Fragile masculinity is a cultural phenomenon that’s getting talked about more and more the past few years. Basically, when a man has a fragile sense of masculinity, he believes that manhood is something uncertain, that must be earned, and that can be lost.
Typically, in this belief system, manhood is defined by proving that you are not emotional.
A man with a fragile sense of masculinity will do whatever he can in order to avoid being perceived as feminine. He will try to be independent and unemotional (believing that women are the opposite, dependent and emotional).
And he will avoid partaking in any activities that society could deem “sissy.” Because the last thing he wants is for his man card to be revoked.
Men subscribing to this belief system typically do not consider themselves as having a fragile sense of masculinity. They instead believe that this is universally how masculinity operates. They are the proverbial fish surrounded by water, yet unaware of it.
But this is just a thin cultural theory, right? There’s no empirical evidence that demonstrates that this could be true… or is there?
Precarious Manhood and Cortisol
A recent study dove into fragile masculinity — or what the researchers deemed “precarious manhood.” In the study, participants were tasked with giving a speech about their job while a computer monitor gave them real-time feedback of their masculinity ratings.
This feedback was actually randomly generated, but the participants didn’t know that.
Researchers collected saliva samples from the participants before the speech, right after, 10 minutes after, and finally 20 minutes after. Those samples were used to determine their level of cortisol, a stress hormone.
Participants were also quizzed about their beliefs surrounding manhood.
The researchers found an interesting pattern: Participants that ranked highest on precarious manhood beliefs had a stronger physiological stress response when their masculinity score dropped during their speech.
Or, in other words, men who worried more about losing their man card (so to speak) experienced greater physical stress when they believed they had lost masculine status.
This pattern was not observed among those who were lower in scores of precarious manhood. They didn’t produce extra stress hormones when they were rated lower on masculinity by the computer.
This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.