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?