When Rubbing Dirt on It Isn’t Enough: Examining Idealized Masculinity and Its Impact on Men’s Health

This article was written by our colleague Austin John Bald, Vice President, Client Experience

Health education in schools has become widely debated across the United States. How early is too early to discuss preventive reproductive health with children? What should be addressed in schools, and what should be taught at home? How can we educate children about the importance of self-care and preventative practices?

These questions often become mixed up with the debate around sexual education. During these initial sexual education classes, girls are often taught the importance of understanding their bodies. Discussion around what a mammogram is and the importance of regularly seeing a gynecologist are encouraged as essential traits of what it means to be a responsible adult. However, are these same ideas promoted in young men?

The “Man Up and Brush it Off” Mentality  

Several studies suggest that gender disparities in health status exist within the United States, with men at a higher risk for mortality and morbidity. One potential reason is that men use fewer preventive healthcare services and do not seek immediate treatment for many health problems. Research suggests this is because men are taught to “man up” or “brush it off” when they are younger, instilling a belief that it is un-manly to seek or discuss medical needs.

The idea of “manning-up” is often instilled in the next generation at birth. For example, in a study to assess perceived sex-related differences between newborn girls and boys, researchers found that parents overwhelmingly reported girls as more delicate and “softer” than boys; they imagined boys to be bigger and generally “stronger.”

These traits of being tougher, stronger, and more independent are culturally idealized and continuously reinforced throughout childhood and into adolescence. Further studies found that mothers and fathers taught their sons to “control their emotions,” leading boys to ignore or downplay their emotional needs and wants. Similarly, parents of both sexes are more punitive toward their sons, presumably working under the assumption that boys “can take it.”

The Intersection of Masculinity and Healthcare

And these beliefs taught to young boys have a measurable impact on their health well into adulthood. According to a study by the American Sociological Association, middle-aged men who strongly idealize ‘old-school’ masculinity are almost 50 percent less likely than other men to seek preventative healthcare services.

This research suggests that men who most strongly endorse ideals of ‘old school’ masculinity have a detrimental effect on preventative healthcare, which could contribute to men’s overall lower life expectancy.

In fact, the average lifespan is about five years longer for women than men in the U.S. and about seven years longer worldwide.

The Next Generation of Men

However, findings suggest that men high in self-reliance, responsibility, and emotional maturity are more prone to visit their physicians and avoid risky behaviors. This research suggests that changing the narrative of what it means to “be a man” can impact how young boys will care for themselves as adults. Suppose we can cultivate young boys’ ability to discuss and understand their emotions opposed to ignoring them. If we can begin there, perhaps we can avoid a generation of adults who refuse to seek preventative healthcare and protect our sons, brothers and fathers from early deaths and disease.

Tell us: How do you believe we can reinforce positive traits of responsibility, understanding and emotional maturity in young boys?