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Toxic Masculinity in a Pandemic: Refusing to Wear a Mask

Over the past months, many states and the federal government have advised or even required individuals to wear masks in order to stop or slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. Taking this relatively small step can significantly reduce the potential of virus transmission — serving as an effective way to protect both ourselves and others.

Wearing a face covering of some sort seems like an easy choice to make for the greater good (provided, of course, that you do not have a disability that makes you unable to wear a mask). Yet this pandemic has illuminated another way in which toxic masculinity can be harmful: an idea has somehow emerged among men that wearing a mask makes them appear weak.

In May, American and British researchers conducted a survey of 2,459 Americans, aged 18 to over 65. The results demonstrated that when it comes to wearing face masks, there were serious differences between men and women. The researchers found that men were far less likely to wear a face covering, particularly in areas where wearing one was not mandatory. This inclination was not based on a person’s subjective belief as to whether they were likely to get – or transmit – coronavirus, although the men who participated in the survey were more likely than the woman to believe that they would easily recover from the virus. Instead, this difference can be attributed to what men believed about wearing face masks — that it was not cool, shameful, or a sign of weakness.

Separately, a Gallup poll found that women were far more likely than men (44% to 29%) to always wear a face mask outside of the home. Men were also more likely to never wear a mask outside of their home, by a margin of 38 to 25%.

These surveys demonstrate that toxic masculinity — once again — is dangerous to all of us. Toxic masculinity is a type of masculinity that encourages strict adherence to gender roles for men, which can be limiting and harmful. All forms of masculinity are NOT toxic. However, there is a certain ideal of masculinity in our culture that IS toxic. This type of masculinity places strength and power as the ideals of manliness, and views anything perceived as stereotypically feminine as unacceptable.

This brings us back to wearing masks. Numerous studies have found that if the majority of people wore masks, it would drastically reduce the number of COVID-19 infections. Despite this, many men are reluctant to wear masks — even in the face of a global pandemic that has killed more than 120,000 people in the United States alone and led to a worldwide economic collapse. The primary reason given for not wanting to wear masks is textbook toxic masculinity: they don’t want to appear weak. This reasoning is particularly disturbing in light of research that shows that men are more than twice as likely to die of coronavirus than women, regardless of age.

We know that toxic masculinity is harmful to men in a number of ways: it is linked to health problems, a higher rate of suicide and self-harming behaviors, and increased crime (including domestic and sexual violence). Refusing to wear a mask out because you’ll feel “weak” or less manly is just the latest way that toxic masculinity is bad for men.

Many men don’t consciously subscribe to this ideal of manhood. Instead, it has been engrained in them from a young age, when boys are often pressured to suppress their emotions (“boys don’t cry”) or to show strength (“man up!”). It can be difficult to break free from a lifetime of cultural conditioning that tells you that the only way to be a man is to never show any emotion other than anger and to always project strength and power. But it isn’t impossible — you can take steps to “break out of the man box” and live life on your own terms. You can also work to ensure that the next generation doesn’t absorb these gender norms, enabling boys and young men to live more full (and healthy) lives.

Wearing a mask isn’t weak — it is the ultimate show of strength. When you put on a mask, you are demonstrating that you are strong enough to endure a bit of physical discomfort to protect the greater good.

If you would like to learn more about how you can dismantle toxic masculinity in your own life, check out our Fearless Advocacy for Men’s Engagement (FAME) group. Parents, caregivers and educators can help their kids develop a sense of individuality — apart from gender norms — through our empathy series, which is now available online. We know that it isn’t easy to make these kinds of changes — but it is and will be worth it.

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