Study shows how men overcompensate when their masculinity is questioned

A new study confirms that when men feel their masculinity is being questioned, they’ll often try to compensate by both rejecting anything considered “feminine” and exaggerating their “manliness” in other ways. 

The study found that male college students who were given falsely low results on a handgrip strength test exaggerated their height by three-quarters of an inch on average, reported having more romantic relationships, claimed to be more aggressive and athletic, and showed less interest in stereotypically feminine consumer products.

By contrast, men who received average score results, and whose masculinity was therefore not threatened, did not exaggerate those characteristics. The findings, researchers say, underscore the pressure men feel to live up to gender stereotypes and the ways in which they might reinstate a threatened masculinity.

The researchers note that while women may display a similar dynamic when it comes to femininity, in general, the anxiety about not meeting gendered expectations is likely more severe among men since gender norms have expanded more for women — as the study puts it, “masculinity is more easily threatened than femininity.”

And the ways in which it may be reasserted when threatened are also way more harmful. This study joins a huge body of research on the dangers of threatened masculinity. While the overcompensation in this case is pretty benign — lying about their height, avoiding stereotypically “feminine” products — other research has hinted at how damaging it can be. In one study, men whose masculinity was threatened were more likely to hit a punching bag and, in another, to sexually harass a female interaction partner, and, in another, to blame the victim in a rape case.

Meanwhile, in the real world, unemployed men have been found to be more likely to commit violence against women, and men who aren’t the primary breadwinner tend to be less willing to share the housework with their wives. Not to mention the most extreme cases, epitomized by Elliot Rodger, when a sense of “aggrieved entitlement” to feeling “like a man” leads someone to the ultimate expression of masculinity: indiscriminate violence.

St. Paul, MN

Maya Dusenbery is executive director in charge of editorial at Feministing. She is the author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick (HarperOne, March 2018). She has been a fellow at Mother Jones magazine and a columnist at Pacific Standard magazine. Her work has appeared in publications like,, Bitch Magazine, as well as the anthology The Feminist Utopia Project. Before become a full-time journalist, she worked at the National Institute for Reproductive Health. A Minnesota native, she received her B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. After living in Brooklyn, Oakland, and Atlanta, she is currently based in the Twin Cities.

Maya Dusenbery is an executive director of Feministing and author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm on sexism in medicine.

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