men, masculinities and gender politics

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Guys! Start Taking Better Care of Your Health!

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Several years ago in the late 1990s, I remember watching an HBO special where a comedian made the comment “a man can have a foot growing in his stomach and he still will not go to the hospital.” At the time, the audience, like myself, laughed at the comment.  Fast forward more than a decade later, the genuinely funny remark contained an underlying serious message. In their recent health survey, Esquire Magazine conducted a poll of more than 500 men ages 18-60 (not an exhaustive study by any means, but nonetheless exclusive) from various races (14% were African American, 10% Latino and 5% Asian), educational backgrounds and socio economic groups. The study resulted in one definitive conclusion: too many men are not adequately taking care of themselves.

Among some of the more alarming findings to support this premise were:

  • 40% of men in their 40s have never had their cholesterol tested and 70% have never had a prostrate exam
  • 75% of men say they experience illness at least once a year
  • 45% do not have a regular doctor
  • Almost 4 in10 men say that they could lose 20 pounds (9 kilograms) or more
  • 57%  of men stated that they eat fast food at  least three times a week
  • 20% were treated for sexually transmitted diseases
  • 43% of men stated that they live a largely sedentary lifestyle
  • 20% of men stated that they never exercise

One section of the study entitled “The Young Man” (men 18-29 years of age), many of whom were undergraduate college students, graduate students and other young professionals, revealed that many males under 30:

  • Do not have a regular doctor  
  • If they smoke, frequently consume more than 20 cigarettes per day
  • Have more trouble regularly going to the bathroom than their more senior fathers and grandfathers
  • Are much more likely than men over 35 to engage in risky or unprotected sex.

Moreover, a number of men of all ages suffered from acute high blood pressure, sleeping difficulties, anxiety or depression. While these statistics are alarming, I cannot say that I am all that surprised. In fact, I have known a number of men (including some of my colleagues) who have told me that they refuse to allow any individual (including physicians) to “invade their privacy” in such a manner. Wow! I thought. Getting regular health check ups is synonymous with an “invasion of privacy”?  Their comments have frequently left me dumbfounded.

I would argue that a major reason so many human beings with the Y chromosome refuse to address any health deficiencies facing them is due to the fact that society has always expected men to be impervious. There has been this long held alpha male mindset that a “real men” can confront almost any challenge or obstacle facing him without any assistance. On the other hand, only “wimpy men” resort to calling on or seeking out the aid of others.

It is as a result of this “Dude, whatever, I do not need any help, I’m alright, just leave me alone give me the two fat, greasy triple pounders with double cheese burgers, two big gulp Pepsis, three orders of fries fried in deep  tropical oils and my three times a week six pack of beer” attitude that a growing number of men are experiencing far more health problems than at any time in history. While we do live in an environment that is more sedentary than those of our fathers and grandfathers, there is no doubt that given our current state of technology and round the clock level of information about personal health available at our fingertips, some, if not many, of these problems can often be prevented or at least mitigated to some degree.

Anyone who equates being treated regularly by a primary physician to prevent potential health issues as being synonymous with having their privacy invaded has a dangerously myopic and misguided view of themselves. Any reasonable human being should be concerned about their physical and mental well being. While no one is suggesting that men (or women for that matter) resort to becoming helpless, hopeless, hypochondriacs rushing to the emergency room at the first sign of any minor ache, pain or headache, it is nonetheless important that more men become aggressive in addressing their health issues and be more willing to submit to periodic health checks especially once they reach the middle age chapters of their lives. We owe it to our wives, mothers, sisters and other loved ones. The terms SOUND, MIND and BODY ring true more than ever. In short, our lives could depend on it. Literally!

Elwood Watson is the co-editor, with Marc Shaw, of the new anthology Performing American Masculinities: The 21st Century Man in Popular Culture (Indiana University Press). The collection of essays looks at a variety of contemporary figures such as Neil LaBute, O.J.Simpson, President Obama, and others.