Why you should care
The days of “Macho, macho man” are over.
For the first six to eight decades of life, being a man is probably the better deal. Blame the patriarchy. But then you get to old age, and being a man suddenly starts to suck. In nearly every country on earth women outlive men. In India women get 2 more years, in the U.S. they get 5 and in Japan it’s 7. And the patriarchy is, in part, to blame.
If you ask about these disparities, researchers will tell you men die younger because they choose to live riskier lives. Men tend to drink and smoke more than women, use more drugs and are, on balance, more overweight. The stereotypical man spends his free time riding a motorcycle, grilling massive pieces of meat and playing violent sports. Plus, men are less likely to seek out medical care, and when they do, their maladies have progressed further (and are therefore harder to treat).
Patriarchy has conditioned men to resist this moment entirely, while also conditioning us to live risky, dangerous lives.
How could so many men all decide to behave in the same dangerous and unhealthy ways? Again, blame the patriarchy. Machismo, or “traditional” male behavior, is highly correlated with poor health, research has found. For example, a study in the U.K. linked “traditional masculine behavior” like normalizing symptoms or reticence to discuss health issues with delays in seeking health care. Another found that mass media reinforces these disparities by pressuring men to avoid dieting, telling them the practice is “feminine.” When you add it all up, traditional masculine beliefs — like an inflated sense of well-being or embarrassment and shame about health problems amongst men — are the single most powerful predictor of risky behavior.
Take, for example, the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. He is a loner, he’s aggressive, he engages in risky behavior (sword fighting?), he normalizes and diminishes his health problems and there’s a moment there where he probably should have visited a doctor. While the scene is satire, it showcases many of the behaviors that are killing men in the real world. Also, had the Black Knight survived his meeting with King Arthur, his solitude would have caught up to him eventually; research has shown that leading a solitary life is one of the better predictors of poor health among men.
Asking for help when sick or injured requires making yourself vulnerable — something many men have never quite figured out how to do. So the patriarchy has conditioned men to resist this moment entirely, while also conditioning us to live risky, dangerous lives, which doesn’t leave us many options when trying to extend our lifespans. One of the highest compliments you can pay a workingman: that he has never taken a sick day. Break an arm? Walk it off. Cancer? Rub some dirt on it. Depressed? Stop being a sissy.
Doctors in the room will tell you that there are biological reasons, too — but much of the research explaining that men and women are set for different health outcomes is inconclusive. Yes, low levels of testosterone can predict more cardiovascular disease for men, but normal or high levels can lead to more risky behavior. At the end of the day, men aren’t screwed by birth — but we may be choosing to place ourselves on worse footing because of our own insistence on being, well, manly.
Ways to fix it? You could try one of those handy feminist T-shirts (or better yet, attend an event). Or, you could follow the advice of some researchers in Scotland who figured out that getting together for a beer with your buddies makes you less lonely and less caricaturishly over-masculine. Try it. It could save your life.