“Self-care is essential. Prioritize it,” I say as I end a session with a young male client.
He nods with a slight eye roll. I wonder if I sound trite or even a bit paternalistic.
Do men need to be reminded to care for themselves? Is this not obvious? Like reminding someone not to die?
The problem is that self-care is obvious, but it’s not commonplace, especially for men.
When Self-Care Intersects with Being a Man
The sad fact is that gender socialization for men often interferes with living a long and healthy life.
Men have a higher risk of disease, injury, and death compared to women. They commit suicide at more than three times the rate of women (Hedegaard, Curtin, Warner, 2021) and are more likely to abuse alcohol (Bilsker, Fogarty, & Wakefield, 2018). Young men, especially those from minority communities, are the least likely of all demographics to seek help for health issues (Lynch, Long, Moorhead, 2018).
These health ills are not necessarily inherent to being male but rather a product of traditional Western norms of masculinity intersecting with structural racism, socioeconomic inequities, and an unhealthy environment.
Men are losing the battle to stay well, and telling them to take better care of themselves is not the solution. It’s not a lack of desire to be healthy but rather a lack of agency that prevents men from acting upon what they know deep in their hearts. Many men want to take better care of themselves, but doing so would require becoming something society does not afford them to be—less manly.
To support men in taking control of their health and developing a more sophisticated relationship with their bodies, we need to increase males’ agency by simultaneously updating and dismantling “Man Box Mindsets” that get in the way of self-care.
Man-Box Mindsets That Prevent Men’s Self-Care
Man-box mindsets are the unspoken beliefs and traditional masculine norms about what it means to be a “real man.” These show up to subtly influence the types of behaviors male-identified people feel they can enact, especially in public with other men. How men internalize these mindsets can make the difference between men who stay active, energized and healthy and men who die early.
Through my work supporting men’s health, I’ve distilled at least six man-box mindsets that keep me disconnected from their bodies and unwilling to take better care of their health:
1. “Self-care? You mean, like facemasks? No way. What if some guy sees me?”
Many men make an unconscious equation between self-care and femininity—the legacy burden of patriarchy. This association is exacerbated by a self-care industry that targets women. Commodification turns self-care into a superficial fix for a systemic problem.
Men foreclose on self-care activities that might appear too feminine. Men don’t want to be seen as less manly, even if it’s an activity they might really enjoy or benefit from. The man-box mindset polices men toward conformity to preexisting ideals. It approves weight lifting, sports, and cookouts, while salads, skincare, and spa treatments get scorned.
2. “If it doesn’t hurt, it must not work.”
The traditional masculine norm of dominance and emotional control makes chronic pain and emotional drudgery a way of life. Many men have not only become inured to a life of pain—“just grin and bear it”—but may even seek it out as a badge of honor, pride, and toughness. This can lead to ignoring pain signals, overeating to the point of discomfort, or extreme exercise just to prove one’s ability to endure hardships.
I often encourage men to slow down and be kind to themselves. Yet the man-box mindset whispers, “This seems too gentle to work. no pain, no gain. Push harder, bro.”
3. “I’m strong enough to handle this on my own.”
The values of “independence” and “self-reliance” still run thick in the traditional masculine psyche. The problem is that rather than leading men to self-care, they lead them to avoidance and denial. I had a client who waited nearly a decade to reach out for support with eating issues even though it was ruining his health and marriage. Putting on a facade of strength can block men from acknowledging the severity of the problems they’re facing. Moreover, it prevents them from seeking professional help because admitting weakness can damage their self-esteem and social identity (Lynch, Long, Moorhead, 2018). The man-box mindset rejects help, even from itself, and attempts to stay in control even when things are spiraling.
4. “I do pay attention to my body. I tell it what to do every day.”
This man-box mindset doesn’t want to connect with the body; it wants to command it. Mind-over-body domination is an unquestioned way of life for many men. The socialization of men to favor a logical approach to problem-solving conveniently marginalizes more embodied and emotional realities. Men may exercise under the guise of self-care, but as soon as it loses connection and sensitivity to the body, it can quickly become self-harm.
A desire for control and power over one’s body makes listening to and honoring bodily signals quite tricky. I’ve seen too many men plagued by injuries because they over-exerted themselves and pushed beyond their limits. I think this is compounded by a deeper, underlying fear men have about connecting with their bodies. Self-care is scary because, “If I truly acknowledge my body, everything will fall apart. It would be overwhelming, and I would not be able to take care of it all.” The man-box mindset says let’s get back to stoic suppression and stubbornness.
5. “If this isn’t helping me get ahead, it’s not worth it.”
The masculine focus on winning often puts men in competition with other men and with themselves. Working out becomes about who can lift the most. Eating becomes about who can pack away the most food. Finishing what’s on the plate is more important than enjoying it.
The subtle but constant comparison with other guys creates a fear of getting one-upped and pushes men to burn the candle at both ends to get ahead. The man-box mindset says that slowing down or accepting physical limitations will undermine your ambition, rendering you weak and ineffective. Moreover, the man-box mindset has no patience for the long journey of creating sustainable habits. It wants quick wins, not the messy, deep inner work of trusting one’s body.
6. “I’ll deal with my body and health once I get ahead at work.”
It’s time to change the idea that overworking is a badge of honor. So many unhealthy coping habits stem from compiling work stress. (This goes for both men and women.) What makes this mindset particularly pernicious is how the traditional masculine norm pushes men to equal their productivity and financial solvency with their self-worth. Many men feel compelled to prove themselves capable and worthy through accolades, bonuses, and titles.
This desire to feel worthy through accruing status often makes self-care an afterthought. The man-box mindset justifies skipping out on exercise, skimping on sleep, and ignoring signals to eat or slow down. When this is combined with alcohol abuse as a socially sanctioned way of coping with work stress, it’s easy for guys to completely deprioritize and derail their health.
The Path Ahead for Men’s Self-Care
I’m not claiming all men feel beholden to these traditional masculine ideals, nor am I suggesting that all health ills can be traced back to traditional man-box mindsets.
I also don’t want to minimize the challenges women, BIPOC, and gender-non-conforming folks have when it comes to self-care, self-advocacy, and sustainable self-preservation. It is no secret that man-box mindsets can infect anyone regardless of gender identity to create compounding forms of harm.
As author and dietitian Dalia Kinsey states in Decolonizing Wellness“We have the power to work against the toxic internalized messaging we find within ourselves, but we don’t hold the blame for creating these toxic belief systems in the first place.”
Failing to confront the ways in which the traditional male identity constrains acceptable methods for everyone to care for themselves is a huge missed opportunity in shifting our collective well-being.
Moving toward an embodied masculine identity that normalizes self-care must be predicated on two simple ideas:
- There is nothing inherently gendered about caring for one’s self.
- Self-care begins with the body but doesn’t end there. Mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being are interconnected with physical health and deserve equal attention and protection.
Breaking out of man-box mindsets requires moving beyond overly commoditized notions of self-care put forth by a profit-driven health-and-wellness industry. Self-care is not a standalone practice but a way of being in integrity with one’s body and identity.
I hope that by naming these man-box mindsets, we can take the first steps in comparison to harmful conditioning and empowering everyone to trust their bodies, prioritize their health, and overcome barriers to self-care—especially men in community with other men.
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