"I'll sleep when I'm dead" has been a rallying cry amid American culture. Sacrificing sleep to work all hours of the day and put in 60- to 80-hour weeks still gets praised as a badge of honor, and it's not uncommon to hear people essentially boasting about how little sleep they get. This is especially true for healthcare workers, who can easily pick up shifts here and there and hit crazy amount of hours worked, all in the name of who knows what.
And this trend of celebrating a lack of sleep might be particularly tied to masculinity, according to a new study published in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research. Getting a lot of sleep was seen as unmanly, whereas sleeping little was seen as being more masculine.
The unhealthy stereotype of men who don't need sleep
The researchers conducted a series of experiments to understand the link between sleep and perceived masculinity. In one survey, people saw men who say they don't get a lot of sleep as being significantly more masculine than men who say they sleep a lot. In another survey, participants tended to describe very "manly" men as getting less sleep than "unmanly men," who generally got more sleep.
In other words, the assumptions went both ways: Men who don't get sleep were viewed as more masculine—and more masculine men were assumed to get less sleep.
Their other experiments showed people not only saw a lack of sleep as being a "manly" characteristic, but they also viewed men who lacked sleep as being more "agentic," i.e., more assertive, more focused on their personal goals, and more able to attain them.
Men themselves bought into the sleep-deprived masculinity stereotype, too. They surveyed men and asked half of them how it felt to say, "I sleep a lot more than the average person." The other half were asked how it felt to say, "I sleep a lot less than the average person." The men felt significantly less manly when they imagined admitting to getting a lot of sleep.
Where does the stereotype come from?
Viewing sleep as unmanly actually aligns with a larger phenomenon in which men tend to avoid engaging with their own health, according to the study's researchers. That's because masculinity is traditionally associated with strength, stoicism, and the avoidance of anything associated with femininity—such as taking care of your health.
Men often choose to “tough it out” by avoiding feminine associations with health care. Despite the severe consequences for men's health, demonstrating stoic toughness allows men to display stereotypically masculine and agentic traits of strength, independence, autonomy, and resilience.
In other words, unhealthy behaviors have become associated with masculinity. They point to previous research by Will Courtenay, Ph.D., who notes how a man may brag that "I haven't been to a doctor in years" as a way to show how tough and masculine they are.
"Sleeping less may serve as a symbolic representation of gender," Courtenay writes. "Men who violate masculinity norms are often accused of 'not being man enough' or of not being 'real men,' which suggests that males who violate gendered sleep stereotypes may face negative social judgments."
This research demonstrates just how dangerous gender stereotypes can be. Lack of sleep is associated with all sorts of health issues including weakened immunity and increased risks of heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and much more. Research has also found that men who sleep less tend to be more aggressive and violent, the researchers note.
Men shouldn't need to punish themselves to prove that they're men, and there is nothing commendable about working yourself until your body crumbles. (By the way, this is also not even an effective way to be productive—we know that taking regular breaks and nourishing ourselves is key to avoiding the devastating burnout that's also rampant amid hustle culture.)
The good news? Gender stereotypes are rapidly fading as people collectively move toward more holistic views of health and equity. As society continues to challenge traditional definitions of masculinity, attitudes toward sleep may become more positive, and all people might enjoy more nights full of healthy sleep.
So, let's all stop patting each other on the back for lacking sleep—especially men—and start cheering each other on for clocking in those eight hours at night.
You also don’t have to do this alone (another male stereotype quality that needs to go away). There are resources on how to get better sleep and supplements like SLUMBER to aid your body’s ability to sleep and recover. Imagine getting your sleep and crushing the next day with work, exercise, family, and more. Now that’s a masculine trait we can stand behind.