equality · gender policing · men · Uncategorized

Just wear the damn sunscreen?: Men, gender roles, and skin cancer risk


What’s the biggest single factor that puts you at risk for ignoring your health? Being a man.

Sociologist Lisa Wade, interviewed in New York Magazine, says that “some scholars argue that being male is the single strongest predictor of whether a person will take health risks.”

Men like risk it turns out. Most of them also hate putting lotion on their skin (too girly) and being afraid of things (not manly). They are also more likely to have outdoor jobs and do household tasks that involve being outside the house. Think lawn mowing and BBQ-ing. They also pay less attention to their skin and so don’t catch early warning signs.

Women, generally speaking, don’t mind lotions, do pay attention to changes in our skin, wear sunscreen to avoid premature aging and wrinkles, and often also wear make up year round that contains ingredients that protect skin from the sun.

Male socialization in this case leads to bad results for men. Women, thanks to a different set of gender norms, fare better.

This combination of factors is part of the explanation as to why men between the ages of 15 to 39 are more than twice as likely to die of melanoma than women of that age. According to the American Academy of Dermatology melanoma will kill 6,470 men this year — and half as many women.

The NY Mag, Why are men more likely to get skin cancer?

“Advocates and researchers are currently trying to figure out how to better get the message across to dudes that they really need to slather on the SPF, and last week Wade came across an unlikely solution: the marketing teams that create what Wade calls “pointlessly gendered products.”Usually, Wade writes about such products — like gendered packages of mixed nuts, glue sticks, and even vegetables — with a mixture of snark and incredulousness. But when she came across Banana Boat sunscreen for men last week, she couldn’t help but write a “reluctant defense” of the product.

“Sunscreen is a category of lotion and so putting on sunscreen is equivalent to admitting you’re the sun’s bitch,” she writes. “In fact, thanks in part to the stupid idea that lotion carries girl cooties, men are two to three times more likely to be diagnosed with skin cancer. So, fine, dudes, here’s some sunscreen for men. For christ’s sake.”

Maybe for my teen boys they need an Axe of the sunscreen world? I was amused to see they know have sunscreen especially for tattoos. See http://www.coppertone.com/products/speciality/tattoguard/spray.aspx  even though the Canadian Cancer Society says any full spectrum, high SPF sunscreen will do the trick. The “just for tattoos” stuff looks cooler and I’m sure ounce for ounce, it’s pricier. But whatever.

The sunscreen avoidance and skin cancer risk isn’t the only health problem men face.

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.

Men lead shorter lives than women and some moral philosophers think we ought to be more concerned than we are about this inequality. There are a number of ways in which men’s lives lead to early deaths, stress, yes, but also death in war time, and dangerous jobs such as mining and construction. Men are disproportionately represented in the prison population as well.

(I’ve written a bit before about men’s health. See The unsafe sex where I address some of these arguments.)

When thinking about inequality moral philosophers like to divide up inequalities that are the result of circumstance and luck, from ones that follow from choice. We think individuals are responsible for inequalities that are their own choosing. Sure smokers die young, for example, but that’s a trade off they’ve made.

It’s tempting to put men’s deaths from sun related skin cancer that category.

“Don’t be an idiot! Just wear the damn sunscreen!”

That I can hear cry in my own voice is part of the reason that married men, or men with female partners anyway, live longer. They’re nagged into healthy habits and visit the doctor more often. Now I should say that the person I’m in the best position to nag on this front doesn’t need it, not where sunscreen is concerned. As the result of a scare in his twenties, after growing up a fair skinned, freckled redhead, racing sailboats on the ocean, he was an early adopter of hats, gloves, long sleeves, and serious sunscreen.

Maybe it’s that I’m now parenting teenage boys but I can see how strong gender role socialization is for boys. It’s okay to wear a helmet because “my parents are crazy when it comes helmets. They’ll ground me forever if I ride without one” but not okay to do it because you’re worried about hitting your head.

