(image source: here)
From the time boys start primary school, they start feeling the need to shape their masculinity, make their stand, and set their place amongst the many other little boys surrounding them. In many cases, a desire for some authority over the rest of the group is instilled, and if not so extreme, a desire to be popular or be liked is established. Hegemonic Masculinity and Toxic Masculinity begin to form a relationship in the upbringing of many boys in same-sex schools. However, this has proven to have a destructive and deadly effect on the boys growing up in these environments.
Hegemonic masculinity is the version of masculinity which is culturally dominant in society. There are many different kinds of men and their respective presentations of “masculinity.” However, the hegemonic masculinity is presented as the ideal and its values and behaviours are the acceptable norm. The masculinities which do not measure up are deemed not as masculine and, therefore, inferior. This establishes a male hierarchy. Socially acceptable behaviours are conditioned into boys from a young age. These type of socially accepted behaviours often reach the point where they are considered “toxic.” Not only to other people, but to themselves also.
Toxic masculinity involves the need for men to prove their gender in society. “Be a man,” the three most damaging words to say to a growing boy, pushes boys to develop their masculinity and shape their being around a hegemonic masculinity that is centred around characteristics like domination over women, wanton aggression and anger, ruthless competitiveness, homophobia, and an inability to express emotions because of fear of seeming weak. Boys are expected to quiet about their emotions. “Feminine emotions” such as tenderness, compassion, sadness, affection, and care are looked down upon because of the misogynistic idea that women are inferior to men.
In South Africa, on average, 23 suicides happen per day. There are 4.6 male suicides for every 1 female suicide. This is not a coincidence. The patriarchy is hurting men too.
Social pressures on men and boys often come from within their own gender. Quotes like “nah bro that’s gay”, “grow some balls”, “boys don’t cry” and many other phrases included in ‘locker room banter’ get thrown around casually between boys. A sense of competition is created, a norm to keep each other accountable is established, and/or this may cement a male hierarchy as a measurement of ‘manliness.’ All-boy schools breed this toxic masculinity leaving men feeling like disappointments, inadequate, isolated and spiritually dead. Boys are struggling for air under the limitations of the patriarchy and its consequences are quite literally deadly.
The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) states that
“one in four South African teens have attempted suicide and one in three hospital admissions for suicide involve youth – most schools don’t have counsellors or psychosocial support systems in place.”
Psychologist, Terry Real, in his 1998 book I Don’t Want to Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression states
“[l]ittle boys and little girls start off […] equally emotional, expressive, and dependent, equally desirous of physical affection.” “If any differences exist, little boys are, in fact, slightly more sensitive and expressive than little girls. They cry more easily, seem more easily frustrated, appear more upset when a caregiver leaves the room.”
It is the environment in which they are brought up in, the peers they socialise with, the schooling system that has a standard of patriotism and legacy to live up to that tells little boys not to.
So how does one unlearn toxic masculinity? How do breeding grounds for this destructive system put it to a halt? How do we prevent our schoolboys from thinking the only option for their feelings of entrapment is suicide?
Like SADAG, school based suicide prevention programmes should be enforced regularly, teaching teens to identify symptoms of depression and warning signs of suicide in themselves and others, where to go in their own communities if they need help and how to contact SADAG.
We need to create open, safe spaces for men to be comfortable expressing their emotions. We need to get rid of these phrases that create limiting perimeters of masculinity. We need to hold boys accountable for their damaging words and actions. We need to demand more from parents. We need to demand more from teachers. We need to normalise and prioritise love, compassion, and care in schooling environments. We need to teach there is no wrong way to be a gender.
48 Things Men Hear In A Lifetime (That Are Bad For Everyone) – The Huffington Post