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Toxic Masculinity: Inherited Trait Or A Manifestation Of Performance Pressure?

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Editor’s Note: This post is a part of What's A Man, a series exploring masculinity in India, in collaboration with Dr. Deepa Narayan. Join the conversation here!

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When you have to share your feelings, who do you usually turn to?

Discussing men as victims of patriarchy is a slippery slope to walk upon.

Within the brutal cacophony of opposing ideologies and discourses in the media of today, biases and stereotypes have completely hijacked the voice of emotionally sensitive men and boys, who struggle to express their ‘self’ within a society that functions upon the assumption that there is, and ought to be, an essential definition of ‘manhood’.

Decoding ‘Manliness’

Patriarchy has conditioned each of us to believe that all boys aspire to become ‘manly’, without ever questioning what the word ‘manly’ means in the first place. To associate manliness with strength and bravery, as harmless and rather empowering as it may sound, is actually oppressive. Human beings have vulnerabilities in them, and when the space to express that is taken away by a norm and assumption which dictates all boys to aspire for courage, at the cost of their tender feelings, the suppression has the potential to wreak damage upon one’s mental health, that many can perhaps not even fathom.

Representative image. Image credit: Unsplash

Boys are socialized to think of themselves in binaries. It’s abhorrent and despicable to be considered weak and helpless, therefore one must always aspire to be strong. Even when one is actually not. Femininity and masculinity are perceived as such contradictory terms that shame, vulnerability, and depressive tendencies are regarded as feminine and because to be seen as effeminate is the worst thing that could ever happen to a man, he must learn to suppress all his traumas within himself and walk with a sense of bulging pride in his ability to repress his fears.

It does not often occur to us, that perhaps we are doing it all wrong.

Why do we praise men, indefinitely, for repressing their fears and traumas?

How Toxic Masculinity Shames Men For Being Sensitive And Vulnerable

We may not realize it, but by constantly reiterating through our words, actions and gestures that men are most desirable when they are in action, or when they are exhibiting strength and courage, we are telling them that if, and when, they fail to live up to the act of appearing brave, invincible and self-sufficient, they would no longer be considered worth admiring for any of their other qualities.

To think of vulnerability and strength as two opposite strands of a thread, however, is erroneous. People who are honest about their vulnerabilities have to amass a lot of courage to admit to themselves, before anybody else, that they suffered through some painful experiences. Acknowledging one’s fears and vulnerabilities is the first step towards healing from trauma. But the social norm of masculinity dictates to men and boys that vulnerability is a strict no-no, which if they ever dare to exhibit, would tear down their basic esteem and dignity in society.

It is important to acknowledge intersectionality while discussing men’s emotional and mental health issues. Many men take pride in the attributes of conventional masculinity such as ruggedness, emotional stoicism and indifference to emotional upheavals and turmoil, for which society rewards them with approval and praise. These men then bully those among them, who in their perception do not fit into the contours and societal expectations of masculinity.

It is a mode of brutal psychological violence that is imposed upon boys of a tender and sensitive disposition, since a very young age, and continues in institutes of higher education, where some male students are compelled to undergo mental torture, harassment and bullying of various forms, all for the sake of passing the test of masculinity, that society has brutally inflicted upon them.

Why is it necessary for boys since childhood to adopt a rigid and stiff body-language and posture, for the sake of appearing ‘manly’?

Why are men with a somewhat fluid body-language and demeanour accorded a lower rank in the hierarchy of masculinity created by society?

Why is there an ‘essence’ attached to masculinity, reflected in the phrase ‘Be a man’ that is used in a countless number of instances to shame some men and boys, just for being themselves?

Social norms of masculinity impose heavy damage and threat upon the mental health, of those men and boys, who struggle to fit into the stoic, emotionally numb but socially sanctioned model of masculinity. Representational image.

A lot many men out there are oppressors. Because they bullied somebody and inflicted a lifetime of trauma upon them. A number of them are victims too, of society and their own gender.

A boy who doesn’t feel the urge to play or watch a sport, or shows a liking for colours such as pink and purple, prefers to watch or read melodramatic and emotional fantasies instead of mindless rage and violence that proliferates many video games, is both visibly and invisibly shamed by a society that has assumed, that all men are supposed to desire only one form of masculinity.

