Wednesday 15 November 2023

Big Boys Cry Too: Challenging Toxic Masculinity for International Men's Day

Be quiet, big boys don’t cry.

— Eric Stewart / Graham Gouldman. “I’m Not in Love.”

Observed each year on November 19, International Men’s Day (IMD) celebrates the positive value men bring to the world, their families and communities. It highlights positive role models and raises awareness of men’s well-being, including mental health. It’s also an opportunity to face up to some of the less wholesome aspects of men’s lives and behaviour. For IMD 2022 I explored what being a man means to me. This year, I’m taking a look at toxic masculinity, which affects not only men but also our families, relationships, and wider society.

What Is Toxic Masculinity?

Let’s start with what toxic masculinity isn’t. It’s not an attack on men, men-shaming, blaming men for all the ills in the world, or denying the rich and varied contributions men make in all walks of life. It doesn’t claim that being male or masculine is toxic or unhealthy. Rather, it highlights some attitudes and behaviours conventionally associated with being a “real man” which are demonstrably hurtful and harmful. Here’s a definition by Mental Health UK.

Toxic masculinity is a term describing certain unhelpful assumptions about what it means to be “masculine” such as being stoic, not showing emotions, or being outwardly violent and “tough” versus being “soft” and emotional. These perceptions can be perpetuated by the media, which portrays men showing vulnerability as “weak” and something to be mocked.

Attitudes such as these have been passed down from generation to generation and remain deeply ingrained in gender expectations and stereotypes. We see them perpetuated by the media and social media, in movies and on television, and within social settings including our co-workers, families, and friends. They’re so commonplace that many people see them as completely normal and acceptable. When you hear “boys will be boys” as an excuse for aggressive or inappropriate behaviour, that’s toxic masculinity at work.

Toxic masculinity manifests in many different ways, including the repression of emotions, dominance, aggression, and inflexible ideas about what it means to be a man or boy. It serves as a foundation for mysogyny; inappropriate behaviour; and physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. It underlies extremist ideologies including male supremacy and the incel (“involuntary celibate”) sub-culture.

In a less extreme but nonetheless harmful context, toxic masculinity asserts that it’s unmanly to express emotions, to cry, to show sadness, admit we’re feeling depressed or anxious, or demonstrate vulnerability in any way. My father lived with physical illness and pain all his adult life, but he kept his feelings and emotions close to his chest. I can only recall him crying once in my presence. As I wrote in an open letter to my father decades after he died: “You never let me see it’s okay to cry and be weak sometimes, and share how you’re feeling when life is really shitty. I have no idea how you felt about your life. Or your death.” That open letter was challenged by a friend who called out my use of “weak” in that context. She felt I was still perpetuating the idea that crying is a sign of weakness. Her challenge led me to explore the idea of weakness itself. I shared some of the healthy male role models I’ve known in my life in Being a Man: Exploring My Gender Identity.

There’s nothing wrong with competition, with striving to excel, or wanting to improve one’s standing. But the idea that we need to win at all costs, that losing means failure, and that failure is unacceptable, drives unhealthy competitiveness and a lack of compassion and understanding for others. The never-ending urge to succeed, to beat those around us, to push ourselves on relentlessly, can lead to problems in our relationships, and stress-related health issues.

The assertion that certain careers, jobs, or roles are specifically and uniquely masculine or “man-like” is as toxic as the idea that certain roles are specifically and only for women. Anyone not conforming to these roles and expectations, whether from choice or otherwise, faces significant push-back, and discrimination which can affect our sense of identity, self-esteem, and well-being.

What’s the Problem?

Having set out what toxic masculinity is (and isn’t) let’s explore it’s impact in more detail. Why does this matter?

It can be hard for men to talk about how we’re feeling or allow ourselves to be vulnerable in front of others when we’ve been raised on the idea that it’s unmanly to express and explore our emotions. Not everyone feels the need to share how they’re feeling all the time, but wanting to open up and feeling unable to do so is a different thing entirely. Bottling things up with no healthy means of release can manifest as anxiety, depression, or other mental health conditions. Toxic masculinity discourages men from asking for help or using healthy coping strategies. In their absence, men may turn to less healthy options such as alcohol or drugs. Pent up stresses may also be released in violence, aggression, and other negative behaviours.

The impact of toxic masculinity can be far-reaching. The impulse to exemplify macho “real man” behaviours and roles can place enormous strain on relationships with colleagues, partners, and family. Addressing such interpersonal issues is hindered by a stifled emotional vocabulary. This isn’t to excuse unreasonable or toxic behaviour, but it’s hard to discuss things or address the consequences of our behaviour when we have little experience of talking maturely about our feelings, fears, and motivations.

At work and in the home, stereotypes that view men as dominant and women as submissive perpetuate and reinforce inequality, limit opportunities, and stifle the aspirations of all of us. This is especially insidious in the family, where fathers and other male figures may unconsciously pass unhealthy attitudes and behaviours to the next generation.

