health · men

Should we be more concerned about the health of men?

Let me start by saying that this is a blog about feminism and fitness. Tracy and I are both interested in the question, as we put in our “about this blog” section: “From a feminist perspective, in what way(s) does women’s quest for fitness and health contribute to empowerment and/or oppression?”

But what about the men? Are we leaving them out?

Bear with me for a moment. I’ll provide some context for this remark.

I’ve just finished reading (in anticipation of meeting the author again as he’s a speaker at a conference I’m organizing on the ethics of bearing and raising children) David Benatar’s Second Sexism: Discrimination against Men and Boys.  See reviews here and here. While it’s an annoying book (it doesn’t engage with feminist scholarship and it really needs to) it’s made me think about the ways in which men, as a group, are worse off than women, as a group.

Here’s a quick summary of some of the relevant facts: “Not only are men more likely to be conscripted into military service, to be the victims of violence, and to lose custody of their children in the event of a divorce, but tests conducted in 2009 by the programme for international student assessment, carried out by the OECD thinktank, showed that boys lag a year behind girls at reading in every industrialised country. They work longer hours, too: in 2010 the Office for National Statistics found that men in the UK work an average of 39 hours a week, compared with 34 for women. Healthwise, men develop heart disease 10 years earlier than women, on average, and young men are three times more likely to commit suicide.” (from here)

There’s work stress and work hours at one end of the economic spectrum, and at the other (in the “glass cellar” as some call it) men are overrepresented in the prison population, receive less education, and are more likely to be the victim of violence.

Does recognizing this mean we all need to start putting aside our feminism and start carrying the torch for men’s rights?  Not at all. What’s been bothering me about Benatar’s book is its lack of feminist analysis. I think feminists are best placed to give an analysis of the social structures that hurt both women and men.

I’ve been thinking this for awhile in terms family, well-being, and the good life. Feminists have criticized traditional accounts of ethics for not recognizing the importance of family and relationships both in accounts of justice and in accounts of the good life. Caring relationships tend to be a pink collar ghetto, ignored by theorists and not shared by men in real life. But if children, family, and relationships are important aspects of leading a good life, aren’t men also made worse off by this arrangement?

I think that’s right. Men work too much and don’t spend nearly enough time with friends and family. And I think a feminist analysis of men’s lives and the ways in which they fall short is key to understanding the ways in which patriarchy damages men too.

So my ears perked up when this came across my Facebook newsfeed from National Public Radio: The Unsafe Sex: Should The World Invest More In Men’s Health?

“On average, men aren’t as healthy as women. Men don’t live as long, and they’re more likely to engage in risky behaviors, like smoking and drinking. But in the past decade, global health funding has focused heavily on women. Programs and policies for men have been “notably absent,” says Sarah Hawkes from the University of London’s Institute of Global Health.”

“It’s cool to be a man that smokes and drinks — who drives a fast motorbike, or fast cars,” she says. “If you were really serious about saving lives, you would spend money tackling unhealthy gender norms” that promote these risky behaviors.”

See also 10 bad health habits of men. The list includes the usual: smoking, drinking, fast food, not seeing a doctor regularly, stress, keeping everything bottled in.  Just think of the TV show Mad Men from which the photo below comes.

There is one piece of good news. For people born after 2005, the life span gap between men and women has closed to a mere five years. Boys born after 2005 can expect to live to 78 years, girls 83. Reports the Globe and Mail: “As a growing number of men shun smoking, turn to healthy diets, and exercise and make regular trips to the doctor, they are starting to close the long-standing life expectancy gap with women.” See Life expectancy gap closing between men and women.

But back to our blog. We can admit that the social structures in which we live aren’t healthy for men either. But this particular piece of the landscape, our blog, is about the ways in which norms about fitness affect women’s lives. Insofar as we’re writing from personal experience it’s inevitable that we’ll offer a certain gendered perspective on fitness.

I’d love to read a blog about men and fitness that talks about gender norms. True, men are encouraged to play sports but then that encouragement can feel like coercion and bullying to boys and men who aren’t sports inclined. They’re told to “man up” when injured and play on through the pain.  These days men are expected to eat and drink with the best of them but still, somehow, maintain six pack abs. Dieting is for girls.

I think there’s a lot to be said but it’s not our story to tell.

For more of my work on inequality see the following:

1. “Feminist Ethics and Everyday Inequalities,” Hypatia, Special Issue, Oppression and Moral Agency: Essays in Honor of Claudia Card, Winter 2009, 24 (1): 141-159.

2. “Rethinking the Moral Significance of Micro-Inequities: The Case of Women in Philosophy,” in Women in Philosophy: What Needs to Change?, Fiona Jenkins and Katrina Hutchison (editors), Oxford University Press, forthcoming.

3. “Sexual Equality,” International Encyclopedia of Ethics, Hugh LaFolette (editor), Wiley.

4 thoughts on “Should we be more concerned about the health of men?

  1. It’s funny when you look back on your life and see certain changes you’ve made, but you really aren’t aware of the changes as being as big as others perceive them, because to you, you’re still just you. I definitely had the 10 bad health habits of men – some still hang around, like “keeping everything bottled in”. I think we’re told to work hard and play hard; to take our losses not so bad (since they know we will) and not to get too high on our wins (since they know we will), so we can just move on to the next case, assignment, whatever. As for keeping things bottled in, the underlying thinking is that we have to and then focus all our negativity, feed off it, use it – to “just do it” as the Nike solgan goes. So we don’t sit around and talk about our emotions and end up doing nothing except crying about it; no, instead we suck it up, get the job done, and then get our reward, before moving on to the next battle, where we start all over again. And the only real lesson some of us are taught is that we have to for ourselves learn how to keep work at work – you can’t be the person you have to be at work, at home – not unless you want to be divorced or have a really bad home life – and if you can do that, you will quite laughably be the wise one amongst your peers. You’ll still be married – have little in the way of open conversation (because if you do all you’ll hear about are all her anxieties, and as you’re used to bottling everything up, you’re woefully ill-equipped to hear about these things without it driving you to self-destructive behaviour) and less sex than at any other time of your life and that will not change under any circumstances no matter what other changes you make – but you do get used to the comfort of it all – so you try to have what life you can and as much of it outside your home as possible. Putting it that way, it really doesn’t sound so balanced and healthy to be a man, does it? I really have been and still am working to get rid of these bad habits in my life. They are debilitating.

    1. Sounds misery making. Thanks for sharing. And glad you’re able to break free of some of the worst of it.

      1. Thanks, Sam. I’ve actually avoided alot of the worst of it, somehow . The dreaded middle age crisis which some men go through is centred on a rather ugly and quite nasty form of narcissism, in which the men are fantastically insecure and unable to truly connect with others, and so compensate by forming a picture of themselves as really quite deserving of others’ attention as a matter of conquest, and oh, the ugly sadism which such men are capable of exhibiting the minute they feel threatened. Such men may be pitiful, but never forget that they are opportunistic predators every bit as much as they are lonely victims.

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