Masculinity under a microscope

August 18, 2020 The Learning Team Staff

Boys impacted by gender discrimination, body image and toxic masculinity


Girls do language; boys do math. This is an example of the gender discrimination that has existed for decades within our schools, says Michael Kehler, a University of Calgary professor who studies masculinity and the intersection of education and gender.

Historically, amid the vast body of research on student achievement in various academic disciplines, strong attention has been paid to girls and their academic results in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), Kehler says. This has resulted in significant efforts to increase girls’ participation and success rates in STEM.

However, only in the last 10 years has academic attention and the public conversation shifted toward addressing boys’ longstanding underachievement in reading and writing scores.

“School and schooling are for girls, [while] boys go to work,” Kehler says of the prevailing attitudes that are now starting to change.

Kehler is concerned that research focusing on differences between girls and boys tends to essentialize traits and stereotypes of what is feminine and what is masculine: for example, girls do language and boys solve mathematics problems. Thus, he is concerned that many students who do not “fit the mould” of what is male and what is female are left behind and their needs go unmet at school and at home.

“This binary view sets up a perspective that there may be something wrong with a boy if his interests are different than what is expected,” Kehler says.

Ultimately, Kehler argues that boys are not bound by their biology, that masculinity is fluid, not fixed but rather negotiable, and that boys learn how to be in the world through their interactions with each other and the adults in their lives. Therefore, Kehler encourages teachers and parents to be aware of their own assumptions around gender and ask themselves how their assumptions impact and reinforce gender bias and gender stereotyping within their classrooms and homes.

“They need to nurture and not tamp down attributes typically assigned to men and women,” Kehler says.

Examples of questions that parents and teachers can consider are

  • Which activities do we push boys toward, and which ones do we discourage?
  • How do we support boys being vulnerable and honest about their fears and uncertainties?
  • Do we rely on humour to deflect serious conversations with boys about sexual relationships?
  • When do we show the importance of touch and embracing boys to show public affection rather than hiding or suppressing feelings?
  • When do we invite boys to do more nurturing, caring activities?

Kehler adds that challenging our own narratives about what boys will excel at helps expand their potential beyond stereotypically male behaviours to nurture all facets of their humanness.

“Openness from adult leaders is needed to allow boys to express all aspects of their beings.”


Boys and body image

Through his research, Kehler has discovered a growing awareness that many boys struggle with body image.

“There is a higher concentration on the gaze on men’s bodies, for the purposes of marketing and consumerism, and that can lead to eating disorders, use of stereotypes and looking at one’s physique with a critical eye,” he says.

Ultimately, the intense focus of media on a stereotypical and idealized male physique impacts boys as they pass through adolescence. At the extreme, the pressure to be a particular way can lead boys to unhealthy behaviours, such as eating disorders or excessive exercise.

In his research studying boys and their perception of their own body image, Kehler found that many boys tend to withdraw from physical education classes around the time they get to Grade 9. While the reasons for leaving physical education are complex, Kehler notes that many boys feel that their bodies are increasingly scrutinized and judged by those boys who are able to perform well in the gym and locker room environment.

“The physical education space becomes very threatening for many boys and they are made to feel they are less than a man,” he says.

Young men who have a difficult time with their body image come to associate places like the locker room as threatening. Therefore, for parents and teachers, it becomes important to share multiple perspectives on what constitutes good health and wellness in a wholistic way so young men learn to care for and accept their bodies and not engage in destructive behaviour patterns that endanger their health.

What is toxic masculinity?

Toxic masculinity, a commonly used term, refers to destructive stereotypical attitudes and behaviours that are associated with men.

Kehler says the term attacks a narrow version of masculinity, which can be polarizing.

“For some men, they feel under attack; for others it is liberating,” he says.

Kehler points out that toxic masculinity essentializes men in a binaristic way, for example, as competitive, unemotional and sexually aggressive. Attacking that narrow version of masculinity allows us to expand society’s conversation about what it means to be a man.

He also notes that, for boys and girls, being a member of a well-defined group is secure, so moving outside those constructs can be difficult. However, in order to expand our thinking about gender, we need to work together to address toxic masculinity when it occurs.

“There is huge potential in this time for change within and among men to see an alternative way of demonstrating a larger repertoire of masculinity,” Kehler says. “We can say, it doesn’t have to be this way – let’s break out of our binary structures.”


Further conversation

Read Michael Kehler’s article Beyond the locker room: Coronavirus isolation is an opportunity to teach boys about toxic masculinity. Visit and search the term “beyond the locker room.” 

Also In This Issue