emotional wellbeing

Written By: DiveThru Team

Reviewed By: Hannah Fuhlendorf M.A, LPC


8 Signs of Toxic Masculinity

PUBLISHED Nov 9th, 2021 & UPDATED ON Nov 14th, 2022

When we begin talking about the signs of toxic masculinity, we often see that the term “toxic masculinity” itself brings up a lot of strong reactions in people. “Being a man isn’t a bad thing!” “Feminists are trying to take away our masculinity!” And we really do get it.

At face value, pointing out certain behaviour from men as toxic masculinity can make it sound like being a man is bad, wrong, or problematic. But it’s not! Men can be great! Without men, we wouldn’t have Mr. Rogers, The Rock, Harry Styles, that nice barista who always remembers your order, or our wonderful fathers, brothers, uncles, cousins, and the millions of other amazing men in the world. 

So obviously being a man isn’t inherently bad. But sometimes, societal expectations put pressure on men to act in “typically” or “traditionally” masculine ways that end up hurting themselves and others.

So what’s toxic, what’s not, and how can you tell the difference? Let’s DiveThru this idea to understand what toxic masculinity means, and the ways we can reach happy, healthy, and positive masculinity.

** Note that this article is primarily dealing with cisgender men within a North American context, and often talks in a men versus women kind of way. There are lots of different genders and cultures that are affected by toxic masculinity. Okay, on with the article! 

What “Toxic Masculinity” Really Means

If you’ve ever heard someone say “man up,” “boys will be boys,” or “be a man,” there’s probably some toxic masculinity behind that. Toxic masculinity is defined as a set of cultural and societal norms of masculinity that emphasize physical violence, aggression, emotional repression, as well as homophobic and sexist behaviour as the way men are “supposed” to act. Now, this isn’t saying that all men behave this way. A lot of it depends on men’s peer groups, socioeconomic factors, and upbringing. It’s not so much an individual man problem, as it is a societal one. 

There’s also a particularly harmful effect on men as a result of toxic masculinity. Men are more likely to commit suicide than women, less likely to reach out for mental health support, and less likely to go to the doctor for preventative care. Men perpetrate violent crimes, and are the victims of those crimes, more often than women. Then there’s the issue of men not feeling like they can talk freely about their emotions because they’ll be judged for it. So, yeah. Toxic masculinity harms men too. But let’s get a bit more specific with what is toxic and what isn’t.

Signs of Toxic Masculinity

What exactly makes masculinity toxic? Here’s a few signs of toxic masculinity:

  • Violence
  • Aggression
  • Bullying and harassment
  • Homophobia
  • Misogyny 
  • Refusing to seek help when struggling (mentally or physically)
  • Engaging in risky behaviour that might cause harm to oneself or others
  • Engaging in unhealthy behaviour, like smoking and drinking

Everyone can get into a negative, aggressive headspace sometimes. We’re not saying getting angry or a night of heavy drinking once in a while are necessarily signs of toxic masculinity. It’s when the behaviour is consistent over time and harmful to themselves or others around them that it becomes an issue. And it’s also when men think that those negative beliefs and behaviours exemplify what it means to “be a man.” This is where the whole idea of excusing bad behaviour by saying “boys will be boys” comes in.

Not All Masculinity Is Bad

This is so important to remember! You can be a man (or a masculine person) in a million different ways, and you’re even allowed to be proud of being a man. No one should be telling you otherwise. The big difference is when there’s only one acceptable idea of what “being a man” means, and especially if that idea includes being dominant, physically aggressive, financially privileged, tall, strong, etc. Think Gaston in Beauty and the Beast.

At that point, masculinity becomes toxic because of the pressure to “act like a man” in a certain way or risk being ridiculed for not fitting in. Not every man is gonna look like Gaston, or be aggressive, dominant, or a millionaire. And that’s okay! That’s what the criticism of toxic masculinity is trying to say: those expectations are unrealistic and often damaging for men, so screw ‘em. Let every man express their own, unique version of masculinity.

Positive Masculinity

So what counts as positive masculinity? There are so many examples! A 2013 paper in the Journal of Counseling & Development looks at positive perspectives on masculinity to counsel men. Rather than focus on the negative things that should change (see: toxic masculinity), the study suggests that mental health professionals encourage positive traits that are already present in Western masculinity. This includes a desire to provide for loved ones, forming groups, helping others, engaged and enthusiastic fatherhood, self-reliance (but asking for help when needed), and sooo many other great things. 

Positive masculinity can be empathetic, emotionally intelligent, fun, and supportive of those around you — without having to sacrifice pride in one’s masculinity. Heck yeah! A win for the dudes. 

Celebrating Masculinity

So now that we’ve talked about some misconceptions, how do you celebrate healthy masculinity? Well, you can celebrate it however you want!

Become an Advocate

You can become an advocate for healthy masculinity. Jaylen Brown spoke openly about the culture of toxic masculinity in Boston and how it can lead to violence. The Boston Celtics player took part in a documentary about mental health and professional sports, and how the image of the stoic athlete can be damaging.

Express Yourself

There’s always the option to experiment with your look, choosing styles that might be different from society’s expectations for men. ASAP Rocky, Lil Nas X, Harry Styles, David Bowie, and Prince are just a few examples of men that went outside the box. If it feels like you, give it a shot! You won’t know if you rock a dress until you try it.

You can express your sexuality openly in a more traditionally masculine career, like Carl Nassib, the NFL player who came out as gay in July 2021. In the video, he expressed his appreciation for the support from his friends and family, and said he would be donating $100,000 to The Trevor Project, an LGBTQ+ organization that focuses on mental health crisis support, such as suicide prevention. The league and his team also announced their support for Nassib on social media.

Fight for Human Rights for Everyone

Healthy masculinity can also include using your voice to speak out on violence against women and children. Pearl Jam has used their platform many times in support of women’s issues. During their South America tour in 2018, they wore orange shirts in support of the anti-femicide movement, and let the audience know that they back the people that are fighting for change, gender equality, and women’s safety. 

There’s also Ashton Kutcher, who pivoted from his acting career to focus on fighting human trafficking. He and Demi Moore co-founded Thorn, a company that develops software that aims to detect, identity, and prevent online child sex trafficking. Thorn provides the technology free to law enforcement and has identified more than 17,000 victims. 

Did you notice that all of these men are pretty different, and express themselves in a bunch of different ways? That’s, like, kind of the whole point. But you don’t need to go above and beyond. You can be a masculine person, doing your best, everyday, to be an authentic version of yourself. So long as you’re happy and comfortable in your skin and trying to minimize harm to yourself and others, you’re good! Be a man, in whatever kind and fun and weird and wonderful way you choose.

Read More: 7 Helpful Ways to Take a Social Media Break, 5 Signs of Emotional Abuse & What to Do Next,