Masculinity and illness

As ever, images of maleness are contradictory. No matter what one does as a fella, one is doing it wrong according to somebody. So one stereotype about men and illness is that guys always try to tough it out and never seek treatment until a limb falls off or an organ gets coughed up. The other stereotype is that men turn into infants when sick, unable to cope with anything or meet their own needs, and demanding round-the-clock care from whomever is handy.

Wondering whether I’m supposed to be toughing everything out or malingering helplessly has been so confusing for me that I’ve fallen ill, and the medication I took is evidently not the non-drowsy kind. So instead of the long, complicated, issue-heavy post I had planned for today, you all get this instead. More useful posts to come when my brain is either working or at least less full of phlegm. Discuss men and health issues if you want. I’m gonna lie right here some more.

About noahbrand

Noah Brand is a mysterious figure with a very nice hat.
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30 Responses to Masculinity and illness

  1. trinity91 says:

    feel better noah
    I have experience with this one. My dad went through six months of chemo to fight melanoma after he didn’t get a mole checked out that had been there changing shape and color for 3 years. This after a lifetime of not wearing sunscreen because sunscreen was for women.

  2. Danny says:

    I’m glad you bring that up. Its like guys just can’t get a break eh? I’ve listened to some of the women on the floor of the office building I work (different departments but since we share a floor we share common spaces like restrooms, break room, etc…) and the contradiction is amazing. I’ve literally heard the same women in conversation talk about how guys act like babies at the slightest hint of getting sick while at the same time getting on my own case for not getting medical attention sooner after tripping over a computer monitor (which opened a serious gash on my leg that got extremely infected).

  3. Bathorie says:

    Be tough in front of other men (which is expected).
    But also let your woman take care of you (also expected).
    What your illness is more personal than how hetrosexual/tough/whatever you are? Pffft.

  4. Sagredo says:

    Go for option three: manly bragging about how sick you are. This typically includes details of how often and how much you vomited, how high your temperature was, or at least how long you slept.

    In the case of injuries, it’s what dangerous thing it was you were doing, how much blood there was, how long you spent in Emergency, and what people’s reactions were when they saw your wounds.

  5. Danny says:

    Oddly enough Bathorie (and this might be a sign of the times) but in my experience men are actually better at dealing with the fact that I, as a guy, am sick/injured. With guys I’ll trade stories, talk about what worked and urged each other to “don’t be a tough guy”. With women the stereotypes just keep falling out of their mouths.

  6. Brian says:

    I dunno about that second line, but I too have never really felt the need to hide illness from other guys. Sure, if you want to be super-macho-tough-guy you’d need to pretend you never get hurt ever, but I think most guys are satisfied not being super-macho-tough-guy.

  7. Tamen says:

    I was once at a dinner party where a woman went on and on about how men behaved like they were on their death beds when they just had a simple flu. Other women chimed in with stories on how their men acted as if a little flu was a reason for complaining and constantly asking questions like “Is my temperature higher now? I think it’s higher now, don’t you.”.

    After a while it felt more and more as ridicule and I got annoyed and in probably a more biting tone than necessary I pointed out that if that was really true then it is strange that women were the far most frequent user of doctors and the most frequent consumer of both prescriprion and non-prescription drugs as well as alternative medicine, they do take the a higher number of sick-days than men and that the life expectancy is 5 years shorter for men.

    Talk about faux paux…

    Studies (in Norwegian) have shown that every second girl at 19 have used over the counter painkillers in the last 14 days while only every fifth 19 year old boy had done the same,
    In adult life women consume twice the amount of psychopharma as men, 78% of women and 65% of menhad contact with their primary physician in 2006.

  8. kaija24 says:

    Almost every study done in a variety of Western countries has shown that partnered men tend to be healthier (in the long run) and live longer, simple because there is someone around who cares about them and pushes them into seeking health care more often than they would on their own. I do think that the situation noah mentions is a contributing factor and I would like it to change. Sickness, pain, disease, injuries, and the like are not gendered…we ALL need to pay attention to our bodies and treat them well.

  9. Cheradenine says:

    I’m slightly reluctant to mention this because it was something I heard as part of a lecture, but I don’t have any handy citations to go with it. But the speaker’s assertion was that social integration and health are tightly linked — that the more tightly embedded in the social fabric you are, the healthier you are, through a mixture of the kinds of effects Kaija mentions (having other people around to care, to encourage you to seek medical care, to help out when you’re temporarily incapable of doing things), and psychological/emotional benefit.