Note that when young women acquire unhealthy habits, dieting, for example, as a result of female socialization feminists aren’t so quick to dismiss it as a matter of individual choice. Feminists can, and should, take male gender role socialization just as seriously. Indeed, I think feminism offers the best explanation of some of the inequalities that hurt men.

bright sun peeking through a palm tree






5 thoughts on “Just wear the damn sunscreen?: Men, gender roles, and skin cancer risk

  1. It’s funny that they equate sunscreen to lotion in this article. Funny to me because I barely ever use lotion and I’m a woman, but my husband is crazy into using lotion and makes sure I always put it on our boys after their baths. ON the flip side, I and the boys always have on sunscreen when we go for runs, to the pool, play outside, etc. My husband goes fishing almost every morning standing out in the sun without a shirt on and fails to put on any sunscreen. He’s gotten better about wearing a hat, but his very dark shoulders tell a different story.

  2. Feminisim is about women. Feminism is not about protecting men. The gendered behvaiors that lead to men’s increased “risk taking” with their bodies is the EXACT SAME as the gendered behaviors that lead them to abuse and oppress women. Men find risk not only “masculine,” but “sexy,” which is why as a gender they are defined by taking enjoyment in breaking boundaries (other men’s, the culture’s, but especially women’s), endagering bodies (their own, but also women’s and children’s) not only in mundane things like refusing to wear sunscreen but in the workplace, in their homes, and while having sex (all arenas in this culture where women are “put in their place”).

    I’m not denying that gender hurts men too. But the hurts are not equivalent, and they certainly aren’t to take priority in feminism– a political movement for women by women– and this whole “see, we feminists care about the men, too” thing just smacks of placating “good girl” behavior. I’m sorry to say this. i’m trying not to be rude. But it’s just really disheartening to see a blog claim that it is feminist while making sure to periodically placate the worried bystanders and assure them that we look out for men too. We CARE about men too. Because women must always care for men, right? But feminism is not for men. Feminism is not about protecting men.

    As far as which hurts take priority, it is obvious that no one is “pure” evil or “pure” victim. The point is to hold those who victimize others accountable, whether or not they have been hurt before. Gender is a weapon men wield against women. It is systematic. It systematically benefits men and victimizes women. So why, as feminists, should we be giving any attention elsewhere than to women?

  3. I think that we might need to acknowledge how men’s knee-jerk reaction to dismiss the need for bodily interventions, the body as a project, the medicalization of their bodies etc is boundary setting that is granted to them and not to women in this culture.

    Yes, in this one instance, men fare worse. However, it truly is their choice because the social repercussions for using sunscreen are minimal, and men also face no social repercussions for dismissing its use. As the article notes, there aren’t campaigns to coerce them into using it and wives in general don’t leave husbands for not taking care of themselves and their skin. Their actions speak. What they say is that being a man comes with many many benefits, and the benefits of maintaining that masculinity outweigh the risk of getting skin cancer. Just as the benefits of being a smoking, harley riding dude who “gets” harley riding women, the respect of his male peers, adventure etc simply outweigh the risks of lung cancer and traffic accidents. Its a quality of life issue and men see it that way. Men have a good quality of life. Women don’t have as good of one and they wear lotion. so…

    Women should be allowed to take health risks in the way men do. Women should be allowed to choose *NOT* to get pap smears or mammograms without being called “irresponsible”. Women should not have pharmaceutical birth control campaigns targeted at them. They should not have the propaganda machines pumping out beauty standards that coerce young girls into obsessing over those standards and using sunscreen & makeup in order to meet them. Sunscreen is neutral, but WHY we use it and they don’t. not neutral at all.

    1. hear hear!

      And the solution is not to deploy the advertizing and health campaigns more than before at men’s bodies, but to reject those sorts of biopolitical attempts to capture ANYONE’S bodies. That strategy would mean starting with returning the focus to women. It would mean looking at women’s bodies, how they are disproportinately targeted by these invasive biopolitical mechanisms, and how we can return bodily autonomy and integrity to women. And we can’t do THAT without truly approaching and understanding the sex-gender system, which means acknowledging that it is capitalist and patriarchal, in other words it does systematically make women as a class a resource for men as a class to mine and use, as they would coal, livestock, forests, or any other resource.

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