What does being manly really mean to a man? Depending on who you ask, the idea of manliness varies a great deal. If you ask a boy, the definition of manliness would seem very similar to that of a superhero. For an adolescent male, manliness would be more akin to a warrior loaner figure that always wins in the face of adversity. For an adult male, however, the idea of being manly and the characteristics therein cannot be so easy to define. But when it comes to manliness in the eyes of a man, one thing is certain: It is as important as our DNA and, like our genetic code, it defines our identity as individuals and a gender.
To a man, being manly is almost as important as the air we breathe. Does this sound hard to believe? Consider this: From birth, every single human being is taught to follow a certain set of preconceived parameters that shape their identities. At the core, we’re taught by our parents to be good, caring, well-adjusted individuals. As time passes, gender becomes more important and the expectations therein become part of the teachings from elders and society as a whole.
“There are many expectations that men place on themselves that are borne from what we learn growing up and experience as adults” says Dale Curd, a therapist and men’s specialist. “Just about any man will tell you that they’re very aware of the pressures on them to be providers, protectors and leaders, even if society no longer dictates they necessarily fill those roles.” It is those very expectations that can spark an inevitable crossroads for all men. They either rise to fill those shoes or fall short, ultimately leaving many feeling horribly inadequate.
What happens when a man doesn’t feel like a man? A recent study conducted by the Journal of Adolescent Health discovered that when men don’t feel as though they measure up to the standard they have in their minds of what being a man is, they are more likely to commit violent acts on their partners, themselves and those around them. According to Curd, this is a common reaction: “When men, especially younger men, don’t think they measure up with their peers in something as personal and important to them as how manly they may feel and are perceived to be, fear, anger, then violence is a knee-jerk reaction.”
Researchers at the University of Wisconsin echoed that sentiment when they concluded that men overcompensate when they are angry in a study published in Social Psychology. Benoit Monin, the studies co-author, stated, “This research shows that men are under very strong prescriptive norms to be a certain way, and they work hard to correct the image they project when their masculinity is under threat.” The end result: Violence as an action to assert manliness.
A new study by researchers at the University of Georgia that was published in Injury Prevention delved a little deeper and found a troubling trend between men with perceived threatened masculinity and substance abuse, as well as violent behavior. In fact, it was the men with the lowest opinions of their own manliness that had the most DUIs and violent attacks with deadly weapons. Was their lack of self-worth (or, as they saw it, masculinity) the cause of the behavior? No direct link could made from this study, but experts seem to agree that while the cause may not have been exclusively due to a lack of masculinity, the perception certainly did contribute.
With the importance of being manly seemingly so high for men, and violence being a common reaction when they feel they don’t measure up to what society dictates, it becomes abundantly clear that controlling the anger and expectations we place on ourselves are of equal importance.
“As a gender, we can’t let an often antiquated list of expectations or peer pressure dictate our self-worth or set us off into fits of anger and rage,” says Curd. He added, “we have to embrace the good things about being men and focus on what we are, not what we aren’t.” With that in mind, being a man should never be about a lowest common denominator of gender roles. Being a man should be about constantly striving to do better, be better and live better.