    Not only that, but the difference was pretty stark — for an isolated person, adding a new social group (eg joining a club) cut their chance of dying in the next year by 50%. Equivalent to quitting smoking. “Social capital” is incredibly valuable, and something that’s almost never taken into account.

    (A little googling on social capital + health turns up some papers of interest, like this twin study.)

    Also, in response to Tamen’s anecdote, that weird bit of gender-policing (shaming men for displaying weakness when ill) is known as the man flu phenomena.

  10. kaija24 says:

    Good point…a social network of people who care about your health would definitely be a contributing factor. And another interesting thing about the studies I mentioned is that “partnered” men are generally in better health, that means hetero AND homosexual couples. Caring about your partner’s health and nagging him or her to go to the doctor are not strictly gendered behaviors, but the kind of thing that someone who cares about you would do. So even men or women who would tend to neglect their own health would tend to concern about that of their partner’s.

  11. Jared says:

    kaija24: “Almost every study done in a variety of Western countries has shown that partnered men tend to be healthier (in the long run) and live longer”

    I think I remember reading a study that analysed some covariates and found that the “partnered effect” was restricted to happily partnered men. Which is interesting, even if I can’t think of any practical outcomes other than “divorce won’t be bad for your health if your already miserable”.

    As an extra level, I also heard (on the radio) about a study which found that young men who went from single to partnered had significantly imporved happiness, while no significant difference was observed in young women.

    To continue in the vein of “studies I think a remember a while ago that said ….”
    I’ve also read in a news paper reporting on a scientific paper that they’d found that men with colds really did report more discomfort than women with colds. Cue “man-flu” jokes (in the article, not here of course). But, it got me thinking, while in this case it looks like a stereotype has been proven correct, it is entirely possible for men and women to suffer differently from different diseases (I am aware of physiological and metabolic differences between men and women, and would not be entirely surprised to discover immunological ones as well). In agregate men with a cold could very well be “sicker” than women with a cold. Which would acount for the discrepencies in the “men tough it out” vs “men fold like snotty tissue paper” observations.

  12. doctormindbeam says:

    Excellent point. I tend to fall on the “tough it out” side before, but I’m not afraid to get medical help if I’m actually sick. I just try not to whine about it too much. But you’re right that men are expected to either be “babies” or just “deal with it.”

  13. doctormindbeam says:

    @Danny: To be fair, you hear men reinforce it too. It’s not just women here. I am becoming uncomfortable with your shorthand use of “women.”

    @Sagredo: You forgot how deep the gash was and how many scars you have. 🙂

    @Tamen: I’m not sure what you’re getting at there. Is it bad that women see doctors?

    @Cheradenine: Fascinating. Where did you find out about that?

    @Jared:

    As an extra level, I also heard (on the radio) about a study which found that young men who went from single to partnered had significantly imporved happiness, while no significant difference was observed in young women.

    Did they say if the women were happier beforehand? I’m curious if “being in a relationship” didn’t make them happy, or if they were just always happy regardless.

  14. Danny says:

    @DMB: Even though I specifically said “the same women” (meaning not women in general but an exact subset of women, 3 to be exact) in my first comment and I preceded my second comment with ” in my experience”? In both cases I’m not generalizing but speaking specific women that I’ve actually interacted with.

    And I never said that men never engage in that reinforcement. I said they, again in my experience, to be better at not reinforcing it.

  15. Danny says:

    Jared:
    To continue in the vein of “studies I think a remember a while ago that said ….”
    I’ve also read in a news paper reporting on a scientific paper that they’d found that men with colds really did report more discomfort than women with colds.

    Perhaps those men are holding out (the whole “tough it out” thing) in discomfort for so long that by the time they finally do start to report discomfort it really has gotten that bad?

    But, it got me thinking, while in this case it looks like a stereotype has been proven correct, it is entirely possible for men and women to suffer differently from different diseases (I am aware of physiological and metabolic differences between men and women, and would not be entirely surprised to discover immunological ones as well).
    Reading that has me thinking as well. Do you think that men appearing to be more sickly could be a build up “tough it”, “man up”, “suck it” behavior finally bursting the damn so to speak, causing said sick to appear to be going overboard when they actually are sick and weak for a change?

