What is it with men?

September 30th, 2011

Cary Tennis has a letter today that gets at a gender difference I have long noticed and wondered about:

Although [my husband] refuses to go to a doctor, I know he is very ill. If he goes outside to mow, or even spray weeds, he is sick for days afterward. If he helps vacuum or mop, he is sick again.

He is tired all the time. His feet, knees and one hand swell often. Now, his mouth is sore and his face is swollen. I see to it he eats one real good meal a day. Ever since I have known him he has had chronic diarrhea; he says there is no blood. We cannot make plans to go anywhere or do anything because he spends so much time in the bathroom.

Most of the letters in reply are from women describing similar experiences — some more dramatic, some less so — with their own husbands, boyfriends, or fathers. A handful of men also chime in with their own stories of being (rightly) dragged to doctors or emergency rooms by wives or girlfriends. And a few letters, most clearly from men, argue that the husband should be left alone to make his own choices.

Think about switching the genders on a letter like this. If a husband described his wife this way, wouldn’t you immediately wonder if she didn’t have some sort of mental illness as well? I would. And yet, when it’s the husband, we think, “Oh. One of those guys.” In a man, this behavior is recognizable. We don’t see it as necessarily a sign of a deeper pathology. On some level, it’s just a guy thing.

But why? What’s the link between masculinity and medical self-neglect? We all know men like this. We all have these stories. Maybe some of you are those men. I hope so, because I want to hear from you. I’m not asking you to defend yourself, just tell me what it’s like.

And for those of us analyzing the phenom from without, let’s leapfrog right over facile statements about machismo and fear of vulnerability. It’s easy to blame this on some kind of masculine mystique, but I’ve known plenty of doctor-avoiding men who don’t let gender stereotypes control their lives in any other way, and who aren’t invested in presenting a macho facade. How do we account for them?


8 Responses to “What is it with men?”

  1. Romie on September 30, 2011 3:55 pm

    It seems particularly strange given all the studies which suggest men are more listened to by their doctors than women are; I’d think women would be less likely to go to the doctor, given their odds of being ignored or dismissed.

    I agree with you that I start thinking “mental illness” or at least some kind of distortion. Which seems like another area where in clinical diagnoses men tend to take the lead, yet laymen are more likely to assume women are crazy. Hooray for gaslighting (and the imperative that women seem properly socialized).

  2. Jerry on September 30, 2011 6:33 pm

    In the team sports which are apparently mandatory for boys, there is (or was when I was a kid) a universal culture of “the game must go on”. When someone got hurt, they were told to “shake it off” and those who didn’t/couldn’t were reviled and shunned by all. Or at least by all their teammates.

  3. Jay on October 1, 2011 3:02 pm

    I think it is an intrinsic (genetically inherited over the zillions of years of humankind) fear of mortality. As a dude/man/gentleman/what-have-you, I didn’t want to think there was some sort of issue where a doctor’s care would acknowledge the concept that the human body is not invincible and needs corrective maintenance. Pardon the bit of car metaphor.

    It very well could be just within the realm of the patriarch state of mind – provider, protector, the shield that stops all bad things from reaching your loved ones.

    Where it gets even harder is with mental disorders and chemical imbalances. That goes from the humorous to the precarious.

    First-time visitor to your site and blog. This is fantastic stuff. I am going to pick up the book this week.

  4. James on October 2, 2011 12:10 pm

    It’s like a law of physics for every self-neglected male there is a woman hypochondriac. Let face it most medical issues resolve themselves in a few weeks or months, depending if it football or hockey season. Why run around as if our hair is on fire? Those weeks could be spent in the waiting room of doctor’s offices, waiting in line at the ER, on the phone telling everyone we know we have a fatal condition as most women do, can be better spent reading a book or relishing the ongoing sports season. All men know from experience we know if we are really ill we get the royal treatment. For example, Every time my son had a broken bone from team sports he automatically went to the front of the line past a multitude of women in various states of emotional distress. Why get your panties in a bunch? Recovering can’t be hurried we need our body to fight illnesses out.

  5. Bobbie on October 2, 2011 10:26 pm

    I watched the painful decline and death from melanoma of a friend who ignored nagging symptoms too long, despite a previous bout with the disease, and left two young children to grow up without a dad. He openly regretted his failure to deal with his odd aches and pains. I’m not blaming the victim, just feeling the loss and being angry about it.

    On the other hand, my father was one of the biggest hypochondriacs I’ve known. No twinge went without being remarked, researched, and treated.

  6. Eeeeka on October 3, 2011 8:36 am

    Ummm, James, this letter was talking about something chronic, as in for years, not just a month. And if you have something for a month, why not see a doctor?

    I found your response really…misogynistic actually. My husband is the hypochondriac in the family. And just because you don’t see a problem (like a broken bone) that doesn’t mean there isn’t one. I think you’ll find that your views do not reflect reality.

  7. bluemoose on October 3, 2011 9:21 am

    My father avoided doctors like they were plague-carriers. This resulted in a lot of painful and expensive issues (minor dental work turned major, a really bad kidney stone incident) and eventually in cancer that would have been caught earlier in a basic blood test. It is likely that the outcome would have been the same (death) but who knows?

    My personal theory on why he did this was that he hated being told what to do. He didn’t live a healthy lifestyle. He was a heavy drinker, heavy smoker, got little-to-no exercise, and ate healthy foods only at home when my mother was cooking (since he traveled a lot, that was a lot of pizza and steak and foods that never included a vegetable besides salsa). He knew this was adversely impacting his health, but he had no interest in or intention of changing. He didn’t live to see retirement.

    My brother never goes to the doctor because he does not have insurance and cannot afford it. But he also had poor male medical behavior demonstrated to him his entire life, and I wonder if that isn’t the seat of a lot of the problems — learned behavior from a generation of men who were not supposed to admit or show weakness.

  8. Andy on October 6, 2011 6:20 am

    Sorry for quoting, but i liked their points:

    Jerry: “In the team sports which are apparently mandatory for boys, there is (or was when I was a kid) a universal culture of “the game must go on”. When someone got hurt, they were told to “shake it off” and those who didn’t/couldn’t were reviled and shunned by all. Or at least by all their teammates.”
    Well, maybe he’s slightly off, not all men care so much about being shunned by others. I see it more like you have to be in good health in order to get to do all the things you want to do. I don’t have time to be sick right now if I’m gonna be on that team (be it sports or work), so I’ll just try to ignore the problem away. It works with colds, so why not this too?

    Jay: “I think it is an intrinsic (genetically inherited over the zillions of years of humankind) fear of mortality. As a dude/man/gentleman/what-have-you, I didn’t want to think there was some sort of issue where a doctor’s care would acknowledge the concept that the human body is not invincible and needs corrective maintenance.”
    A healthy body should be able to fix itself, so I’d probably freak out if a doctor told me something needs medical attention. And I don’t like the thought of leaving my well-being in someone else’s hands.

    And what else, no matter how many times I tell my father to see a doctor if he needs to, I still can’t make myself go. Lol, I’m ridiculous, it’s hard to believe I was born female.

Trackback URI | Comments RSS

Leave a Reply

Name (required)

Email (required)

Website

Speak your mind