Let’s do a little experiment: Close your eyes and think of the manliest guy you can. Chances are he’s physically strong, successful at nearly everything he does, laughs in the face of fear and danger, and doesn’t succumb to his emotions.
These traits can all be found inside the “man box,” a concept popularized by educator and activist Paul Kivel and the Oakland Men’s Project in the 1980s — and explored in a 2017 study of young men’s perceptions of masculinity in the U.S., U.K. and Mexico. The “man box” refers to the strict expectations boys learn they must adopt in their behavior, aspirations and perspective to be considered a “real man.”
Just as competitiveness is often seen as more masculine than compassion, or “thinking for yourself” is seen as more macho than seeking advice, American boys are taught that certain behaviors make you more manly — and others make you seem more feminine and “weak.”
But that interpretation of masculinity isn’t universal across cultures. And by encouraging boys to repress natural emotions and measure themselves against an arbitrary standard, society limits the way masculine folks believe they can move through the world. In reality, the “man box” is a myth that breeds insecurity. Being a man has nothing to do with how strong you are, how much money you make, or how attractive you are.
Life Kit spoke with educators and authors about the ways that harmful and limiting expectations of masculinity can warp our identities — and be perpetuated by all of us. Here are some tips for how you or the masculine people in your life can begin to redefine masculinity on your own terms.