  16. Cheradenine says:

    @DMB the social capital/health link? I have no idea, at this point. I get through a lot of lectures, and it was probably a couple of years ago. The link I gave before has some data though and there’s a tonne of stuff in this National health Service report (although it will take a lot of rummaging around to figure it all out, more than I can handle right now). It’s about 200 pages and there are very complex interactions with gender, socio-economic circumstances, and so on, so… good luck with that 😉

    Here’s another lengthy report, slightly more recent, with some useful data in.

  17. Tamen says:

    DMB: No, it’s not at all bad that women see doctors as often as they do. It is however too bad that men don’t see doctors more often and shaming them when they’re complaining about being sick don’t really help that. It was meant to provide some argument against the notion that men are sicker than women and complain more when they’re ill.

  18. Bathorie says:

    Danny: And I think there’s a difference between sick and injured. I’ve heard a lot of story swapping about injuries, (bonus points if you got it doing something Awesome and Manly) but not about illness. They may not be “tough guys” but in my experience, men are more likely to come into work sick than a woman in similar circumstances, and a man who takes as many sick days as a woman is viewed with suspicion. (Though it seems like we have very different work environments.)

    And I do agree that the “men are babies” line comes from women far more often than anyone else, but I don’t think the contradiction you described is a contradiction at all. All women are taught to be caretakers to some degree, and I think when we say “men are babies” the underlying message is “look how well I take care of my man”. It’s notable that we say “babies” too- babies need mothers, and being a Good Mother who takes care of her (man)baby is a huge status marker for women.

  19. noahbrand says:

    Bathorie, that’s an interesting point. Women are pushed into the caretaker role whether they want to be or not, so this is probably yet another case where male and female stereotypes are intimately intertwined. Men HAVE to be babies when they’re sick, because all women are supposed to be in a maternal role. As usual, ugly stereotypes coming and going.

    Because I tend to tie everything back into libido sooner or later, I’m reminded of what’s sometimes called “wounded man fetish”, an almost-exclusively-female fetish for men who are injured, ill, or otherwise in need of serious care. Hurt-comfort fanfic seems to be coming from a similar emotional place. In both cases you’ve got a tough, self-sufficient guy who can no longer be tough or self-sufficient, has been rendered vulnerable, and needs someone to take care of him and heal him.

    Obviously, I’m not the kind of asshole who’d say that this means women are naturally biologically driven to blah blah blah whatever… this is pretty clearly a social construct playing out in weird ways. But then, don’t they all?

  20. Tamen says:

    noahbrand: Not that I necessarily disagree with you, but I wonder if you could expand on why you think it’s pretty clearly a social construct as that’s a pretty strong claim to make.

    I believe shoe-horning everything exclusively into the social construct frame is just as wrongheaded as shoe-horning everything exclusively into the biological frane. My take is that it’s a mixture of both, and not only is it not determined how much of each, but also that the ratio probably varies to a large degree individually.

  21. Danny says:

    @noahbrand

    Call me what you will but that kinda sounds like how men are socialized to be “The Protector” for women.

    Because I tend to tie everything back into libido sooner or later, I’m reminded of what’s sometimes called “wounded man fetish”, an almost-exclusively-female fetish for men who are injured, ill, or otherwise in need of serious care. Hurt-comfort fanfic seems to be coming from a similar emotional place. In both cases you’ve got a tough, self-sufficient guy who can no longer be tough or self-sufficient, has been rendered vulnerable, and needs someone to take care of him and heal him.
    Almost sounds like fiction in which a woman (or damsel) is in distress and needs her knight in shining armor to sweep in and rescue her. There are guys who get off on the idea that a woman is a helpless fragile thing that needs a big strong man to protect them.

    Maybe in both cases its a matter of using the weaknesses of the other gender to justify their own existence?

  22. noahbrand says:

    Tamen: Honestly, my reason for calling wounded-man or hurt-comfort kinks a social construct really just boils down to “sniff test”. When something is so weirdly specific and ties so neatly into existing cultural narratives, that tells me it’s coming out of those narratives. I mean, I can’t PROVE that English people aren’t biologically compelled by their English genes to be kinked for caning and spanking, but… c’mon. England spent a couple hundred years building a culture on sexual repression and corporal punishment. (Okay, and tea. Lots of tea.)

