Posted: 09 September 2020

Is toxic masculinity the cause of unhappiness in boys?

Boys will be boys. Man up. Boys don't cry. Sound familiar?

These commonly used phrases are all examples of toxic masculinity. They create unhealthy expectations of what it is to ‘be a man’.

This year's Good Childhood Report shows that yet again, young people are feeling unhappy with their appearance. Across previous years, girls were shown to be more worried about how they look than boys, but in the last three years this gender gap has noticeably reduced.

We consider the impact of toxic masculinity, and whether this is to blame for the changes in boys unhappiness with their appearance?

Good looks get likes

Toxic masculinity has been around for centuries. It puts pressure on men to think they need to have a strong physique, hide their emotions, and act in an aggressively dominant way. 

It’s seen in advertising, pop culture, and now toxic imagery is more accessible to young people through social media. Anyone can post anything and anyone can comment. 

Love Island, the most watched programme on TV amongst 16-24-year-olds, has been criticised for openly promoting toxic masculinity. The men on the show are athletic, good-looking and competitive. The women are slim, beautiful and referred to as 'difficult' if they show signs of anger or annoyance.

For years we have reported on girls’ struggles with how they look, but this year we’re seeing boys more affected by the societal pressures about how they should look.

‘My generation depends on popularity' - Samuel

Toxic masculinity is not just harmful to boys. Conformity to toxic masculine behaviour such as dominance and aggression is harmful to our society as a whole. This desire for superiority challenges women's basic human rights and can be linked to the prevalence of harassment and sexual assaults.

Challenging stereotypes

Whilst more needs to be done to address toxic masculinity in the media limelight, there are also steps that can be taken at an individual level. Parents and teachers need to prioritise dispelling these dated views of ‘hypermasculinity’. Young boys need to be taught that communicating their feelings should not be frowned upon, treating women with respect is essential and the notion of a ‘perfect physique’ is not real.

Andrew, a 21-year-old student, says ‘we can all do more to be more positive, inclusive and attainable in setting out what it means to be a young person moving into adulthood.'

The best a person can be

The notion that men must be dominant and look a certain way to command respect is dangerous, dated and untrue. However, young people live in a society where good looks get likes.

There may be a growing consciousness over the promotion of toxic masculinity but our evidence shows young people are becoming more and more concerned with how they look, and this is affecting their well-being.

As children return to the classroom this September, we need to kick-start a decade of renewal for young people by prioritising their well-being. It is only by listening to young people can we help them overcome the challenges of modern childhood and face their future with hope, confidence and optimism.

If you'd like to find out more about the issues affecting young people's well-being in 2020, read our Good Childhood Report.


By Kaja Zuvac-Graves

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