Could Masculinity Be Killing Us?

From the time we're little, we're taught that big boys don't cry and told that when times get tough, we just need to "man up." But that pressure to be a real man may very well be killing us.

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That whole sticks-and-stones-vs.-names thing turns out to be wrong. The truth is that while sticks and stones can, indeed, break bones and leave scars, there are a few words that are actually killing us: “Man up,” “Play through it,” and “Big boys don’t cry.” The pressure to man up starts long before we can even stand up. John and Sandra Condry, a husband-and-wife team of researchers at Cornell University, conducted a few of my favorite studies. 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 shouldn’t cry. Put a different way, boys—and later, men—need to be tough. “Real” 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 we’re 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 (click here for more on “masculine” vs “feminine” foods). 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 (the American kind), 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? Non-violent sports (like baseball and cycling) can be deadly too, especially when they involve taking steroids and other supplements that have been linked with long-term disability and death. In the pursuit of “real” masculinity, we also have a tendency to make already dangerous activities even more dangerous by showing off. YouTube has videos of hundreds of catastrophic sporting accidents involving boys and men, and the X Games have turned excessive risk taking into an art.

Going outside is killing us.

Dermatologists recommend that all of us—male and female—put on sunscreen every day, and for good reason: too much exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays causes skin cancer. But because lotions and sunscreen are for girls, men are far less likely than women to apply sunscreen. As a result, twice as many men as women develop and die from skin cancers.

How we get from place to place is killing us.

Male drivers are more likely than females to cause, be injured in, or die in car accidents.

Our attitude about healthcare is killing us.

Men are half as likely as women to have seen a doctor in the past year. If we don’t go, we can’t get important health screenings that could save or extend our life. Jean Bonhomme, an advisor to Men’s Health Network, says it’s all about the “terrible twos.” In our teens and 20s, we’re too tough; in our 30s and 40s, we’re too busy; and in our 50s and up, we’re too afraid of what we might find out. So the next time anyone tells you to “man up,” think about whether that’s something you really want to do. After all, it could kill you.