The tragedy of traditional masculinity is that it shortens men’s lives—and that it does so in the name of making them better husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons.
A study last month revealed a truth many of us have long suspected: men with “macho” attitudes are more reluctant to seek health care—and as a result experience shorter life expectancy and greater medical problems—than men who hold less traditional views. According to the Rutgers University researchers, men who believed in rigid gender roles (like the idea that women should be homemakers while men work) were 46 percent less likely than their more progressive peers to seek out vital life-saving preventative health care.
We take it for granted today that women outlive men, forgetting that in pre-modern times the reverse was often true. Death in childbirth was more common for women than death in war was for men; in many societies there were more widowers than widows. Think of the wicked stepmothers and single fathers who are ubiquitous in the Grimm fairy tales, and think about what must have happened to Cinderella’s mom. Women have only consistently outlived men since the advent of modern medicine not much more than a century ago.
Men aren’t dying earlier because their bodies are inherently more frail than women’s. Men die earlier because of poor lifestyle choices, most of which are rooted in the destructive rules of traditional masculinity. Two of the most basic of those “man laws” or “guy codes”:
- Don’t display weakness
- Take risks
As any insurance agent will tell you, young men are more likely to be reckless behind the wheel and to die in the resulting accidents. They are also more likely to be murdered, to commit suicide, and to overdose. These statistics hold true across racial and class lines. And though we live in a culture that often sees men as more expendable than women, the chief culprit in so many of these untimely deaths is the demanding macho ethos. From small boys “double-dog-daring” one another to jump off roofs to drag-racing teens, that ethos insists that “real men” are heedless of their safety. The toll in blood and heartbreak is incalculable.
Statistically, men take fewer overt physical risks as they transition into middle age. But aging men aren’t immune from the pressures to live up to the guy code. Where once they proved their toughness by driving fast or playing violent sports, they now measure their manhood by their willingness to ignore pain and other signs of illness. As this new Rutgers study has shown, there’s a direct correlation between the degree to which a man clings to these outdated and destructive rules and his refusal to take care of himself.
This is deeply personal to me. All four of my great-grandmothers reached their 80s, as did both of my grandmothers. My two grandfathers died at 44 and 62, and three of my four great-grandfathers never saw 65. My dad died of stomach cancer at 71. My wife’s father died of a heart attack at 63. My daughter has two doting grannies, but will never know her parents’ fathers. And in almost every instance, these men would have lived longer had they taken better care of themselves. My father-in-law and my maternal grandfather drank themselves to death. My father’s father drove too fast on a foggy English road one morning decades ago and ploughed head-on into a bus. And my own Dad, as sweet and non-macho as he was in so many ways, ignored too many of his symptoms until it was too late.
Both statistics and anecdotes tell me my family isn’t that unusual.
I’m not angry at any of these men who left too soon. The decisions they made to take risks or to ignore pain were theirs, of course, but they were made in concert with an ethos that few of them had the opportunity to question. They weren’t given the opportunity their sons and grandsons have been given: the chance to reevaluate the masculine myth and its cruel insistence on relentless disregard for health and well-being.
In just a few months, I will have outlived my father’s father. That’s a haunting thought, especially as I have a very young daughter. Heloise is only 2; my wife and I took a long sweet time to become parents. If I am to see my little girl grow middle-aged, I am keenly aware I need to make different decisions than my father and grandfathers made before me. I can’t prevent every accident, of course, and even the most careful attention to diet, exercise, and doctor visits isn’t a perfect prophylaxis against untimely death. All any of us can do is improve our odds. And improving those odds means letting go of the foolish masculine ideal that demands we treat our bodies as if they were indestructible.
One of the defenses of the macho ethic is that it encourages men to be strong and tough to protect and defend their families and communities. Even if that were true, you can’t protect if you’re not present. The tragedy of traditional masculinity is that it shortens men’s lives; the scandal is that it does so in the name of making them better husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons.
We need to remind men that part of being a “real man” is being mentally, emotionally, and physically present for the people who love and rely upon us. Being present—and staying present—requires us to be better stewards of our bodies and our spirits. It doesn’t mean hypochondria or endless introspection. It means remembering that our value doesn’t lie only in our capacity to defend or to provide. It lies in our capacity to love, to connect, and to nurture.
We can do none of those things if we aren’t there.