Masculinity can be defined on your own terms. Here's how to start : Life Kit The "man box" refers to the strict expectations we learn about what it means to be a "real man." In reality, those rules limit the way masculine folks believe they can move through the world. On this episode of Life Kit, stories and tips to break free of the "man box."

Defining masculinity on your own terms

Defining masculinity on your own terms

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Tara Moore/Getty Images
A diptych of two black and white photos of men turned into colorful collages with their faces replaced by bright colors and shapes, touching on the idea of defining masculinity and breaking out of the &#039;man box.&#039;
Tara Moore/Getty Images

Hear more on this topic in the Life Kit episode at the top of the page or on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

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.' The term was developed by researcher Paul Kivel and the Oakland Men's Project in the 1980s while teaching Bay Area high schoolers about masculine and feminine socialization.

Just as competitiveness is often seen as more masculine than compassion is, or "thinking for yourself" is thought to be more macho than seeking advice, boys are taught that certain behaviors make you more manly — and others make you seem more feminine and "weak."

But those behaviors — like so many that fall outside the man box — are what make us human. By encouraging boys to repress natural human responses to life's challenges and making them measure themselves up to an impossible standard, we've limited the way masculine-identifying 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 whether women like you or not.

If you want to start to define masculinity for yourself or have some tough conversations with the people in your life about masculine norms, here's some advice to get started:

  1. Grapple with your values as they relate to masculinity — make a list, talk to a friend, see a therapist, or reflect however feels best for you — and make sure how you're showing up in the world is in alignment with them. 
  2. Masculinity, in many ways, is a performance. So if you're getting angry when you're really sad or embarrassed, take a second to dig deeper and think about what emotions you might be covering up.
  3. If you want to start a conversation about masculinity, it's important to meet people where they're at, find connections and be patient with yourself. Try to let your guard down and be a little more vulnerable. 
  4. Seek out role models who exemplify the kind of masculinity you want to see in the world, and emulate them.

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 You can sign up for our newsletter here.