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Taking off the mask of toxic masculinity

Being the new REP Prevention Coordinator has been rewarding and interesting. I travel from school to school and meet different personalities. Some classes are better than others, as it a wild card of how the class will respond to learning about domestic violence and how we can work together to prevent it.

My all male classes have been probably the most interesting. As young men there is a machine in place to mold us into “real men.”

Don’t cry!

Suck it up and stop being a little girl!

No one cares about what you feel!

Your going to let some girl push you around, control her!

Boys will be boys!

It amazes me how emotionally stunted we can become. This is not to say that women don’ have their own set of challenges, but that is all part of the problem since we say it to each other. Even if you grow up in a home where these ideas are not valued, the outside world will make sure to get those messages into you head if someone close to you has not. I heard all of this and more when I was growing up, from extended family, teachers, friends, strangers, media, and the list goes on and on. Vulnerability is not high on the list of priorities for young men still today.

Part of the challenge is getting the young men in my classes to be vulnerable, which is no easy task. Over the classes they do start to open up. We have this amazing exercise, “The Respect Circles”, but for some I have found that the guys are less  to it. Defining self-respect for a man in society goes against vulnerability, so finding something to allow them that space is part of our challenge with all of our students.

I recently watched a documentary called, The Mask You Live In, on Netflix. I encourage all of you to watch it. What caught my eye was an exercise done by one of the teachers in the film. For the young men to open up, he had a mask, that on the side of the mask he asked the boys to write what do they show to the world. On the back he asks them to put what they hide. They don’t write their names, so anonymity allows them to be vulnerable. I thought this would be amazing to adapt with my male students.


The exercise worked great! I was surprised how well it went. When you are anonymous and no one knows who is going through what, it creates a bond that each of them start to understand that all of them have a unique story, regardless of who is going through what. Some of what they revealed was heartbreaking as well as for them because there were tears. Some talked of how they had no father figure, some spoke of a fear of opening up, their anger and pain, and some spoke of the DV that they see around them growing up.

Once that happened the concept of brotherhood, supporting one another, vs. masculinity, proving yourself to others, was a concept that they were more receptive to. Showing them that brotherhood is a way to help society grow and we can stand with our brothers and sisters instead of this constant need to present a certain self image to make others happy, is not only powerful for the individual, but for us as a global community.

When they defined who they wanted to be after, it was amazing to see them say and write, what they aspire in their life. Being better fathers, better citizens, and most of all just be happy. I posted some of their masks on the REP instagram page.

Coming together as a community is an important step towards prevention, because the “It is none of my business” attitude proves to not be helpful. As I continue to drive from school to school, I will remind my self that each of the students have a story, and helping them find who they want to become is going to be a step in the right direction.

–Omar Jalil, Prevention Coordinator for REP & Safe Harbor

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