Escape Plan

Traditional Ideas of Masculinity Trap a Lot of Men. It’s Time to Escape.

Limiting yourself to old ideas of masculinity is lonely and dangerous. Embracing new ideas is the only way to escape.

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Every man has at least one memory of feeling self-conscious or physically inadequate compared to their peers.

“When you press us on this, oftentimes these stories are related to something physical,” says Sergio Pedemonte, a certified personal trainer in Toronto and father of a new baby. Maybe it’s that you weren’t good at sports, or that you were small and always lost wrestling matches.

What this teaches you, notes Pedemonte, is that as a male, even when you’re young, your status is often tied into your physical prowess.

“I see that most often in grown men sticking to routines out of habit because they know they’re good at them,” he says. “They’re afraid to try something as simple as a new exercise routine because they don’t want to look weak and face humiliation, if not some social penalty they felt when they were young.”

The fear of physical inadequacy is just one part of a concept known as the “man box”, which was originally inspired by the women’s liberation movement in the 1970s. Activist and author Paul Kivel and the Oakland Men’s Project created the concept, known as the “act like a man box”, as a way for men to visualize the constraints of traditional notions of masculinity, which include beliefs such as that to be a man means to be strong, to take care of others, and to never cry and or have emotions. Other man box tenets are to be tough, never make mistakes or ask for help, and be in control of women.

Those ideas might sound extreme, or even anachronistic. But pressure to conform to society’s gender norms can be insidious, even for men who don’t consider themselves especially “manly”. Over the last few decades, studies have started connecting the dots between “man box” attitudes and poorer mental and physical health of the men who subscribe to those attitudes most. Science is also strengthening a link between harmful attitudes about masculinity and violence against women. Understanding the man box — and what it takes to escape it — is crucial for men and the children they raise.

Opening Up The Man Box

In 2020, Promundo, a global nonprofit working toward greater gender equality and violence prevention, teamed up with researchers at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) to develop a Man Box Scale in hopes of finding an accurate tool for measuring the impact of harmful ideas about masculinity. They looked at 2016 survey data from more than 3,600 men 18 to 30 years old in the US, UK, and Mexico. Demographically, roughly half of the men surveyed were between 18 and 24 years old and around half of them have college degrees. They were predominantly white, heterosexual, never married, and worked full-time jobs.

The men assigned a number value (1-3) to their agreement with 15 statements such as, “A man shouldn’t have to do household chores,” “Men should use violence to get respect if necessary,” and “A man who talks a lot about his worries, fears, and problems shouldn’t really get respect.” The study authors also narrowed down the 15 statements to just five, so researchers could more quickly assess men’s risk for violence and poorer mental health.

In their paper published in Preventive Medicine, the authors noted that men with high Man Box Scale scores were up to five times as likely to say they’d engaged in verbal, online, or physical bullying as well as sexual harassment, says lead author, Amber Hill, Ph.D.. Men with higher scores also were about twice as likely to experience depression or suicidal thoughts.

The point of the Man Box Scale, the authors say, was to validate a consistent measurement across the three nations (researchers in Australia are collecting man box data as well) that will be useful in evaluating the success of programs to reduce violence against women and girls worldwide.

Men who align most with man box attitudes are less likely to talk about their problems and to seek help.

“Without having a validated, standardized way of measuring harmful masculinity, it’s hard to measure trends over time,” says Robert W.S. Coulter, Ph.D., MPH, one of the study authors and an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh. “The scale allows us to more accurately measure whether these gender transformative programs and policies are having the impact they’re intended to have.”

Another research goal was to test whether the scale could, in a sense, flag potential mental health issues in men with high man box scores.

“There’s increasing recognition that men and boys, just like people of all genders, have certain health conditions that affect them more directly, especially in terms of mental health,” Hill says.

In other words, men who align most with man box attitudes are less likely to talk about their problems and to seek help. That fact, combined with their higher rates of depression and thoughts of suicide, means that many men who need mental health care don’t get it. It’s possible, then, that the man box scale could prompt a health care provider to probe a little deeper if, in the future, it’s adapted for use in a clinical therapeutic setting.

“We know this man box idea of self-sufficiency, not being able to discuss your problems or ask for help and take everything on yourself could have significant implications on someone’s mental health,” Hill says. “There’s already a big stigma about seeking mental health care, so the scale could be a potential pathway.”

Can We Ever Escape the Man Box?

Men and boys often learn that part of being a man means distancing themselves from the experiences of women, so they learn to be quiet and not chit chat and share feelings like women do, says activist Tony Porter, CEO of the anti-violence organization A Call to Men and author of Breaking Out of the Man Box: The Next Generation of Manhood.

“I’m from New York City — Harlem and the Bronx, born and raised — and the man boys looked up to might be quiet, or stoic, or what we might call ‘chilling,’ but the truth is, he’s depressed,” Porter says. “If you’re a man and you talk a lot, we’re going to let you know, ‘You’re just like a woman, always chatting.’ I believe depression, particularly low-grade depression, often goes undiagnosed in men, whereas in women we’d see it much more clearly.”

Although the Promundo-UPMC Man Box Scale quantifies how strongly men adhere to harmful attitudes about masculinity, it would be a mistake to think of it as a binary rating system, the authors say.

