Questioning masculinity can make you happier and smarter

The data is clear: rigid ideas about gender can be terrible for your mental health.

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Mad Men's Don Draper, often depicted as a stereotype of masculine norms
photo credit: Lionsgate Television

Dan Cassino’s son’s favorite color used to be purple.

“He wanted purple cupcakes for his birthday,” Cassino tells Inverse. “Purple everything.”

But then one day, the five-year-old came home from kindergarten and announced purple was no longer his favorite color. Jake, six years old and the biggest kid in the class, had told Cassino’s son “purple was a girl color.”

Cassino, a professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University, knew what he was hearing: the first shades of hegemonic masculinity.

Hegemonic masculinity is the idea that stereotypically male traits embody a masculine cultural ideal. It perpetuates the fiction that men should maintain dominant social roles over women (and in turn, all other groups considered to be feminine).

It’s a social pattern that Cassino has explored in his work, including a forthcoming book he penned with his wife, Gender Threat: American Masculinity in the Face of Change. His studies, as well as his experience, suggest it is often peers who guide the development and upkeep of hegemonic masculinity — whether it be through bullying or more benign influence.

Early on, boys learn from friends and classmates which colors are “girl colors,” and thus, how men are “supposed” to behave. What’s often overlooked is that it is possible to unlearn this hegemonic masculinity as well.

Cassino tells this story to illustrate an important point: Deeply ingrained beliefs men have about gender, and by the same token, their own gender identity don’t always come from well-informed sources.

As children, we were susceptible to peer pressure, social norms, and stereotypes — this carries into adulthood. Because of that reality, it’s worth evaluating what you think about masculinity and where those beliefs come from.

“Maturing is a process.”

Challenging those beliefs can do wonders for your mental health. The effect of hegemonic masculinity on men’s mental health is so profound that in 2019, the American Psychological Association issued special guidelines for mental health professionals who work with men and boys.

“Once you’re old enough to reflect on your own values and behavior, it’s important to separate out the two, and start to focus on what your own values are, rather than the façade you’ve had to put up,” Cassino says.

How to challenge your masculinity

Hegemonic masculinity is par for the course in the early seasons of Mad Men.


How do you know if it’s time to give your definition of masculinity an audit? David Reiss, a psychiatrist and trauma expert, tells Inverse that one sign is if your idea of masculinity hasn’t changed in a while.

“No matter how constitutionally healthy one is, no matter how healthy one’s family environment is, no one is born mature,” Reiss says. “Maturing is a process.”

“If you are not questioning and changing your points of view; if you are not questioning supposed authority and accepted norms — you are not maturing.”

Here are some questions Reiss suggests asking yourself:

1. Is my sense of who I am based upon:

  • my inner experience of myself?
  • how others see me?
  • how others should see me?

2. Am I willing to learn things about myself through new interactions, experiences, and self-reflection that may lead me to see myself from a different perspective?

3. Am I willing to embrace what I honestly see as healthy while being able to acknowledge and try to change what I really realize may be toxic?

4. Can I take pride in identifying my shortcomings and strive to change, or do I rationalize that I don’t need to change?

If you’re doing the latter, it may be an attempt to spare yourself feeling shame, Reiss says.

“It’s like finding out what sex is purely from pornography.”

Cassino stresses the need to both be compassionate with yourself and honestly evaluating what you’re comfortable with. This is his perspective “as a person” — he’s a researcher, not a mental health professional.

“You have to acknowledge that there is, on one hand, what you want to do, how you want to act, and, on the other, the ways that you have to change your behavior to fit in, to gain the approval of others,” Cassino says.

At some point, certainly in middle school but possibly before, masculinity becomes performative, Cassino says. You act the way your friends are acting because that must be what’s expected. If it wasn’t, why would they be acting like that?

If you’re a young boy trying to figure out what it means to be a man, you don’t know what’s performative and what’s based on actual gender identity, he adds.

As a result, it’s easy to internalize extremes as norms.

Cassino has an apt analogy: “It’s like finding out what sex is purely from pornography. That's not really what sex is. You’re only getting the super-heightened version.”

How peers influence gender identity

A high school football team before a game.

MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images

An example of negative peer group influence is what Reiss calls “toxic competition.” This means the drive to win at all costs, regardless of who gets hurt. It may start on the playground and end up as a template for adult relationships.

Alex, a 34-year-old in Oregon, tells Inverse he got a taste of “toxic competition” when he joined the freshman football team at high school.

“One of our coaches would try to pump up the players during practice,” he says. “During one practice, [the coach] said that anyone who hit an opposing player hard enough to make them cry would get a free meal from him as a reward.”

Alex, who asked that Inverse not use his real name for privacy reasons, was uncomfortable with the coach’s statement.

“But the rest of the team loved it — or at least acted like they did,” Alex says. “I think, to them, masculinity was about how much damage they could ultimately inflict on someone else to prove their strength and toughness.”

Peers can also have a positive impact by encouraging flexible thinking.

“If a peer group embraces compassion and cooperation,” Reiss says, “that becomes a formative template for relationships.”

This is what Alex found when he quit football and got involved in theater. While the topic of masculinity never came up, it felt different when he was with them.

“It felt like a bunch of people who enjoyed expressing the quirky aspects of their personalities, and would encourage others to do the same,” he says.

“I’ve never really considered it from a masculinity perspective before, but chest-thumping and hyper aggression were completely foreign concepts to that entire group.”

The mental health benefits of challenging your assumptions

Cultural definitions of masculinity and femininity can be constricting. Challenging those definitions and developing a more flexible standard is a mental health gift. Studies suggest men who have “traditional assumptions about masculinity” are more likely to be depressed than men who don’t.

“The peer group I cultivated by changing my social surroundings was something that I realized pretty quickly was a huge benefit to my emotional and mental health,” Alex says. “The kinds of people I met there are the types of people I associate with today.”

By leaving a peer group that didn’t feel right, Alex could flourish and better understand what he wanted for his life, including the types of people he wanted in it.

Consider Cassino’s porn analogy. If your whole conception of sex is based on pornography, you’re going to be pretty disappointed anytime you go to a professor’s office hours. Or order a pizza. Or go to the library.

But if you have a broader and more realistic conception of sex? It’s a more satisfying way to live.

Applying that same kind of broader understanding to masculinity can open up a world of possibilities, not just for your mental health, but your life as a whole — making you happier and more satisfied.

DETOX is an Inverse series that answers the biggest questions about men’s mental health.

If you have suggestions for a future Detox column, email katie.macbride [at] inverse [dot] com with “Detox” in the subject line.

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