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Soc 209-01 - Stereotyped Masculinity in the United States

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Hannah Kuhn

SOC 209-01

Professor Phillips

Stereotyped Masculinity in the United States

        When most people hear about others struggling with body image issues, they usually think of young women dealing with insecurity and pressure from society to look a certain way. However, the sad truth is that many young men in the U.S. also deal with mental health problems due to the stereotyped image of masculinity that only a small percentage of men fit into. These stereotypes and the glorified image of the ideal man have shown correlations to cases of depression, body dysmorphic disorder and eating disorders, as well as non-suicidal self-harm in college aged men. These implications not only show the growing rate of mental health problems in men but also add to the ongoing issue of sexism in the U.S. for both men and women. The push for excessively masculine traits affects mostly teenage and young adult men, sexual minority people, as well as women.

        Idealized masculinity implies that there are certain traits that make some men more appealing, according to American culture. In a 1976 conceptualization, Brannon theorized that there are four main traits or themes that fulfill the masculine gender stereotype. He titled these themes “No Sissy Stuff”, “The Big Wheel”, “The Sturdy Oak”, and “Give ‘em Hell”. These themes imply that real men should avoid all forms of femininity and conceal their emotions, be the main breadwinner and gain the respect of others. In addition, they should always present confidence and independence, and show a willingness to engage in violence and aggression (Vincent, Parrott and Peterson, 2011). There are also expectations for physical appearance, the main desired trait being muscularity. The large group of men that don’t adhere to these criteria often face insecurity and scrutiny. However, because of the reinforced idea that men should not show emotions or weakness, the thoughts of self-doubt and mediocrity are internalized.

        Research on the subject of masculine ideals and how they affect young men have shown an increase in mental health lapses and self-harm or maladaptive behaviors. For example, a case study on a 19 year old male caucasian college student explored repetitive reckless behavior which often caused significant injuries to the student. Some of these behaviors included jumping off of high ledges, punching walls, recreating dangerous TV stunts, and picking fights with strangers (Green and Jakupcak, 2016). These kinds of behaviors are not traditional self-harm actions such as cutting or burning of the skin, and the student reported that none of these behaviors were intended to cause harm to himself. However, the research conductors believe his actions to be dangerous coping mechanisms which align to traits known to be masculine such as violence, aggression, and suppression of emotions. Behaviors such as these also gave the student affirmation from his other male friends, making him more likely to continue his actions. The effects of masculine stereotypes also affect men in other circumstances, such as sexual minority men.

        Sexual minority men can be affected by masculine ideals similarly to the way that women are affected by stereotyped feminine ideals. They can feel objectification by other men, which is also due to the portrayal of “perfect” men in the media or other platforms such as pornography. It has been found that gay men often overemphasize the importance of physical attractiveness, which in turn can start the onset of psychological problems such as body dysmorphia and eating disorders. The Minority Stress Theory confirms this, explaining that “ heterosexist stigma and prejudice toward sexual minority people produces a toxic social environment may lead to mental health concerns” (Brewster, Sandil, Deblaere, Breslow, and Eklund, 2017). Some theorists also believe that gay men may feel the most pressure to conform to masculine ideals in order to “counterbalance their devalued sexual identity” (Brewster et al, 2017). Since gender roles are socially constructed, different groups of people may define masculinity in different ways. For example, a study analyzed gay men’s responses to a series of questions and concluded that many gay men associate masculinity with a strong, muscular build as well as sexual adventurism. (Sanchez, Greenberg, Ming Liu, Vilain, 2009) In order to increase their appeal and to appear more “tough” some men choose to use anabolic steroids and exercise excessively in order to increase muscularity (Parent and Bradstreet, 2017). It was also discovered that some gay men who adhere to traditional masculine ideals are also more likely to engage in risky behavior and have more issues in romantic relationships. For those who don’t adhere to these ideals, psychological stress, shame and hesitancy to get help are more prevalent. According to Sanchez et al. “ many men experience negative consequences when these ideals are threatened by feelings of insecurity, inadequacy, and inferiority”. These men are also likely to experience greater feelings of depression, anxiety, and body dissatisfaction due to the inability to live up to others’ expectations. Along with greater psychological problems, gay and bisexual men also report higher endorsement of disordered eating habits than straight men, which also correlates to dissatisfaction of body image (Vincent, Parrott and Peterson, 2011). Sexual minority men share a similar experience to young women, who face the effects of stereotyped gender roles everyday.

        It is easy to see how feminine gender roles affect women’s mental state and body image on a daily basis, however it is interesting to explore how male gender roles affect young women as well. Many men who want to appear ideally masculine show higher levels of dominance, aggression (generally and sexually) and controlling behaviors. The media often portrays these traits and men who view internalize these concepts. Men can easily use a female counterpart to appear or seem more masculine. This is seen extensively through pornography, where men are often dominating, violent, objectifying and degrading towards women. Previous research has established a link between sexual objectification and sexual aggression. Disturbingly, researchers discovered that “exposing men to sexually objectifying media clips made them less likely to express empathy toward a hypothetical rape victim” (Mikorski and Szymanski, 2017). Additionally, men who exhibit hostile masculinity are often perpetrators of sexual assault and violence. Porn today is readily accessible through the internet, which poses a high risk for boys to be exposed at an earlier age. Impressionable young minds often confuse fiction for fact, and some boys grow up believing that pornography portrays realistic sexual situations. This reinforces male expectations for women to be submissive and obedient to their partners. Previous studies have confirmed this and “have established the correlation between adherence to gender norms and sexual prejudice” (Vincent, Parrott, and Peterson, 2011). It is believed that women who have experienced sexual objectification are at a higher risk for facing internalized objectification, body shame, eating disorders, depression, as well as post-traumatic stress symptoms (Mikorski and Szymanski, 2017). It is safe to say that adhering to gender norms can have a negative effect for people of any gender or sexual orientation.

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