Let's do a little experiment: Close your eyes and think of the manliest guy you can. Chances are he's physically strong, successful at nearly everything he does, laughs in the face of fear and danger, and doesn't succumb to his emotions.
These traits can all be found inside the "man box," a concept popularized by educator and activist Paul Kivel and the Oakland Men's Project in the 1980s — and explored in a 2017 study of young men's perceptions of masculinity in the U.S., U.K. and Mexico. The "man box" refers to the strict expectations boys learn they must adopt in their behavior, aspirations and perspective to be considered a "real man."
Just as competitiveness is often seen as more masculine than compassion, or "thinking for yourself" is seen as more macho than seeking advice, American boys are taught that certain behaviors make you more manly — and others make you seem more feminine and "weak."
But that interpretation of masculinity isn't universal across cultures. And by encouraging boys to repress natural emotions and measure themselves against an arbitrary standard, society limits the way masculine folks believe they can move through the world. In reality, the "man box" is a myth that breeds insecurity. Being a man has nothing to do with how strong you are, how much money you make, or how attractive you are.
Life Kit spoke with educators and authors about the ways that harmful and limiting expectations of masculinity can warp our identities — and be perpetuated by all of us. Here are some tips for how you or the masculine people in your life can begin to redefine masculinity on your own terms.
Grapple with your values
The first step for coming to a healthy understanding of masculinity? Make sure you aren't forgoing your own values in favor of fitting in.
That 2017 study of men ages 18 to 30 found that 59% of respondents agreed that men "should act strong even if they feel scared or nervous inside." Young American men who strongly identified with "traditional" masculine values were nearly 4 times as likely to have held back from doing something to avoid appearing girly or gay — and 2.4 times more likely to have had recent suicidal thoughts.
The elephant in the room, though, is that a lot of men aren't comfortable questioning the confines of the "man box" for fear that it puts their own masculinity into question. That aversion has another name.
"That's about fragile masculinity, right?" says journalist and author Thomas Page McBee, who's reported extensively about masculinity. "It's about feeling so insecure and so unsure and so anxious about your place in the world that even asking a question about it is threatening to you and everyone around you."
Wrestle with your values however you see fit: Make a list, go see a therapist, or confide in a friend. This is mostly internal work, but it also has to do with encouraging your friends to question their own assumptions and making space for people to explore their identities.
Notice when anger is replacing other emotions
Masculinity is, in many ways, a performance — and emotional suppression is at the center of the act. Frederick Joseph, an activist and bestselling author of books like The Black Friend and Patriarchy Blues: Reflections on Manhood, says much of that programming happens at an early age.
"You oftentimes see parents or people in general telling ... boys you shouldn't cry. Why is that? Crying is a natural emotion," says Joseph. "So let's say you scrape your knee. Instead of crying, now you're getting angry ..., let's say you do poorly on a test. Instead of navigating how you feel truly about it, you're tapping into anger."
Anger supplanting other emotions like fear, grief, or frustration is something that came up again and again reporting this story. If you find yourself constantly feeling angry or you're eager to throw a punch when you might be able to talk it out, try sitting with your anger for a moment. Interrogate whether there's another emotion — like sadness, frustration or fear — underneath.
Try to meet people where they're at
Studies suggest the stigma around mental health makes men hesitant to seek help or open up about their feelings. And sometimes, that hesitancy can turn into defensiveness. Plenty of us have had moments where we swear we're fine when we aren't.
So if you're seeking to have some tough conversations with the men or boys in your life, don't be deterred by any walls they might put up. People need to feel safe in order to open up, and will be far less likely to self-reflect or hear you out if they feel attacked. Try to focus the conversation on the damage their behavior is causing rather than personal flaws.
Jesus "Chucho" Ruiz Vai Sevoi – Eudeve (Opata) Tlamanalcah is a facilitator for A Call to Men, a nonprofit promoting healthier manhood through trainings and educational resources. In Ruiz's experience, helping young men and boys understand the constraints the "man box" places on their emotions takes some salesmanship.
"A lot of the initial pushback is like, 'How is this going to keep me safe? Because I hear you, but if I do those things, I'm going to get made fun of or I'm going to be bullied," says Ruiz.
"Make it relatable and bring it back to just health and healing and how that's also connected to liberation — the freedom of not having to perform all the time," says Ruiz.
Rethink your role models – and potential to be one
Looking up to somebody is a natural thing to do. But part of embodying your own values is making sure that your role models do, too.
There are countless "alpha male" influencers who are idolized by young men and boys around the world, proselytizing about what it means to be a "real man." But their authority is often built on flimsy ground.
It's important to remember that we all have the opportunity to model the masculinity we want to see more of in the world.
"The first sort of half of that is about reflection in my opinion and investigation and noticing your own behavior and making different choices," says McBee.
"And then maybe once you do that organically, I really think that the next steps are about what grows out of that."
Hear more on defining masculinity in your own terms in the podcast episode at the top of the page or on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.
The audio portion of this episode was produced by Andee Tagle and edited by Meghan Keane. The digital story was edited by Danielle Nett. Our visuals editor is Beck Harlan. We'd love to hear from you. Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us at LifeKit@npr.org. You can sign up for our newsletter here.