Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Too Manly for Medicine?

If you’re a man then you probably know the deal, but looking at health statistics confirms what some of us might already guess: men’s health in the U.S. isn’t anything sing about. For example, compared to women, men’s death rate from chronic liver diseases and heart disease is twice as high. Heart disease itself it reported as the number one killer for men in the U.S., followed shortly by cancer. Men are more likely than women to report binge drinking, smoking and overweight/obesity. Oh yes, and men’s life expectancy is about 5.3 years lower than women.

Not such a great outlook. But for the men out there, have you ever considered that your views on masculinity could be playing a role in your health?

To elaborate, this past week’s Google News has seen considerable circulation of a particular health study, one that links men’s beliefs in traditional manhood to decreased likelihood for seeking preventative health care. The study, headed by Kristen W. Springer at Rutgers University in New Jersey, used a sample of 1,000 men from a long-range study group. The men were given eight statements that assessed their attitudes about masculinity. These statements included things like, “Men have greater sexual needs than woman” and “It bothers me when a man does something I consider feminine.” Men were then divided up according to how strongly they agreed with the statements, as well as by factors such as job status, wealth and education.

The findings?

Men who held more strongly to traditional and stereotypical beliefs about masculinity (or who agreed with the statements most) were less likely to seek out preventative health services. Specifically, these men were less likely to check for prostate cancer, less likely to get yearly physical exams and less likely to get flu shots than other men.

In other words, perhaps some of the health risks listed in the beginning are just so darn high because certain men do not feel the need to address their health on a regular basis. Though the study gave no clear indication that men’s feelings about masculinity cause them consciously avoid the doctor, much of the logic makes sense. If being a man means not showing pain and vulnerability, then that might lead to a strong neglect of situations that compromise this attitude, including going to the doctor. Unfortunately, going to the doctor regularly is the very thing that allows for symptoms and disease to be detected early on. Thus, being “real” man and not taking necessary steps for your health means you could pay for it later on.

As Dr. Springer noted, “It’s ironic that the belief in the John Wayne, Sylvester Stallone archetype of masculinity — and the idea that real men don’t get sick and don’t need to see the doctor, and that real men aren’t vulnerable — is actually causing men to get sick….These stereotypes and ideas are actually a reason why men do get sick.”

There were some exceptions to the findings. Notably enough, the study revealed that the men who held stereotypical beliefs about masculinity still went to the doctor regularly if they held blue collar jobs. Researchers thought this might be because these types of jobs require employees to be in better health. They also considered that having a job among this stratus of men was a greater indicator of masculinity than whether or not you sought help for your health.

Of course, nothing absolutely conclusive can be made from the study, especially since the sample size did not include all demographics (including men of color). And once again, a link does not imply causality. But these findings are important to think about, as they beg the greater question, how does personal attitude about masculinity affect a man’s behavior and lifestyle? Are there certain beliefs about masculinity that put some men at risk or influence them to act in ways that are detrimental to their health? And what about women? Do some women’s standards of femininity affect their health?

As for me, I’ll skip on Sylvester Stalone and John Wayne, as long as the men in my life are happy, healthy and alive.

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