How open are you to learning new things? For years, men have been trained and raised to behave in a certain way: boys don’t cry; boys can’t be weak; be a man. You can be self-aware and intelligent, but you can’t be afraid. This was the mentality passed on to men, and that type of mentality is deeply rooted in today’s society.
“By far the worst thing we do to males—by making them feel they have to be hard—is that we leave them with very fragile egos.”
— Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
It is tough for many men in Nigeria to show any form of emotion or emotional vulnerability, except in cases that are deemed OK. It is the weird faces we see on men who have lost someone close to them “since men don’t cry” or the awkward handshakes you receive when you lose a loved one when a hug is preferred. So what is toxic masculinity?
Researchers have defined toxic masculinity as a set of behaviours and beliefs that includes the following:
i. Keeping emotions under control or masking distress
ii. Maintaining the appearance of toughness
iii. Violence as a measure of power
Toxic masculinity does not mean all men are toxic. To put it another way, toxic masculinity is the result of teaching boys that they cannot openly express their emotions; that they must be “tough all the time,” and that anything less than that makes them “feminine” or weak.
I recall being in a situation where this sweet little boy was attempting to play with a girl in his age group; he was so shy that everyone around him noticed, and his father was slightly embarrassed as if he had failed as a father. He quickly approached his son and asked him why he was shy, reminding him that he was a man and should be able to talk to any girl. So this boy mustered the courage to approach her and ask her name, to which she replied, “Ella.” It appears to be just a shy boy overcoming being shy, but situations like these make men believe they can have any lady, and not understand that “no” absolutely means “no.” Words like “remember you are a man” or “a man should be able to talk to any girl” can leave young boys and men feeling entitled. He doesn’t have to be a man to stop being shy. Women overcome shyness all the time and they don’t have to become men.
We’ve heard of men who lose their jobs and become abusive to their wives because they are no longer the breadwinners for the family, or of men who ask their wives to stop working because they can easily provide for the family. Even though it can be done out of love (making the wife stop working (willingly), not becoming abusive), some men do it to satisfy their ego and to reach the “man” status. Some men have no sense of identity aside from being the breadwinner, financial provider, or head of the family, which is far from how it should be.
Certain characteristics have become associated with being “a man,” making it difficult for men and young boys who do not fit in. They struggle and eventually become depressed. Growing up was challenging for me, particularly in secondary school. I wasn’t as strong as the other boys my age, and I didn’t have the deep voice that defines a man or an extrovert. (the full package, hahaha). I had to compensate for being myself by talking less (which isn’t a problem) and constantly doing things that men do. That type of life is extremely stressful because there is no room for error. Bullying occurs in some Nigerian schools today, not only in secondary schools but also in some universities, against students who are deemed unmanly.
In discussing mental health, most “men” understand “why women should have mental health problems,” but not men. As if mental health issues are gender based. Mental health is still not taken seriously, and some people believe it is just another nonsense portrait by the Western media. In a society where men are portrayed as always strong, it is difficult for them to admit they are depressed or anxious. Most men in Nigeria today are still unfamiliar with the concept of mental health. They can’t afford to be seen as weak, even though strength is irrelevant in this case.
Some parents resolve to appropriate toxic masculinity when they have no solution for what their male child is going through.
We all want to see significant progress on issues that are important in our society, such as mental health, academic engagement, and gender-based violence prevention. This must be done within and alongside boys-only spaces. Men who have fewer restrictions on their masculinity experience and perpetrate far less violence in their lives.
HOW DO WE ADDRESS TOXIC MASCULINITY WITHIN BOYS
i. Redress the saying boys will be boys
How many times have you seen young boys who are so kind and gentle turn into something you can’t recognise? They appear to be following the crowd at first, which they are, but what are the characteristics of the crowd; an unnecessary desire to prove they are men; taking substances to prove how tough they can be; dehumanizing women to prove boys will be boys; and some even raping women to prove they are true men. It’s simply heartbreaking. We need to teach men and boys to be accountable for their actions.
ii. Promote Healthier Masculinity
It is important to note that masculinity in and of itself is not harmful; it is the harmful traits gotten from the society that make it toxic. Masculinity manifests differently in different people. Allowing men to express a wide range of emotions is essential. Encourage them to be nurturing, compassionate, and caring for themselves and others.
We must be able to create safe spaces for boys, reach out to them, and recognize that it may be difficult for them to open up, discuss healthy masculinity, and share our experiences.
Dear men, it is acceptable to learn new things and unlearn things that are detrimental to our well-being; it is acceptable to express a full range of emotions and feel validated. To be vulnerable and to seek assistance when necessary. To treat everyone fairly and respectfully. Listen to and respect women and girls, and be role models for your male peers. It’s a crazy world, and we are just trying to live in it.