of boys and men with mental health difficulties seek help
- Boys are 3 times more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD
5.3% of Australian males over 15 are likely to have experienced depression to a clinically significant severity in the past 12 months, with 1-in-8 expected to experience a mood disorder in their lifetime. For anxiety, 10.8% of Australian males are likely to have experienced it to a clinically significant amount in the past 12 months, with 1-in-5 expected to experience an anxiety condition in their lifetime (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2007).
5. Academic Performance
- Compared to girls, boys are more likely to flunk or drop out of school
- Boys are less likely to go to College
- Boys are 2 times more likely to be in special education
- Boys are 2 times more likely to be suspended and 4 times more likely to be expelled
- Every 9 seconds, a woman is beaten or assaulted in the U.S.
- 1-in-6 boys is sexually abused.
- Every hour, more than 3 people are killed by a gun.
- That’s over 30,000 lives annually.
- 90% of homocide perpetrators are male.
- Almost 50% are under 25 years of age.
- Mass homicides (where 4 or more people are killed) occur on average every 2 weeks.
- 94% of mass homicides are committed by males.
- The youngest mass shooter was 11.
- The rate of mass shootings has tripled since 2011.
- There has been almost one school shooting per week since the Sandy Hook Massacre.
Girl’s in the US have just as much access to guns, so why are nearly all mass shootings being committed by males?
The documentary suggests that it is because men are taught to externalise their emotional pain. If a girl feels sad or scared, they are usually taught to look within to identify what it is, put a label to it, express how they feel to someone else (without acting on it), and then decide what (if anything) needs to be done in order to feel better in time. But if a boy feels sad or scared, it is either dismissed or criticised, and the boy is left on their own to deal with these overwhelming sensations that they cannot even put a name to. Most boys are not taught to be introspective, to tune into to what they feel, or to be self-aware. They are taught to bottle it up or deny what they feel, or distract themselves by keeping busy. The one emotion that often isn’t discouraged in boys, especially when you look at the media, is anger and violence. So in time boys begin to learn that if they feel bad it must be the fault or someone else who was disrespecting them. In a world void of communicating how they feel, the easy way for boys to get this respect and to be heard is through violence.
The Adult Solution
The first thing that helped me was moving to California for a year on a student exchange when I was 16. I lived with a great host family who were more emotionally expressive than mine and developed a close relationship with my host sister, brother, father and mother. The father was a school psychologist, and wasn’t opposed to crying when he was emotionally touched by a moment. He was a great mentor to have, and helped teach me that being able to talk about how I felt and express these emotions in a healthy way was much better than bottling them up or acting out. Sure, I still got into some mischief, but generally I felt more comfortable in my skin, and more authentic around others, which helped me to develop some genuine and close friendships without the assistance of alcohol. I also took a risk of taking a lead role in the school musical, and funnily enough, my friend’s didn’t care. Like Oz joining the choir in ‘American Pie’, they mostly just thought it was a good way for me to meet some nice girls.
The next thing that really helped was having the courage to take the plunge to go and see a Psychologist myself in my early 20s. Due to some traumatic events, there was always a bit of avoidance towards emotional difficulties in my family, so it was really refreshing to have an impartial stranger that I could literally share anything that I had struggled with or felt vulnerable or embarrassed about in the past. The more I shared, the more I felt comfortable and connected, not just in session with my psychologist, but with my other relationships too. By not having to avoid anything, I was then free to work towards creating the life and relationships that I had always wanted.
Research by John Gottman in his 2002 book ‘The Relationship Cure’ supports my individual experience. His findings show that of the four main emotional philosophy styles, an emotion-coaching (“I understand. Let me help you!“) environment is the best for helping boys to develop more successful and more connected relationships when older. An emotion-coaching environment can also encourage boys to turn towards adults more frequently, because they learn how helpful guidance from empathically attuned adults can be when they are trying to cope with overwhelming feelings.
We need to create an environment where:
- it is okay for boys to feel scared or sad or embarrassed or vulnerable or ashamed
- it is okay for boys to share or express how they feel without having to act it out
- boys are encouraged to learn and identify what is going on for them internally and to develop self-awareness and emotional intelligence
- boys are encouraged to seek help and support if they are struggling, whether this is from their peers, family, teachers, coaches, mentors or a psychologist or counsellor
- we try to understand what boys are going through emotionally instead of dismissing their feelings (“You’ll get over it!“) or disapproving them (“Don’t feel that way!“), and
- it is not seen as a sign of weakness to be emotional or seek help when things are challenging, as this can actually help boys to develop greater long-term resiliency.
As they say at the end of ‘The Mask You Live In’:
Everyone deserves to feel whole, and each of us can do our part in expanding what it means to be a man for ourselves and the boys in our lives.
Take the challenge. Exert your influence. We all have a role to play in creating a healthier culture.
If you are a male and are wanting to understand your emotions better, change your behaviours, or just feel whole, an appointment with a psychologist could definitely help.
Dr Damon Ashworth