“Ah! My leg!”
“Man up and rub some dirt on it!”
“I think it’s broken. Maybe somebody should call an ambulance?”
“Nah, man. Just walk it off.”
Manning up is hurting public health. The Y chromosome is often seen as a biological omen for a shorter lifespan, but toxic masculinity also wreaks havoc on men’s longevity. Men live shorter lives in part because society holds them to unhealthy standards. Adhering to these “toxic” practices of masculinity could actually increase health risks and contribute to the gender gap in human longevity.
Men’s Health and Longevity
Men’s Health Month came to a close last week, but much work remains to be done to increase men’s healthspans. A large number of authors who write about men’s health often start their discussion with a comparison. Males, on average, live much shorter lives than females. In the United States, for example, women’s life expectancy is about 5 years longer than men’s. But why?
Biology and Sociology
Conversations about men’s health differences usually point in one of two directions: towards biochemical mechanisms or towards social engagements. When the two are taken as a whole, it typically results in a chicken and egg scenario. Does our body chemistry determine how we act? Or do our actions change our bodies on a molecular level?
Do You Even Lift, Bro?: The Biological Consequences of Testosterone
Over generations, humans’ biochemistry and anatomy have changed to give us the best shot at reproduction. For men today, this usually means that they possess more muscle mass, lower fat percentages, and sometimes even weaker immune systems than their female counterparts. Testosterone is mostly to blame for these differences.
Testosterone suppresses the immune system whereas the primary female steroid estradiol supercharges it. Why the difference? From an evolutionary standpoint, the benefits to reproduction outweigh the consequences to longevity. However, biology isn’t the only thing shortening men’s lifespans.
Watch this, Man! No Hands!: Masculinity and Men’s Health
Nature and culture tend to want different things from men. Nature asks them to stand out from the crowd. Culture asks them to fit in with other men. Masculinity, or the assumptions of what men could and should do, is a tricky topic. Researchers have studied it for years, but we still don’t know that much about it.
We do know that masculinity is not the same for everybody. Men pick and choose which parts of hegemonic masculinity that they want to perform. The director of Vanderbilt’s Center for Research on Men’s Health defines hegemonic masculinity as follows, “Hegemonic masculinity is the idealized cultural standard of masculinity that exists in a specific time, place, and culture; it sets the ideal of how to be a man and sets the standard by which all men are judged.” In short, hegemonic masculinity is the rubric by which we judge a man’s manliness.
Hegemonic masculinity can be dangerous to one’s health. By this point in 2018, we’ve all heard the phrase “toxic masculinity.” But what does it actually mean? Is it saying that all masculine ideals are problematic? Or is saying that men themselves are the root of all our struggles?
No. Not at all.
Toxic masculinity refers to the restrictions and violent expectations of manhood. For example, men’s stereotypical gender roles encourage men to always be in control—of everything at all times. We’ve seen the repercussions of this for women in the recent #metoo movement. But what about men?
This is the other side of the toxic masculinity coin. On the one side, men can prey upon women. On the other side, men can never talk about their #metoo moments because men are supposed to be self-contained and self-correcting—at least according to toxic masculinity.
Poisoning Men’s Lifespan with Toxic Masculinity
Toxic masculinity could help explain the gender gap in human longevity. In the US, some of the leading causes of death in men are mostly behavioral. Many men die from unintentional, but easily avoidable, injuries. For instance, men are more likely to engage in risky behaviors. Many of these activities lead to physical, mental, and sexual health problems.
The fear of asking for help is perhaps the #1 detriment to men’s lifespans. How many men do you know who refuse to go to the doctor? When was the last time that your male friend or partner received an STI screening? A prostate exam? Or even talked to someone about their mental health? Men are encouraged to do things alone. They aren’t supposed to pull over and ask for directions—even when it comes to their health.
Even though men’s health month has come to an end, we should still continue to work for health equity across the board. But what can we do in our everyday lives to counter hegemonic masculinity?
On the level of public health, outreach campaigns must take moral responsibility for the kind of content they disperse. Media representations of medical problems play a large role in how people define and react to such problems in real life. They therefore need to question—not reproduce—the toxic actions that they’re trying to remedy.
Companies interested in longevity research should focus heavily on both sides of the gender question. Why do women live longer than men? Why do men have shorter lives than women? These researchers and funders should align themselves with the WHO agenda for men’s health equity.
As individuals, we perhaps play the strongest role in weakening the hold of toxic masculinity. Men should encourage themselves and others to talk about their day—not just about the World Cup or the small tasks at work, but about something real and substantial. They should build relationships with other people where vulnerability is desired and rewarded.
Taking care of yourself is not a Rambo movie. Tell people about your problems. Get insight and reinforcements. Then maybe we can take a real step towards health equity—where everyone has the ability and support to live longer and healthier lives.