Playing saxophone, knitting, doing boys’ choir, having long hair, giggling, tight jeans, playing volleyball, listening to pop music, pronouncing Chopin correctly: These are all things that folks told me they had been discouraged from doing as boys because it was too girly, gay or otherwise inappropriate for a man.
This week, I put up a call on social media for experiences of having been raised as a boy and the thread was flooded immediately with random things that had been verboten: Watching Disney movies, baking, having more than three pairs of shoes, dancing, pierced ears, roller skating, liking the Spice Girls, drawing, crying, having female friends, playing soccer, literally anything pink, and the list goes on and on.
Some of these seem real dang arbitrary to define as insufficiently manly. And as far as I can tell, they have little to nothing to do with having a dick, despite that apparently being a really big deal for how a lot of traditional folks define manhood.
It starts super early, with childhood play activities being coded as masculine or feminine, and teachers shying away from having boys engage in pursuits that are perceived as “for girls.” Generally sports are considered acceptable for boys, but certainly not all sports. Even something as objectively positive as taking care of the environment has come to be read as feminine in some minds.
And as West Philly-based musicologist Phil Gentry points out, “There is whole scholarly literature on musical instrument selection and gender.” Ironically, while the research finds boys are urged away from violins and woodwinds, men still overwhelmingly are preferred for these gigs in world-class orchestras.
Feminism has made serious inroads for women who want to access spaces that were previously denied to them on the basis of sex. But for some men, the door doesn’t appear to swing both ways. Gender roles still hold back women, non-binary and gender non-conforming people far more than men in many industries and arenas of life, but the risks of adhering to archaic ideas of masculinity still stymie dudes … and actually endanger their lives.
“Gender roles still hold back women, non-binary and gender non-conforming people far more than men in many industries and arenas of life, but the risks of adhering to archaic ideas of masculinity still stymie dudes … and actually endanger their lives.”
COVID presents a perfect example of the danger of a compulsion to behave in ways that are perceived as masculine. Survey data suggests that the more someone identifies with old school ideas of how men should be, the less likely they will be to take basic steps to protect themselves and others from the virus, like wearing a mask.
The effect appears to be international and applies to a whole slew of risk reduction behaviors, like hand-washing, keeping physical distance and avoiding crowded places. Women were also far more likely to take the risk of the pandemic seriously and to support public policies that had been suggested by public health experts.
These gender differences are not just a matter of opinion, they have devastating consequences. Independent of age, men who contract COVID are experiencing worse health outcomes on average. While the risk of contracting the virus is equal among genders, men are two and a half times more likely to die from it. Again, this seems to be across the globe, with similar findings in Asia, Europe and America. For example, in Italy, 70 percent of the COVID-related deaths are men.
Perhaps most striking is the fact that this extends far beyond the individual to entire nations. Countries led by women (like Iceland, New Zealand, Finland and Germany) are doing a much better job managing COVID rates than countries led by men. Conversely, some of the worst outcomes are happening in nations like the U.S., Brazil and UK, where the leaders are all about projecting a hypermasculine, strongman aesthetic.
“Just as blue was arbitrarily chosen for boys years ago, so were most of these bizarre limitations of what men are allowed to do.”
We’ve known for a long time that what is conventionally defined as masculine is also physically dangerous. The sports that are most likely to be “acceptable” for boys are also the ones with the highest risk of serious injury, as are the occupations. The concept of taking care of oneself has even been perceived as too feminine for some guys. A recent study found a large number of men consider it to be more masculine to be sleep deprived.
Add on top of that the belief that sharing feelings or asking for help are unmanly, and we can see a clear through-line to why higher rates of masculinity are closely associated with self-injury and higher rates of suicide.
Fortunately, all of this is optional. Just as blue was arbitrarily chosen for boys years ago, so were most of these bizarre limitations of what men are allowed to do. In an era where almost none of us are living off the land, surviving entirely off game we killed ourselves, whatever ancient biological imperative we think we need to live up is as outdated as refusing to use a stove or laptop. We can cast off these pressures from our kids and our adults and move toward a future where everyone can do whatever the hell they want.
For further resources on mental health for men, check out mantherapy.org.
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