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Swanson: Toxic masculinity and the way we raise our boys

Gracie Swanson

For years, we have taught our boys, from the moment they come into the world, that to be a man you can’t show emotions, respect is connected to violence and have repeatedly ingrained three toxic words into their minds: “Be a man.”

“‘Be a man’ is one of the most destructive phrases in this culture,” states former NFL player Joe Ehrmann, “American culture classifies masculinity as a hardened, strong, domineering, powerful and controlling state of being.”

As boys struggle to stay true to themselves, they are constantly suffocated in hypermasculinity – the idea of extreme male stereotypical behavior, including an exaggeration of sexuality, physical strength and aggression. Hypermasculinity’s intent – to oppress boys into a simple-minded, stereotypical definition of a man – has flown under the radar for far too long in our society.

“The Mask You Live In,” a Rocky Mountain PBS film, has been an impactful documentary that seeks to bring to light how our society can raise a ‘healthier’ generation of boys.

As a culture, pressure on both genders through media, peers, and the adults in their lives, have created a fragile line for both to walk on.

“Sex is a biological term. It refers to what chromosomes you have... Gender is a social construct,” explains neuroscientist Dr. Lise Eliot. By the time a boy is ten-years-old he is already taught not to cry in front of people.

“Masculinity is not organic. It’s reactive. It’s not something that just happens. It’s a rejection of everything that is feminine,” states Dr. Caroline Heldman, a political science professor at Occidental College.

Research from experts in neuroscience, psychology and sociology shows that boys in the U.S are more likely than girls to dropout of school, drink or do drugs excessively, commit violent crime, commit suicide and be diagnosed with behavior disorders.

In 2014, statistics showed that males accounted for 79 percent of all U.S. suicides. In fact, males are three to five times more likely to commit suicide than females.

When we tell our boys this is what a man is – they drink beer, have sex with lots of women and get into fights – this is how our boys behave. For some, the stress to conform to hypermasculine ideals becomes too much to bear.

A strong father figure is one of the most influential developmental aspects for boys. It is immensely impactful for a boy to have a male role model, someone to look up to and get support from. When your father abuses you mentally or physically, tells you to stop being a p***y, man up, be faster, stronger and even beats you when you don’t live up to his expectations, that stress and pressure to live up to that can be lethal.

Boys are two times as likely to be suspended and four times more likely to get expelled than girls. Not only are we not providing boys the support and education they need, but social pressure of guys in high school and middle school becomes more extreme when they are expected to perform hypermasculinity. By age 12, 34 percent of boys have started drinking, and the average boy tries drugs at age 13.

Not only are these boys forcing themselves to be someone they are not, but one-in-four boys, 25 percent, report being bullied in school, yet only 3 percent of those who are bullied notify an adult. Something is seriously wrong with that.

Coming to someone and being vulnerable is considered wimpy and feminine, when in reality expression is what makes us human. When all of these emotions are suppressed, that’s when people break and do something irrational, such as massacring their peers with a semi-automatic weapon.

Hypermasculinity not only affects men, but society as a whole. 94 percent of homicides are committed by males. Why is gender never considered when there are mass shootings, when it is clearly a determining factor? These pent up feelings are destined to come out, most often in unhealthy and harmful ways.

When you’re told from day one “don’t let anyone disrespect you” and “grow some balls,” when boys think that they are going to be humiliated or their actions are going to result in failure, these boys feel like they need to prove themselves as ‘men.’

We need to teach our future generations of boys to be able to speak their minds, feel supported and accept themselves as masculine even when not falling into hypermasculine, socially constructed stereotypes.

Grace Swanson is a freshman at Durango High School and reporter at El Diablo, the DHS student newspaper. Her parents are Debra and Todd Swanson of Durango. Reach Gracie at s.graces@durangoschools.org.

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