Masculinity is a hot topic these days, but it is also difficult to adequately define, leaving many people wondering — what is healthy masculinity?

Largely, it depends on who you ask, but to better understand healthy masculinity, it is helpful to start by looking at two key components: Why it’s important, and how masculinity becomes toxic.

Why Healthy Masculinity?

Understanding what healthy masculinity can be is important on both individual and societal levels. Men, across backgrounds, die more prematurely than women. Men, more so than women, also tend to struggle with maintaining meaningful friendships throughout their lives.

When you combine life stress with less support, as well as less health-seeking behaviors (another trait more prevalent in males) you get a large portion of men who are less healthy than they ought to be. Toxic masculinity is the main culprit ensuring that men do not make the necessary adjustments to live healthier lives, often for fear of being perceived as feminine or weak.

What is Toxic Masculinity?

There are a lot of definitions of toxic masculinity floating around. This contributes to the confusion around the term — a concept that is in and of itself is complicated — and about how best to meaningfully confront it. In its simplest of terms, toxic masculinity is a system that reinforces male superiority and often uses intimidation, violence, and abuse to maintain that sense of power.

For example, women make up a little bit more than half of the world’s population, but in many countries (developed and developing) women make less money than men while doing similar jobs. Sexism and toxic masculinity are what keep this wage gap in place despite evidence that, in similar positions, men and women achieve similar results.

But toxic masculinity doesn’t just negatively impact women and girls, it hurts men and boys as well. Limiting male emotional awareness and expression creates and exacerbates mental health issues, while reinforcing the social isolation men endure. These hardships are inflicted under the guise of independence and strength — qualities championed by a toxically rigid cultural idea of masculinity, which, sad to say, many men help to enforce. This has dire health consequences. Men are 3.5 times more likely to die by suicide than women. Men also commit 90% of homicides in the United States.

Toxic masculinity keeps men in emotional prison, leaving them without the ability to gain deep knowledge of themselves or forge intimate relationships with others. It allows men to place less value on the “other,” to the point of dehumanization, treating those who are different as if they have less personal worth if they don’t fit into these inflexible models of accepted masculinity.

What Healthy Masculinity Looks Like

By contrast, healthy masculinity allows men to experience a fuller range of emotions and share their feelings with others. It allows men to cry without shame and to experience deep love and affection, both socially and romantically.

Healthy masculinity also allows men to:

  • Accept their bodies even if they’re not perfectly muscular and sculpted
  • Treat women and girls with the same thoughtfulness with which they like to be treated
  • Use their privilege as men to advocate for women and others
  • Create and maintain friendships
  • Develop as emotionally available caretakers and parents to both boys and girls
  • Accept that anger is no excuse for violence or abuse
  • Experience and enjoy touch and affection with other men
  • Create instead of destroy

Healthy masculinity means being honest with oneself about your own feelings, needs and desires. It also means treating all others with the kindness and respect that you deserve. Healthy masculinity means not using your size, strength, or power to get what you want from others.

No men are exempt from the insidious nature of toxic masculinity. In order to learn what healthy masculinity is and truly put it into daily practice, we must engage in a process of intentional self-growth and commitment to change. With that kind of focus, healthy masculinity is definitely possible. Healthy masculinity is better for men and the cultures they inhabit.

Originally published on Talkspace.

More from Talkspace:

How to Be Brave About Your Mental Health

Why You Should Celebrate Small Wins

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