Toxic Masculinity Has Plagued Black Men Deeply, Down to the Details of What They Wear
The latest fashion trend, the romper for men—or as it's affectionately called, the “romphim”—has received mixed feedback on social media. Many find fashion flashbacks like this strange, but within a man's choice to wear. But for others, romphims serve as a reminder of the increasing feminization of male fashion, a view particularly common among black men. As expected, social media wasted no time creating memes bashing men for this fashion statement. It wasn’t long before social media statuses shaming women for accepting the trend followed.
“When I saw the memes about the ‘romphim,’ I knew there was a storm of toxicity and hate brewing. It's sad how these things are to be expected,” said Sylvester James, a black man who has received anti-gay, hypermasculine comments on his Facebook feed.
Here are just a few of the anti-romper posts:
[facebook https://www.facebook.com/plugins/post.php?href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2Fdrell.anthony%2Fposts%2F356286441439796&width=500 expand=1][facebook https://www.facebook.com/plugins/post.php?href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2Fpermalink.php%3Fstory_fbid%3D702412689944441%26id%3D100005271493176&width=500 expand=1][facebook https://www.facebook.com/plugins/post.php?href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2Fdishimapp%2Fposts%2F1474399812610844&width=500 expand=1][facebook https://www.facebook.com/plugins/post.php?href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2Fearl.smith.988%2Fposts%2F10212734918110770&width=500 expand=1]
At the extremes of the romphim meme backlash were some who called all men who wore them "gay." Many aren’t aware, however, that these comments reinforce the “man box,” the societal standard of what is appropriate for men to do, which limits black male identity development and can negatively affect their mental health.
“Homophobia and toxic masculinity, especially in our community, affect heterosexual men more than most people will give it credit for,” said James. “We are taught from an early age that men are supposed to behave this way, that we don't cry, that emotions are a sign of weakness, and of course that being ‘gay’ is something to be ashamed of and condemned.”
Previous studies have shown black males are under immense pressure to present themselves as hypermasculine. Men who make the decision to resist this pressure are often ridiculed. According to one study, manhood and masculinity are often associated with “pursuing women sexually and being physically strong and aggressive.” According to the study, being gay was a threat to masculinity. Participants reported life community experiences viewed being gay as a forfeiture of manhood. As a result, the term “gay” is used as a term to police the actions of men who dare to break out of the boundaries of the highly restrictive man box. Trends of anti-gay culture can be seen in “no-homo” references made by hip hop artists.
Referring to men as gay in a derogatory way is not only offensive to gay men, but in a sweeping statement also assigns a negative association with anything feminine. This insult offends all parties involved by “checking” males who step out of appropriate social boundaries, disrespecting the LGBT community and reinforcing concepts of female inferiority.
Any action that exists outside of the established acceptable norms for men results in their being ridiculed as being less of a man. Examples that commonly fall out of the man box include showing any emotion other than anger, wearing feminine clothes and being affectionate with other men. Aggression, promiscuity and apathy are seen as normal male behavior and within black gender role expectations.
Black males face pressure to fit into acceptable forms of masculinity. The resulting mental stress black males can experience when they are unable to meet internalized or external gender role expectations is referred to as gender role conflict, a psychological state in which restrictive definitions of masculinity limit men's well-being and potential.
Keenan White describes this phenomenon when expressing his experiences with identity policing: “As a black male, there is an expectation for us to be the epitome of masculinity. Living up to that expectation is not only challenging, but it’s also destructive. If we don’t present ourselves as aggressive or violent, we are seen as less desirable.”
Women's expectations don’t ease the pressure of toxic masculinity for black males; they often reinforce it.
“Many women expect a man who behaves like a bad boy but still [is] emotionally available and family-oriented. Black men who show concern for women's well-being are portrayed as ‘thirsty,’ and black males who are upfront and direct about [their] expectations are portrayed as overly emotional or ‘in their feelings,’” White continued.
"The black community holds strict rules for how a man should dress or act… if a man decides to flat-iron his beard or follow the trend of wearing skinny jeans or rompers, he is often instantly characterized as being too feminine. In my opinion, when we put social norms on any individual it limits their freedom to self-expression, which could lead to not being accepted for who they are. The idea of not being accepted based on how one dresses or acts can cause low self-esteem, depression or putting on a mask [to hide] their real selves," said Taneka Jackson, a school counselor.
Societal norms of masculinity push an image of the “ideal man” as being tough, in control and a provider. These norms also limit attempts to get help.
“Growing up, I idolized a persona that wasn’t reflective of who I was. I wanted to be seen as attractive, even if those qualities weren’t true to who I am,” said White.
Luckily, films like the Oscar-winning Moonlight have provided insight into the struggles of black male identity and the stringent boxes they are forced into. Throughout the film, viewers watch as the main character, Chiron, passes through various stages of life trying his best to present himself as an “authentic black male.” His journey of identity development includes sexual exploration and defining what black manhood looks like for him. The movie highlights that the executors of violence are also victims of the system, and uniquely sheds light on an angle rarely shown in cinema.
The pressure to portray a hypermasculine image weighs tough on black males, but the stigma attached to mental health resources in the black community limits their access to assistance to remedy the hypermasculinization.
Research shows discrimination and gender stereotyping lead to worse health outcomes, particularly mental health, for black men. During a podcast titled “How masculinity can hurt mental health,” psychologist Wizdom Powell, an associate professor in the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill's Department of Health Behavior, addressed the rules of masculinity and societal factors that affect the health of men of color.
Men who adhere to traditional rules of masculinity have higher rates of depressive symptoms, according to Powell. Additionally, men who are low on the social ladder are more likely to use aggression as a way to cope with the pain of oppression. Through the podcast, Powell stresses the importance of context—black males are not inherently distrusting; rather, navigating their way through a historically oppressive system has made them that way.
“When men adhere rigidly to the kinds of norms that encourage them to not share their emotions, to be sort of relentlessly self-reliant without seeking the help or support of others, they can have poorer mental health outcomes," Powell said. He added that these men also find themselves cut off "from the social networks and social supports that might help them get through a difficult time."
While all men are exposed to the restraints of masculinity, black men have increased pressure. “The norms around masculinity also vary by race and social location. So it depends on where you sit on the social ladder, how you enact those particular brands of masculinity,” said Powell.
Black Americans are estimated to be 20 percent more likely to suffer from mental illness than the rest of the population, according to the Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health. It is evident that systemic disadvantages and social pressure take a toll on black men's mental health, as the suicide rate for black males has shown a significant increase in recent years. Last year, music artist Kid Cudi made headlines for checking himself into a treatment facility to treat his suicidal urges, sparking an important conversation about black males and mental health. Shedding light on the mental health struggles of black men is of utmost importance, but what would tackle the problem more effectively, is spending more time as a community examining how ridiculous expectations cause men distress.
“We aren’t taught how to express our feelings in a healthy way, how to cope with our emotions, or how to be accepting and loving of ourselves, let alone people who are different from us,” said James.
The insults hurled at black men who desire to participate in the romphim trend might seem solely disapproval for their fashion choice; however, it is reflective of much more. The reactions we have witnessed represent an additional level of social barriers to healthy black male identity development. It is directly related to their inability to connect emotionally with those around them and discourages them to seek mental health services. Until we lift these weights off the shoulders of black men, our community will continue to suffer. So by all means, let the man wear a romper and let that be that.