What is toxic masculinity, exactly? Toxic masculinity “is what can come of teaching boys that they can’t express emotion openly; that they have to be ‘tough all the time’; that anything other than that makes them ‘feminine’ or weak,” notes Maya Salam in The New York Times article “What Is Toxic Masculinity?” Cultural expectations make men feel like they have to keep their feelings and emotions locked down—but men have feelings, too. Years of bottling those emotions up, not being told they can communicate their feelings, and not having a healthy outlet for those feelings can lead to toxic behavior.

Toxic Masculinity and Physical and Mental Wellness

The fact is, our society isn’t as active as we used to be a generation or two ago. Testosterone and endorphins are released through physical activities such as exercise, sports, and other energy outlets—but with increased stagnation that comes with long hours in the classroom, there are fewer of those outlets available.

At the elementary level, recess and gym can provide some relief, but once students reach high school where gym class is no longer a requirement, confinement to desks and rote memorization can contribute to a lack of focus and restless behavior. In some cases, students who act out in class may be punished with a loss of recess or free time—the time when they may be releasing that aggression because they have a buildup of energy. Additionally, because cultural expectations mean that many young men and boys feel they can’t properly express their emotions, those who have mental health issues are more likely to be undiagnosed or not seek treatment.

Dating and Social Interaction

Social interactions and relationships have shifted dramatically in the last 100 years. We have a social media network at our fingertips that connects us to the world at any time of day. But that connectivity has pros and cons. The anonymity of the internet and absence of face-to-face interaction can build an ignorance of social cues. Accessibility can also create unrealistic expectations—the idea that pursuing a relationship is as easy as “sliding into someone’s DMs” with a direct message on Twitter. On top of that, seeing what other people are doing on Facebook and Instagram—going to parties and having fun—can create a fear of missing out. These digital platforms create the illusion that there are many people to choose from, and relationships become less intimate because people don’t want to be “locked down.” That lack of personal connection combined with unrealistic expectations can feed into toxic behavior like objectifying women and dismissing their feelings.

What Can Schools Do?

Change can start at the individual level. At Holt High School in Holt, MI, we helped begin that conversation by hosting a “Challenge Day.” Challenge Day is a nonprofit organization that aims to help people learn to connect with one another. Their program provides students with tools to break down the walls of separation and replace them with compassion.

Students in our school signed up, and 100 were chosen by lottery—25 for each grade level with a 50/50 gender split. The day was broken up into team-building activities that encouraged us to get out of our comfort zones as we addressed societal pressures and stereotypes. One of these activities was called the “ ‘Be a Man’ Box,” which illustrated how men are pressured to keep their feelings and emotions inside the box at all times. Groups of six to eight students with one or two adults per group called “families” separated out into individual sessions for the “If You Really Knew Me” activity, where they broke down barriers to reveal who they are beyond the image they may present on the outside.

This was followed by a “Cross the Line” activity with prompts that addressed racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism, and other topics. Students and adults would cross the line if a statement pertained to them. The program ended with an inspirational sendoff where everyone wrote thank-you cards to people in their lives that they care about. The Challenge Day provided a way for students to safely express their feelings and emotions, but more than that, it helped build compassion and create energy for positive change in the school community.

What Can Students and Advisers Do?

Cultivating an environment that helps dismantle toxic behaviors isn’t as simple as just doling out punishments. Nobody is perfect, and in many cases we have to unlearn the things society has taught us. Treating something as a teachable moment rather than zero tolerance may provide an opportunity for dialogue and understanding that discipline does not. Additionally, teachers and advisers can help by making sure students are active. Create classroom activities that get students out of their desks, encourage involvement in clubs, and provide opportunities for students to release their energy in a positive manner. Show students positive ways to express their emotions met with reluctance—especially in the face of social expectations and activities seen as not traditionally “masculine.” One way to bridge that resistance is to forge alliances with groups (e.g., the football team) to help the rest of the school population see that stepping outside your comfort zone is a good thing. Often the best lessons can come from peers—and it only takes one student to step up. When student leaders increase visibility of those positive behaviors and energy outlets and make students’ voices known, they can provide a good example to others. Through healthier behaviors and a healthier understanding among men, we can help build a healthier society.


Joseph Martinez, Jack Proebstle, Cameron Turner, and Logan VanEnkevort are students at Holt High School in Holt, MI. They presented their “Detoxing Masculinity” panel at LEAD DC Fall in November 2019.

Sidebar: Finding Solutions

Future Man author Tim Samuels looks at the complexities of modern-day manhood and how to evolve and thrive in today’s world. He provides some solutions and advice to grow beyond toxic behaviors:

  • Be Productive: Do something you enjoy. Find a goal you want to achieve or something you want to produce, and set out to make it happen.
  • Unleash Positive Aggression: Find outlets for positive aggression that will help release endorphins, whether through sports, martial arts, exercise, or another physical activity.
  • Be One With Nature: Avoid a sedentary lifestyle by getting outside. Outdoor hobbies such as hiking or snowboarding can help create distance from everyday stressors like school and work.
  • Be With Your Pack: Spend time with your friends and find positive energy outlets with them. Having people you can relate to personally helps prevent a sense of isolation and separation.
  • Be With Your Mini-Tribe: Spend time with your family. Having a support network means you have people to fall back on, and it provides people to talk to when you’re struggling.
  • Be a Part of Something Bigger: As a group, work toward some larger goal. Working together to achieve something gives you a sense of purpose and motivation to do more.