“It’s not necessarily dichotomous, where they’re either in or out of the man box,” Coulter says.

In fact, the man box shouldn’t, and doesn’t, delineate between “good” guys and “bad” guys, because all men are influenced by the collective socialization of what it means to be a man, says Porter, a popular TED Talk speaker who has conducted social justice and gender equity training for men since the late 1990s. Although only a small segment of men physically abuse women, for example, that doesn’t mean men who don’t are off the hook.

“Men collectively maintain group oppression, so there’s a fine line,” Porter says. “All men, every day, consciously and subconsciously reap the awards of oppression.”

Men in the man box, who feel like they can’t be sad or ask for help or admit when they’re scared, carry a heavy burden and a lonely one.

Porter points to Silicon Valley as an example: Some tech bros might not be physically strong, or might even be soft and feminine, but many are deep in the man box regardless.

“These men run Silicon Valley like it belongs to them, and women are shut out,” he says. “They might not physically fit into the man box, but male domination is running wild there.”

Social views and expectations regarding gender are so widespread, “I don’t know if any man escapes them entirely,” agrees Michael Vilensky, Ph.D., a psychologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “A fair number of people I work with have trouble managing some of those feelings and making sense of how they feel amid some of their views of masculinity, which inform how they should feel or should be.”

Vilensky’s main focus is addiction counseling, which he says often dovetails with harmful internalized views of masculinity in some of his male patients.

“At its core, addiction is about changing how one feels,” Vilensky says. “To take away uncomfortable feelings, thoughts, and sensations, for a man who is deeply uncomfortable with experiencing shame or feeling less than, one way to manage that is to make it go away with substances.”

Even without the numbing effects of drugs and alcohol, the man box can be a comfortable place — particularly for straight, white men, who can peer over the ledge at those not in it from the safety of society’s high tower. It’s often easier to just go with the flow and not challenge the status quo. But the downsides can be great — men in the man box, who feel like they can’t be sad or ask for help or admit when they’re scared, carry a heavy burden and a lonely one.

Questioning what you surround yourself with can help men develop a more inclusive and equitable outlook.

“We lose some of the capacity to form deep and meaningful relationships beyond the boundaries of expectation of what it means to ‘be a man,’” says Brendon-Jeremi Jobs, education professor at the University of Pennsylvania, instructor and director of Diversity and Inclusion at The Haverford School for boys, and lead trainer at The Lion’s Story, a nonprofit promoting racial literacy.

He adds that an intentional challenge to that norm is getting students to connect empathetically by sharing feelings with one another and learning how to listen fully to others in their peer groups. “The popularity of the Peer Counseling Program, where kids practice this kind of interaction, signals to me that there’s a yearning for that level of connection with others,” he says.

How To Keep Boys From Getting Boxed In

The question of how to prevent boys from falling into the man box mindset is an important one to ask. Jobs hasn’t discussed the man box explicitly with his students, but they do talk about identity in terms of race, gender, class, and sexuality.

“When we think about gender, we talk about how it exists on a continuum, and we talk about how the binary is hurtful and erases who we are,” he says.

His students look at media representations of manhood, such as in Disney movies or Super Bowl TV ads.

“It’s an entrée into thinking about how we get beyond that. Like, this is how it’s positioned, but is that real? What type of pressure does it put on you?” Jobs says. “That’s how you do this work: Take every opportunity to look at systems and name them and question them.”

In one Haverford class, boys learn about healthy, equitable relationships. They learn to question whether their relationships are in a healthy space, whether they both give and take, or whether one partner is the taker and one the giver.

Adult men might benefit from asking those questions about their own relationships as well. They also might want to look at the media they consume, which might be more influenced by the man box than they realize.

“Men change when they’re no longer comfortable with who they are and what they do,” Porter says. “Then they’ll move into action.”

“What are you engaging in, how many other types of friends do you have, what are you reading?” Jobs asks. Questioning what you surround yourself with can help men develop a more inclusive and equitable outlook.

“You can’t confront something that you don’t see,” Jobs says. “Who in the world wants to intentionally, knowingly participate in oppression?”

Dads have a huge opportunity to keep their sons out of the man box and to instead help them develop healthy emotional regulation. But it isn’t easy, for mothers as well as fathers. Everyone wants to see their kid cheered on by the team for doing well, not crying in the outfield because they dropped the ball.

In a TED Talk several years ago, Porter described his impatience when his then 5-year-old son cried, and how he told him, “I can’t understand you when you’re crying, go to your room and get yourself together.”

“Many dads are frightened by sons not in the man box,” Porter says. “They’re afraid they’ll be victimized and experience all the bad things that happen to boys when they don’t fit into it.”

Allowing sons to be their authentic selves can be challenging, Porter says. It can be helpful to think of your role as a parent as being part of kids’ development, supporting it rather than guiding them or making them who you want them to be.

It can take time as well as patience to keep the walls of the man box from closing in on men, no matter their background. Acknowledging your role in oppression isn’t comfortable for anyone, but its necessary work in creating a more equitable society.

“Men change when they’re no longer comfortable with who they are and what they do,” Porter says. “Then they’ll move into action.”

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