Although some people, sections of society and media have begun to acknowledge that the expectation to repress their emotions, that is levelled upon men and boys can be suffocating, the acknowledgement has come without any critical thinking, and a lack of willingness to examine our own biases.

The Performative Pressure Of Mascunility

Are we admiring men for their ability to suppress their emotions, or are we seeing the performative pressure of masculinity, for what is? If we understood that the conventional association of masculinity with strength and stoicism is futile and suffocating, we wouldn’t praise men for performing masculinity. We would rather critically think about masculinity and ask ourselves, that why do we uphold such norms, in the first place?

19th November is regarded worldwide as the International Men’s Day. Many websites describe it as a day dedicated to discussing the social issues which concern boys and men. However, do we even know what those issues are? Are we even willing to acknowledge that there could be such issues?

Some factions debate whether there is a need to celebrate a Men’s Day at all. After all, men’s voices already dominate most discourses and socio-cultural institutions such as family, nation and state. What many of us have forgotten, in a bid to sound politically correct though, is that when we say that men already dominate, we forget to ask, who exactly are the men who dominate, and who is at the receiving end of that domination.

It is important to talk about toxic masculinity, but to talk of toxic masculinity and to dismiss male vulnerability and victimhood in the same breath, is akin to perpetuating oppression.

In a society that regards indifference to pain as the signifier of masculinity, reflected in the toxic and dangerously popular phrase “Mard ko Dard Nahi Hota” (real men don’t feel hurt), some boys perpetually struggle to retain their true individuality, and self-awareness of their emotional state, without visibly appearing as an outlier to the prevalent and regressive conception of manhood.

Social norms of masculinity impose heavy damage and threat upon the mental health, of those men and boys, who struggle to fit into the stoic, emotionally numb but socially sanctioned model of masculinity.

But we are all entitled to our beliefs, right? So, there would come a Men’s Day, when some women and men, to show how feminist they are, would completely deny the need for celebrating a day dedicated to boys and men at all. Then there are those who feel so intimidated by feminism that they are dying to start a men’s rights movement of their own, to show themselves as victims of a movement which, as per them, has no merit at all.

Neither of these groups acknowledges that many men bully and harass, some suffer. Many men feel emboldened by the association of masculinity with strength. Some are suffocated. Many men feel liberated by masculinity. Some feel shackled and traumatized.

But in the age of social media where the ongoing trends of Instagram posts determine how ‘woke’ we are, people would rather go with the wave than investigate and critique their own assumptions. Surely, times have changed. Modern-day men perhaps do not shy away from expressing their feelings, as much as before. Some of them will even talk in a melodramatic and sentimental tone, about how they too feel things, but don’t express them as much. And then some women, out of love for their boyfriends, would post a Happy Men’s Day story.

Meanwhile, a boy who felt suffocated by the imposition of prevalent norms of masculinity on his being all his life, begins to wonder that now when the day has finally come when people have begun to talk about the fact that men too have emotions; are we even acknowledging that many of these men who are now talking about how they suppress their feelings to appear ‘manly’ are perhaps those, who in their childhood, brutally harassed a boy in their school or neighbourhood, for walking and talking in an effeminate manner?

Are we admiring men for their ability to suppress their emotions, or are we seeing the performative pressure of masculinity, for what is? Representational image.

Does Privilege Lead The Narrative Of Masculinity?

It is absolutely baffling how the privileged ones always appropriate the voice of victims. Some men who probably never had to undergo a mental health struggle due to gender-based anxieties all their lives are now getting the nerve to ask why to celebrate a Men’s Day at all and some others wish to celebrate it just to further reinforce their toxic conceptions of masculinity, that they feel emboldened by.

It is not enough to acknowledge that men have emotions. When we acknowledge the fact that men repress their emotions, it is important to critique the norm of masculinity that demands this kind of stoicism and repression from men in the first place, and not praise them for it. Some of us, however, while talking affectionately about the struggles and pressures of performing masculinity that our brothers, lovers, friends or fathers perform, end up implicitly praising them for this performance.

Meanwhile, the boy, who was bullied in middle-school, suffered social isolation all his teenage for not being able to fit into the cultural code of boyhood and fell into depression by the time he reached adulthood, continues to remain baffled.

Next time a Men’s Day looms around the corner, perhaps a better question to ask ourselves and one another, would be, that why does one have to ‘perform’ masculinity at all?

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Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

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As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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