Understanding how masculinity impacts men’s health

4 min

When you think about masculinity you might imagine a certain muscled body type or dominant kind of behaviour, but the characteristics we’ve come to associate with men go beyond what we look like or how we interact with others. Masculine norms can impact our health in ways you might not realise.

Some of these beliefs, such as condoning the use of violence, are always wrong but others, such as the belief men must act strong, can be useful in some contexts but lead to problems in others.

“A fireman needs to be stoic, self-reliant, strong, and powerful in the face of the fire, but when he comes down, he needs to be vulnerable and emotionally communicative to overcome trauma,” says Dr Zac Seidler, psychologist, Director of Mental health training at Movember, and Senior Research Fellow with Orygen.

“If we just have a one-size-fits-all, ‘I am this bloke in all set settings’ approach, it really ends very badly and that’s what we witness all the time.”

How do masculine stereotypes affect health?

Many men feel pressure to behave in ways that match masculine stereotypes and hide parts of themselves that don’t fit the mould. This can negatively impact their health in a variety of ways – affecting everything from sunscreen use[1] to whether you’ll go to the doctor when you have a concerning symptom.

These are just a few of the ways that masculine norms contribute to Australian men’s shorter life expectancy and greater burden of preventable disease[4].

However, some masculine norms such as competitiveness and achievement can help men keep their health in check[5] and tapping into these attributes could encourage men to prioritise their health[6]. Rather than focusing on one dominant idea of masculinity, exploring and celebrating the breadth of what men can be is critical for improving their health.

“We use the term ‘masculinities’ because within each man is a constantly evolving, changing, contradictory experience of masculinity that, depending on where you are, who you’re talking to, who you’re relating with, will shift,” Dr Seidler says.

“It’s really important people start to embrace that, because it’s when they rebel against that other version of themself, the tension comes about, and the feelings of being deficient, or broken, or not living up to something is really problematic. If we keep striving for one way of being, everybody will fail.”

What needs to change?

Change needs to happen at the systemic, community, organisational and individual levels to transform the attitudes, behaviours, norms, and structures associated with harmful masculine stereotypes. These efforts need to build on men’s positive health practices and the importance of their wellbeing, rather than paint masculinity as inherently problematic or ‘toxic’.

“The term ‘toxic masculinity’ is fundamentally flawed. It has no basis in science and it’s really problematic,” Dr Seidler says. “There are many facets of manhood that, when applied incorrectly, are toxic, but they are toxic behaviours, not toxic traits.”

This Men’s Health Week we’re breaking the barriers to better health for men. You can learn more here.


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