To All the Boys I’ve Consoled Before: It’s Okay to Not Be Okay

Toxic masculinity is creating a crisis among young boys, teenage guys, and adult men. We need a culture shift.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

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By Jaden Bae

Bzzzzzzz. An electrifying pulse from the back pocket of my jeans jolted me awake. Instinctively, I reached behind me to retrieve my phone, and to my shock, the notification was coming from Apple Pay. A familiar name had sent me $10. The buzz was followed just a few seconds later by a text message: “for my overworked, underpaid 24/7 therapist sry about that.”

Once, one of my guy friends was told, “Man up, don’t be a crybaby,” even though he was grieving the loss of his grandparent. Another time, I was told by a friend that he really didn’t want to cry because he was “really, really embarrassed.”

These examples are what toxic masculinity cultivates: a set of behaviors that arise when we teach boys that they should suppress their emotions, that they should be “tough and stoic” all the time, and that anything else is “feminine and weak.”

When we encourage young boys to embrace this incredibly narrow set of beliefs and behaviors, we restrict their capacity to embrace the full extent of the human experience. The characteristics many view as “weak” or “too feminine” are the best of what humanity has to offer: empathy, compassion, and sensitivity. Our society teaches boys that in order to fully encompass what it means to be a man, they must wear a facade of emotional repression. In today’s culture, young boys, teenage guys, and adult men feel the need to live up to a hyper-masculine ideal that is unsustainable and unhealthy. We’ve also cultivated a toxic culture that vilifies emotions.

Much of the social pressure to aspire to be a hyper-masculine figure comes from the strict social norms that have become entrenched within our society. These norms tell us that men must be the breadwinners and moneymakers, while women must be the housewives and child rearers. These social norms are a two-way street, contributing to the sexism and misogyny women face and the standard of hyper-masculinity men must live up to. Those who critique the current wave of feminism tend to want to meet these unreachable standards of what being a man entails while struggling with insecurities that result from these unattainable standards. Modern-day feminism addresses and dismantles the unrealistic expectations of what it means to be a manly man. This facet tends to be overlooked but should be noted in critiques of the feminist movement. Contrary to what many claim, feminism does not seek to emasculate men or make men weak. It encourages them to embrace emotional complexity instead of using facades of hypermasculinity, stoicism, and aggression.

On social media, content about being an “alpha male” has become increasingly prevalent. Figures like Andrew Tate, who embody hyper-masculine ideas and revel in misogyny, have become more and more popular. Tate’s content is specifically focused on leading an “alpha male” lifestyle, encouraging misogynistic behavior, and using hateful speech. Exposing young, impressionable boys to this content is deeply problematic and dangerous. Instead of stepping away from the ideal of aggression and hypermasculinity, young boys only become more and more captivated by it, and the goal of attaining it becomes further ingrained in their minds.

The reality is that this issue presents itself in other areas as well. There’s currently a crisis in which boys and men are struggling in education, the workplace, and even their homes. It starts when they’re young: across economically developed countries, boys are 50 percent more likely than girls to fail at key school subjects such as science, reading, and math. As they grow older, we only see more and more issues manifest. Men are three times more likely to die from drug overdose, alcohol abuse, or suicide than women. Additionally, 27 percent of children in the US did not live with their fathers in 2010. The participation rate of men in the workforce has fallen dramatically—ten million prime-age American men are out of the labor market. The statistics are staggering, but they only suggest that for a man who can’t “be a man” and meet the ideal our culture encourages, ambition disappears, and demoralization and isolation rise.

Our passivity and inaction in addressing toxic masculinity make us complicit in its existence and perpetuation. We can and we must do more and do better. If we truly want to see our society progress, we need a shift in our culture and social values. Without this change, no amount of legislation, speeches, or policy proposals will solve the issue. There is no quick fix to a problem we’ve spent years, if not decades, having conversations over. The solution is simple in its terminology, but its execution is more difficult: we need adult men who are more openly vulnerable as role models to cultivate the same moral character in boys. When men can embrace their humanity and unshackle themselves from such a limited definition of masculinity, boys have those examples to look up to. The same applies to parents. It’s time to stop limiting young boys from expressing the full scope of their emotions and to start teaching them about being human. Only when we start embracing all of masculinity—which includes sadness, tears, and sensitivity—will we see a change in the next generation.

Dear boys, especially those I’ve consoled before: we’re complex, we’re emotional, and we’re vulnerable. We’re human, and it’s okay to not be okay.