What is the Man Box?

If you’re familiar with Axe Body Spray, you’ve probably seen commercials like this one, this one, and this one. You most likely know it’s meant to be used as both a deodorant and a cologne and it’s marketing is designed to make you believe that even the most unattractive men can get the “hottest” women, or what mainstream society deems attractive. As a man, you might even use Axe.

As a men’s therapist, I would normally deem Axe’s ads unhealthy when it comes to what a healthy view of masculinity and sexuality look like. I even wrote a blog about it.  But what you may not know is that Axe, in association with Promundo, an organization that works to promote gender equality by engaging boys and men with women and girls, released a study in 2017 called The Man Box: A Study on Being a Young Man in the US, UK, and Mexico

What’s the point of the study?

Axe commissioned the research to take a deeper dive into the state of manhood in the United States, the U.K., and Mexico. It’s an effort to figure out the areas in which boys and men need the most help in when it comes to defining what it means to be a man. The study is meant to help liberate guys from the harmful labels and pressures society has put on them, allowing them to be free from judgement, so that the world can be a better place for both men and women. Described as the “Man Box,” this effort was designed for everyone—both males and females—to work together to break down these male stereotypes. 

What does it mean to be a man now? 

In this day and age, society still clings to the traditional male stereotypes – strong, fearless, not allowed to show our emotions. But in the past few decades, these notions of masculinity have been challenged over and over again. Unfortunately, while women have made great strides in overcoming hundreds of years of discrimination based on their gender (though there is still plenty of work to be done), men, and society at large, struggle to redefine what being a man really means in the 21st century. The “Man Box” study is a representation of results from group discussions and a survey conducted with young men between the ages of 18 and 30 in the U.S., U.K., and Mexico, from all walks of life. 

The Man Box explained

The term “Man Box,” was created by Paul Kivel in his book Men’s Work: How to Stop the Violence That Tears Our Lives Apart.  The concept was expanded on by Tony Porter. The Man Box describes the process in which men are socialized. As boys and men, we learn beliefs communicated by parents, families, the media, and peers that place pressure on men to act and think in certain ways based on their gender; like the need to be completely self-sufficient, to act tough, to be physically attractive, and to be aggressive. In the Man Box study, the men who are inside the “Man Box” are the ones who take these ideals most to heart; who believe that not fighting back is weak, that being gay doesn’t qualify as being a “real man,” and other negative messages. Young men outside of the “Man Box” are the ones who reject these ideas, who have broken out of the box and embrace more positive and healthy ideas of manhood. 


The Man Box is Alive and Well 

According to this study, the ‘Man Box” is alive and well in the U.S., U.K., and Mexico, and severely affect both the lives of young men and women in six areas: 

  1. Satisfaction and Self-Confidence 
  2. Mental Health. The study found that in the US and UK men in the Man Box had higher rates of depression and at higher risk for suicide.  
  3. Friendship and Support-Seeking. The study found those in the Man Box provided support to others. They often did not seek out help as this was a sign of vulnerability or weakness. 
  4. Risky Behaviors. Men in the Man Box are at higher risk for engaging in binge drinking and reckless driving. 
  5. Attractiveness. Those in the Man Box link self-confidence to physical muscle size. 
  6. Bullying and Violence. US and UK men in the Man Box were 6 to 7 times more likely to have engaged in online or physical bullying of another male than men outside the Man Box. They were also 6 times more likely to report they perpetrated sexual harassment. 

How to break out of the Man Box 

There’s no single, easy way to get out of the “Man Box,” unfortunately.  The study suggests that men in the Man Box are more likely to not engage in intimate friendships, disregard their physical and mental health, and engage in violent behavior. They are also at risk of experiencing depressive symptoms. This study shows some contradictory trends. For instance, young men in the “Man Box” are more satisfied with their lives, even as they display more symptoms of depression. Another startling contradiction is that some also feel freer to transgress certain norms such as crying in front of their male friends or spending a lot of time on grooming. But it also makes sense because young men face all sorts of contradictory ideals of manhood in society and they also benefit in certain ways from staying inside the “Man Box,” like feeling a sense of belonging, praise from parents or friends, or the false sense of confidence they get when they live up to these negative expectations placed on them. But, when they exhibit these behaviors all of the time, the “Man Box” demands they pretend to be someone they are not, and the study shows how violent and lonely this can be for them. 

Young men need support to break out from the “Man Box.” When they are able to get out of the “Man Box” they become free to realize their true self. The first step is understanding men are not hard-wired to be inside the Man Box. The rules of the Man Box are learned through socialization. The next step is to explore how being in the Man Box has negatively impacted your life and those around you. As men, we must learn and practice that it’s okay to express our feelings, to not be domineering, to deeply connect with others, see ourselves as equal, not better than others. It’s also important to seek out support and connection from friends and family who can help you to develop your own understanding of your masculinity. 

If you’re interested in learning more about the “Man Box” read the whole study here.