What Can We Do About It?

As deeply entrenched as some of these ideas are, there’s plenty we can do to challenge toxic masculinity and work towards a more tolerant, equal, and healthy society for all.

It’s vital that men are encouraged to speak, in public and privately, about their feelings, fears, motivations, and problems. There are signs this is starting to happen but there remains a great deal of societal pressure to “man up” and deal with things internally. There’s an important role for media, film, and television in modeling healthy behaviours, but it falls to each of us to encourage sharing without judgment or recrimination.

More generally, we need to move away from narrow concepts of what it means to be a man. People of all genders and none exhibit a wide spectrum of abilities, qualities, and natures. Allowing each other to be who we are without being forced into restrictive gender stereotypes, benefits everyone. Promoting a culture where we feel safe, whether we “fit the mould” or not, builds genuine and stronger relationships and connections. It’s something I’m proud to say happens in my workplace. This doesn’t happen overnight or automatically. That it does is testament to the willingness and determination of people at all levels in the organisation to foster a working environment where people feel able to be and express who they are.

Campaigns such as International Men’s Day and Movember promote mental health awareness for men and counter the idea that admitting we’re struggling or need support is unbecoming, weak, or “unmanly.” Being open about how we feel helps counter the stigma traditionally associated with mental illness and encourages men to seek professional help. Online and in person support groups and communities such as Andy’s Man Club, MANUP?, and Mantality provide safe spaces in which men can share their experiences and support one another.

Starting this International Men’s Day, let’s pledge to:

  • Model attitudes and behaviours that counter toxic gender stereotypes.
  • Examine our own attitudes and behaviours. It’s too easy to disown responsibility for perpetuating, consciously or otherwise, unhealthy stereotypes.
  • Challenge toxic masculinity whenever and wherever we encounter it, whether in person or online. Calling out ignorant, outdated, and inappropriate behaviour empowers others to do the same.
  • Help create a culture in our workplaces and other environments where people feel safe and confident discussing their emotions and mental health.
  • Support and signpost groups and organisations that promote men’s mental health and work to improve access to mental health services.

Toxic masculinity is deeply embedded in society and breaking free from it isn’t easy, on either a personal or collective level. That said, it’s a journey worth making because the rewards benefit us all.

Further Reading

For more on International Men’s Day check out the official IMD website, International Men’s Day UK, and the Men’s Health Forum. For more general resources and information regarding men’s mental health Mental Health UK is a great starting point.

We have a number of related blog posts here at Gum on My Shoe.

Our resources page includes links to a range of crisis lines, support organisations, training resources, and books.

Over to You

In this post I’ve described what toxic masculinity is and its impact on men, our relationships, families, and wider society. What are your thoughts about toxic masculinity? Has it affected you personally? Have you felt pressured to behave in certain ways because of gender stereotypes which don’t align with how you think and feel? Perhaps you believe too much is being made of it or that men are under attack. Fran and I would love to hear from you, either in the comments below or via our contact page.


Photo by Tom Pumford at Unsplash.



  1. This was an interesting breakdown of toxic masculinity; it's certainly something that is as negative and damaging to the men who exhibit it as it is to those on the receiving end of it. This was useful to read—thanks for sharing!

    1. Hi Molly, I'm happy you found it interesting. Thank you so much for taking the time to read it and leave a comment.
      — Marty

  2. I think if more men felt the freedom to feel what they truly feel and think, that would be good for society at large. Honestly, as a straight woman, that would be my preference. It’s really challenging to find men like that around my neck of the woods and I’m not exaggerating. I think the pressure to achieve is real for both sexes. For instance Marty can get done more in a day than I can. I am commonly sleep deprived and even the seemingly simple things that people do, I can only do so much of. So I think men and women need to work together to find a balance there. I also find that men who won’t address their issues in therapy for this exact reason, could gain ground both professionally and personally by embracing their fear and learning how to communicate more effectively with their loved ones. Agreement all the time is simply not realistic. And men and women need to learn how to communicate by using “ I feel statements” I know that’s something I need to work on. I don’t know if a patriarchal society makes this worse. Because that’s where we are still. There needs to be a shift and maybe part of that shift is through therapy, and encouraging men to let them be who they are at their core.

    1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts in response to my blog post. It always means a lot when someone takes time to do that.

      I'm sure you're right that men would benefit from being more open to taking advantage of therapy to explore and work through their (our) issues. It's not something I've ever considered doing, to be honest. There may be a cultural aspect to that, with therapy (perhaps?) less prevalent here in the UK than the US, for men and women.

      I do believe there's value in being open to looking at ourselves, our faults and issues, and addressing them honestly, in whatever ways work for the person. For me that's mainly through my writing (blogging and personal journal) and talking with friends and colleagues. Not that these are a replacement for therapy, but they work for me pretty well.

      I also totally agree about the importance of good and genuine communication.

      Thanks again.
      — Marty