When you think about masculinity you might imagine a certain muscled body type or dominant kind of behaviour, but the characteristics we’ve come to associate with men go beyond what we look like or how we interact with others. Masculine norms can impact our health in ways you might not realise.
What are masculine norms?
Masculine norms are the attributes, behaviours, and roles that are expected of men and boys, communicated directly or indirectly by families, peers, education, the media, and other members of society. They’re the shifting, unwritten rules of what men should be and how they should act. Some of these include traits like stoicism, independence and self-reliance, and behaviours such as hypersexuality, aggression and control. Some of these beliefs, such as condoning the use of violence, are always wrong but others, such as the belief men must act strong, can be useful in some contexts but lead to problems in others.
“A fireman needs to be stoic, self-reliant, strong, and powerful in the face of the fire, but when he comes down, he needs to be vulnerable and emotionally communicative to overcome trauma,” says Dr Zac Seidler, psychologist, Director of Mental health training at Movember, and Senior Research Follow with Orygen. “If we just have a one-size-fits-all, ‘I am this bloke in all set settings’ approach, it really ends very badly and that's what we witness all the time.”
How do masculine stereotypes affect health?
Many men feel pressure to behave in ways that match masculine stereotypes and hide parts of themselves that don’t fit the mould. This can negatively impact their health in a variety of ways – affecting everything from sunscreen use to whether you’ll go to the doctor when you have a concerning symptom.
Men who strongly support masculine norms report reduced psychological help-seeking and worse mental health outcomes. Supporting specific, traditional ideals such as risk-taking and promiscuity is linked to drinking alcohol at dangerous levels, using illicit drugs and having unprotected sex. For some older men, avoiding help-seeking and not accessing preventative health services such as cancer screening services is associated with a strong endorsement of traditional masculine norms like being tough and self-reliant.
These are just a few of the ways that masculine norms contribute to Australian men’s shorter life expectancy and greater burden of preventable disease.
However, some masculine norms such as competitiveness and achievement can help men keep their health in check and tapping into these attributes could encourage men to prioritise their health. Rather than focusing on one dominant idea of masculinity, exploring and celebrating the breadth of what men can be is critical for improving their health.
“We use the term ‘masculinities’ because within each man is a constantly evolving, changing, contradictory experience of masculinity that, depending on where you are, who you're talking to, who you're relating with, will shift,” Dr Seidler says. “It’s really important people start to embrace that, because it's when they rebel against that other version of themself, the tension comes about, and the feelings of being deficient, or broken, or not living up to something is really problematic. If we keep striving for one way of being, everybody will fail.”
What needs to change?
Change needs to happen at the systemic, community, organisational and individual levels to transform the attitudes, behaviours, norms, and structures associated with harmful masculine stereotypes. These efforts need to build on men’s positive health practices and the importance of their wellbeing, rather than paint masculinity as inherently problematic or ‘toxic’.
“The term ‘toxic masculinity' is fundamentally flawed. It has no basis in science and it's really problematic,” Dr Seidler says. “There are many facets of manhood that, when applied incorrectly, are toxic, but they are toxic behaviours, not toxic traits.”
It’s important to recognise that many men are striving to take care of their health and the barriers to better wellbeing go beyond individual behaviour, and are present in health policies, structures and services.
As an individual, you can help build a healthier culture of masculinities by understanding how norms might affect you and other people in your life. Some ways of embodying healthy masculinity include expressing a full range of emotion, being vulnerable and seeking help when you need it, treating people equally and respectfully, and serving as role models for male peers. This Men's Health Week we're breaking the barriers to better health for men. You can learn more here.
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 Wong, Y. J., Ho, M. R., Wang, S. Y., & Miller, I. S. (2017). Meta-analyses of the relationship between conformity to masculine norms and mental health-related outcomes. Journal of counseling psychology
 Springer KW, Mouzon DM. 2011. “Macho Men” and Preventive Health Care: Implications for Older Men in Different Social Classes. Journal of Health and Social Behavior doi:10.1177/0022146510393972
 McGraw, J., White, K., & Russell-Bennett, R. (2021). Masculinity and men's health service use across four social generations: Findings from Australia's Ten to Men study. SSM - Population Health, 15, 100838. doi: 10.1016/j.ssmph.2021.100838
 Salgado, D. M., Knowlton, A. L., & Johnson, B. L. 2019. Men’s health-risk and protective behaviors: The effects of masculinity and masculine norms. Psychology of Men & Masculinities