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Traditional Views of Masculinity Limit Men

Exponent article by Scott Cunningham & Matt Dwyer
Counseling & Psychological Services

Over the past 15 years, scholars have begun to examine the social construct of "masculinity." This has led to questioning the traditional norms of the male role, such as emphasis on competition, status, toughness, and emotional stoicism. These traditional, stereotypical views of masculinity clash with the modern-day realities of intimacy, communication, and sharing nurturing and household chores. Many traditional or stereotypical views of masculinity limit men and leave them feeling confused about how to have successful relationships and what "masculinity" is.

Perhaps the most problematic tenet of the traditional masculine ideology is the emphasis on emotional stoicism. Statements like "take it like a man," "boys don't cry," and "No Fear" communicate the idea that expressing emotion equals emotional weakness. This forces men to hide fear, anxiety, pain, sadness, and self-doubt behind a façade of confidence and competence. Men are told from an early age to hide weakness and exude strength, which alienates themselves and others from the emotionally-rich parts of themselves. Too often these feelings are expressed through the more "acceptable" masculine emotion: anger. This limits men in their emotional expressiveness and may lead to their feelings being expressed through anger, aggression, self-destructive behavior such as substance abuse, or even violence.

Traditional views of masculinity can act as an emotional straightjacket that prohibits men from expressing feelings or urges that are mistakenly seen as "feminine," such as warmth, empathy, and need. When young boys or men break this rule of masculinity, they are often teased, ridiculed, or shamed for not acting like a "man." This fear of being labeled "feminine," or the myth that sharing more vulnerable parts of themselves undermines strength and independence, often contributes to men holding back their true feelings. This then hinders their ability to maintain intimate connections with their friends, romantic partners or children.

Contributing to men's confusion is the mixed messages they often receive: "Be strong vs. be sensitive" or "I want a take-charge man vs. I'd prefer equality." This confusion can lead to men holding more tightly to what may be more comfortable or accepted: the traditional messages about masculinity they received while growing up. This internalization of emotions causes men to limit their social support and puts them at risk for stress-related illnesses such as heart disease, depression, or hypertension.

Overall, the unique stresses and emotional challenges that men face today highlight the need for increased awareness and education on these issues. The expectations on men, both from others and from themselves, are often confusing and contradictory.

CPS offers counseling for men, as well as an array of educational seminars geared towards men's health. Watch for flyers about the Men's Health Initiative, and the CPS website for details.


View Text-only Version Text-only Updated: 12/17/08
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