    So yeah, when you’ve got a culture that tells men not to ever be vulnerable, and tells women to be maternal caretakers, and that culture produces a fetish for men forced into vulnerability and in need of caretaking by women… I’m gonna go ahead and connect those dots.

  23. doctormindbeam says:

    @Danny:

    Maybe in both cases its a matter of using the weaknesses of the other gender to justify their own existence?

    Maybe; it could also be the case that people want to feel needed or strong or secure for someone else. Or a third option, it could be a form of “power exchange” play (similar to dominance and submission). I think it depends.

  24. Bathorie says:

    noahbrand: Men HAVE to be babies when they’re sick, because all women are supposed to be in a maternal role.
    That’s what I was trying to get across in my first comment; there are definite dueling pressures of “tough it out” and “mother me” when men are ill/injured. And I need to stop being so flip on the internet.

    Danny: Maybe in both cases its a matter of using the weaknesses of the other gender to justify their own existence?
    I think it’s a matter of using the weakness of the other to justify their own gender identity, rather than their existence. The women at your work validated their femininity by attempting to take care of you; the men who tough out illness validate their masculinity by refusing to be taken care of, etc etc.

  25. Tamen says:

    noahbrand: I wasn’t connecting your statement about social construct to those specific kinks, but rather the more genereal women as caretakers and being maternal in your first paragraph, which I thought was a bit too simplistic to just assign to social constructs.

  26. Danny says:

    @Bathorie: Yes I think gender identity seems a better fit than existence.

  27. kaija24 says:

    @Jared: I was speaking strictly about the health effects of partnering study, which concentration on medical health and longevity, but didn’t get into confounding factors such as stress and happiness. Of course any signficant stress (divorce, death of a child, losing a job) is going to impact health, but that tends to be a short-term problem if you’re looking at the entire lifespan. The study on health looked at couples in very long term (i.e., majority of the lifespan) stable relationships, which makes the assumption that in general, those couples were satisfied with their partners. Medical and health facts and numbers and statistics are quantifiable to some extent, whereas “happiness” is not.

    Now studies on “happiness”, I am very leery about any of them about simply because attempting to define and measure an abstract and qualitative concept such as “happiness” is fraught with methodological pitfalls. Happiness means something different to each individual and quantifying it is difficult. So many factors impact happiness from day to day, year to year, how can you chart that much less separate out what proportion of one’s happiness comes from job satisfaction, security, partner/children, friends and social network, pleasing recreation, opportunities for growth and development? I think those kinds of studies are important, but next to impossible to get definitive results from.

  28. Pingback: Welcome to Monday ~ 11 July 2011 |

  29. AlekNovy says:

    I’ve many times given this example to explain the frustration men are put through, when dealing with requirements made from women and society…

    If you go left = you’re an evil idiot
    If you go right = you’re an evil idiot
    If you go forward = you’re an evil idiot
    If you go backwards = you’re an evil idiot
    If you stand still = you’re an evil idiot

    Basically, as a man, there’s no way for you act or be without being accused of being an ahole or jerk or pathetic loser by at leaast one sizeable percentage of women.

    Now, it is completely fine that women have differing preferences. In fact, that’s a beatiful fact. The problem comes in when so many women want to police their own preferences as if they are the preferences if woman kind.

    If a woman prefers men go left, she will accuse you being an evil hole for not going left, and accuse you of not “getting” women – when in fact, there’s plenty of women who like guys that go right, or forward or backward – or whatever.

  30. AlekNovy says:

    Ok, rewritten…

    ======
    I’ve many times given this example to explain the frustration certain> men feel they are put through, when dealing with requirements made from women and society…

    This is how some men feel
    If you go left = you’re an evil idiot
    If you go right = you’re an evil idiot
    If you go forward = you’re an evil idiot
    If you go backwards = you’re an evil idiot
    If you stand still = you’re an evil idiot

    Basically, sometimes it feels like as a man, there’s no way for you act or be without being accused of being an ahole or jerk or pathetic loser by at leaast one sizeable percentage of women.

    Now, it is completely fine that women have differing preferences. In fact, that’s a beatiful fact. The problem comes in when so many women want to police their own preferences as if they are the preferences of woman kind.

    There are many women who universalize their preferences being the “right” preference. If such a woman prefers men go left, she will accuse you being an evil hole for not going left, and accuse you of not “getting” women – when in fact, there’s plenty of women who like guys that go right, or forward or backward – or whatever.
    ======
    Is that ok?

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