Mark your calendars: Wednesday, February 27 is Pink Shirt Day. Each year, kids and adults alike take a stand against bullying by wearing a pink shirt.
The holiday traces its origins to Nova Scotia. After seeing one of their male classmates bullied for wearing a pink shirt, two boys took it upon themselves to distribute pink shirts to their classmates. What followed was a show of grassroots show of solidarity against bullying: a pink shirt day.
This particular example of school bullying will be familiar to many of us who grew up with rigid ideas of what it meant “to be a man”. We can trace its roots to traditional ideas of masculinity: what men can and can’t do, what men can and can’t wear, how men can and can’t act…. As a society, we have just started to examine these themes and the harm they cause.
Earlier this year, the American Psychological Association published a report on the effects of traditional masculinity. As the APA notes, traditional masculinities can “contribute to relational, psychological and behavioural health outcomes in both positive and negative ways”. On the negative side of the spectrum, we find that men have higher rates of relational problems, violence, substance abuse, incarceration and completed suicide. Not only does traditional masculinity negatively affect mental health, it also deters men from seeking professional help with mental health concerns.
Meanwhile, those who do not conform to traditional gender roles and heteronormative ideas often find themselves victimized by men who internalize traditional masculinities.
The need to repeatedly prove masculinity can lead men to behave aggressively, embrace risky behaviors, sexually harass women (or other men), and express homophobic attitudes, when men feel that their masculinity is threatened.“Work as a Masculinity Contest,” Jennifer L. Berdahl, Marianne Cooper, and Peter Glick
In Canada, we see impacts of traditional masculinity manifest early on: 59% of LGBTQ high school students report being verbally harassed compared to 7% of their non-LGBTQ counterparts. About 3 in 4 LGBTQ students don’t feel safe at school.
For these students, combating rigid gender norms and heteronormative expectations, as a society, is a matter of life and death. Over half of LGB youth have thought about suicide and 33% have attempted it. Meanwhile, hate crimes against the LGBT community continue to be the most violent, according to Statistics Canada.
So tomorrow, wear a pink shirt to take a stand against bullying. But let’s all take a moment to reflect on why we wear one. It’s not just an act of solidarity with a bullied young boy; it’s an intentional transgression against the prescriptions of traditional masculinity, which are harmful to many – including the very people whose identities are shaped by its dogma.