Toxic masculinity is a lot like toxic shame. Shame is an appropriate emotional response to our behaving, well, shamefully. But there is a harmful, even pathological amount of shame when we feel it for merely being human or for simply being different from other humans. In the same way, masculinity is not a problem, but toxic masculinity certainly is.
What makes toxic masculinity toxic is when stereotypical, culturally appropriate masculine behaviors, beliefs, and perspectives are taken from something healthy and inspiring and made into something rigid and unnecessarily destructive. Men who take pride in their work, enjoy their newfound athleticism, or feel a deep pride and sense of meaning when making the necessary personal sacrifice to care for their families are not experiencing toxic masculinity. They are experiencing a joyful masculinity that blesses them and everyone around them.
Many of us had toxically masculine fathers who withheld love, approval, and acceptance. We can only imagine a past when our father was one of those heroic men who laid down their prejudices, their fears, and even their lives for the sake of those, including their gay children, who were more vulnerable than themselves. If your straight father got that memo, then you are truly blessed.
But we are making a big mistake if we think that toxic masculinity is only a problem in the heteronormative community. Toxic masculinity affects all of us, including the gay community. When normal masculine values like taking pride in my work become workaholism, that's toxic masculinity. When I see my body as ugly and myself without value because I'm not built like some stereotypical bodybuilder, that's toxic masculinity. When I allow a verbal disagreement to degenerate into a controlling, even physically abusive one in the name of "not taking his shit," that's toxic masculinity. Both gay and straight men struggle with these issues.
Sure, the heterosexual male community has to take credit for developing our toxic models of masculinity. But heterosexual origins doesn't mean the contagion can't (and hasn't) infected us all. This toxicity is a form of mental illness, and it hurts all of us. Toxic masculinity requires conformity at the risk of judgment, loud or silent.
Masculinity is usually defined in terms of the stereotypical values associated with it: courage, self-reliance, physical sacrifice. But any man who's had a great mom is quite aware that men have no monopoly on these values. Instead, consider this view of masculinity and see if it works for you: My masculinity is about my journey as a man and what I need to do to become my best self as a man.
Buying into this flexible, adaptive notion of manhood is liberating because ultimately, the final arbiter of my manhood and my masculinity is me, and by extension, the circle of men who help me become my best self. So, straight or gay, if I love wearing clothes that others find effeminate, finding the courage to put on that pair of black velvet Mezlans is part of my being my best, most courageous self. And what if, on the other hand, I live in a cosmopolitan town, but the real me prefers the (so dated) plaid wardrobe of hipsters? Then I can evaluate my manhood (and my self-respect) by seeing how willing I am to deal with critics, who ultimately criticize my wardrobe less than the man who chose it.
As Robert Bly noted, anger is the key to unlocking the door of masculinity. No, masculinity is not about becoming the angry, controlling guy. But escaping toxic masculinity is usually preceded by our angry self-loathing at the cardboard cutout of manhood we've become. A pathetic, needy search for the approval of others and my own shameful failure to be true to myself are the symptoms. We are rightfully horrified to see how the disease has bloomed in our lives.
Toxic masculinity says, “I must always conform to the standards of those around me.” Genuine masculinity calls me to be courageous and true to myself. Toxic masculinity says, “I have to fight with everyone who wants to fight.” Genuine masculinity teaches me that I can pick my battles and that both fighting and the manner of fighting are my choice and not a reaction that others control. Toxic masculinity tells me that if my partner is yelling at me, I need to strike back with the same toxicity. Authentic masculinity reorients me to how I want to live my life and how I might need to be man enough to even humbly admit, "Oops, I thought you were someone I could make a life with. Gotta go!"
Toxic masculinity assumes I know everything about me and what I need to be happy. So I post "No fems" on Grindr, contributing to another man's death by a thousand homophobic cuts. Real masculinity knows that we're all far more than just one thing. The universe may have prepped the most amazing person ever, especially for me — even if he isn't conforming to my past tastes. Real masculinity knows there's nothing to fear, hate, or judge in a body type or a personal style. Sincere masculinity frees me to internalize how I've made so many mistakes in my life so that I can let go of the arrogance that presumes I know all there is to know about me and that guy who's asking me out.
I may not know it, but the next super-fem guy or the next stereotypically masculine guy might be just what I need to grow as a man and to be my happiest self. Real masculinity frees us to become more informed, wiser, and more humble over time because real men are able to face the full truth about who they are. Toxicity requires that we run from our truth. Masculinity fearlessly embraces the diversity of choices around me with the same ease of slipping into a nice pair of velvet shoes.
Steven Ing is a psychotherapist, author, TEDx presenter, and sexuality expert, bringing reason, compassion, and understanding to the topic of human sexuality. He is on the web at StevenIng.com and tweets @steveningMFT.