Dear Healthy Men: How much do you think that masculinity could be hurting men?
A: A lot. But I'd argue that it's less masculinity itself and more the pressure to be a "real man"-- which, thanks to phrases like "Man up," "Play through it," and "Big boys don't cry," starts long before we can even stand up -- that's doing the harm.
John and Sandra Condry, a husband-and-wife team of researchers at Cornell University conducted a few of my favorite studies (I've written about them previously and they're still fascinating). In one, they had several hundred men and women watch a videotape of a gender-neutrally dressed 9-month old playing with a jack-in-the-box. The Condrys told half of the adults that they were watching a boy, and the other half that they were watching a girl. When the jack-in-the-box popped, the people watching the "girl" described "her" reaction as fear. Those watching the "boy" described "his" reaction as anger.
That doesn't sound like such a big deal until you realize that those perceptions translate into behavior -- most of us would treat a frightened child very differently than an angry one. New mothers breastfeed girls longer than boys and they're quicker to respond to, sooth, and cuddle with crying girls than boys.
The message is so strong that even a baby could figure it out (and plenty do): boys need to be tough. "Real" boys -- and later, men -- disregard pain, discomfort, and even common sense. Here are a few examples of how this plays out:
-- Our jobs are killing us. More than 90 percent of people killed in a workplace are male. And more than 90 percent of those who work in the most dangerous jobs are male. These include military service, roofing, logging, mining, firefighting, garbage collecting, working on an oil rig, and driving a truck.
-- Our social life is killing us. On average, men have fewer friends and are less emotionally open with them than women are. A number of studies have found that loneliness is one of the biggest predictors of functional decline and death in older adults.
-- Our diet is killing us. Healthy food is for girls. Real men eat tons of fried foods, bacon, and red meat. Study after study has found a clear association between a "manly" diet and heart attacks, strokes, and diabetes.
-- Other stuff we put in our mouth is killing us. Men are more likely as women to die from alcohol-related causes (which include cirrhosis of the liver, cancer, car accidents, and violence), and we're more likely than women to smoke and die from smoking-related conditions.
-- The way we play is killing us. Over the past few years, we've learned more and more about concussions and brain injury, a lot of which come from violent sports like boxing, football, lacrosse, and rugby. Oh, and let's not forget about mixed martial arts (UFC, and so on), where the gloves you wear are designed to protect your hands, not cushion the blows to your opponent's head. And, of course, when we sustain an injury, we're told to play through it. How many times have we heard about athletes who played with broken bones or other injuries?