‘Toxic masculinity’ can be damaging to a man’s health, happiness

EAST LANSING, Mich. — Is the traditional image and perception of being male preventing some from seeking the help they need? Sociologists in a recent study analyzed whether hegemonic ideals of masculinity, or toxic masculinity, can cause social isolation in older men. The research shows this mentality can lead to problems with health, well-being, and general happiness.

Toxic masculinity comes in many forms, but most social scientists identify it as attitudes and beliefs that create unrealistic and non-inclusive ideals of what being a “real man” is. They add the belief that men have to be strong, tough, and independent is detrimental to men’s social lives later in life.

“When we age, there are certain ways that we can ensure we maintain our health and well-being,” says Stef Shuster, a Michigan State University sociologist, in a media release. “Having people with whom we can talk about personal matters is a form of social support. If people only have one person that they can share information with, or sometimes even no people, they don’t really have an opportunity to reflect and share.”

How toxic masculinity can lead to social isolation

Shuster adds that when serious problems arise, such as health or financial issues, people who don’t have anyone to help them or simply to share their problems with are more susceptible to mental health problems.

Many aging adults of all genders experience social isolation because of retirement, losing a spouse, or moving to a new home. Study authors contend that older men who buy into toxic masculinity ideals often become further isolated as they age.

The study analyzes almost 5,500 American men and women from the Wisconsin Longitudinal Survey. It’s one of the first studies to assume masculinity is a spectrum and not a simple binary category. The results show that men who subscribe to the tenets of toxic masculinity become more secluded when they’re older.

“The very premise of hegemonic masculinity in some ways is based on the idea of isolation because it’s about being autonomous and not showing a lot of emotion. It’s hard to develop friendships living this way,” the MSU researcher adds.

It can be hard to change our ways

Baby boomers are also facing challenges in sustaining healthy friendships as they approach retirement. The researchers suggest social isolation can be prevented by embracing a different way of thinking about masculinity; one that doesn’t preach toughness and independence as the only way to be a “real man.” Shuster says that the higher men score on toxic masculinity scales, the less likely they are to seek help from others.

“Can you change someone’s ideological principles? I think that’s a harder sell than trying to get people to believe that social isolation is incredibly detrimental to their health,” Shuster explains.

“It’s about learning how to offer tools for people not to be socially isolated and helping them develop the capacity to recognize that all of the ways they have upheld being so-called ‘real men’ is not going to work for them as they age.”

The study was published in the journal Sex Roles.

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