Is it my imagination or does media coverage of mens health focus too much on shaming men?

Readers might be aware that there are a number of areas when men compare poorly with women in terms of disease prevalence and outcomes, rates of suicide, and overall life expectancy. I talk about some of these factors in my earlier post on men’s health.

Many factors contribute to this situation including aspects of male physiology, a propensity towards greater risk-taking in leisure pursuits, and working longer hours – sometimes in more dangerous occupations. Other individual factors include things like attention to diet and exercise, and receptiveness to seeking/receiving medical treatment.

Let’s try to split all the factors contributing to men’s poorer health outcomes into two groups, comprising those things that individual men can exercise significant control over versus those things that they can’t.

At the outset we must recognise that there is clearly a huge range of individual variation within male and female populations in relation to these factors with further variables like degree of education, income level, and age for example. Thus there are limits as to the extent that we can make meaningful generalisations about “all men” or “all women”. Further, in the case of some factors over which one might think people do have control, the extent to which an individual actually can exercise personal choice, is very limited in some cases. An example of this would be a poorly educated man choosing to engage in a risky occupation to support his family.

So what of the factors that most individuals don’t have any control over? Well one that springs to mind are decisions made by governments, health agencies and drug companies (for example), that determine funding priorities/subsidies/etc for medical research and treatment. To give an example, the fact that the death rate from prostate cancer is higher than for breast cancer might be more indicative of the disproportionately greater funding for breast cancer research and treatment than the extent to which men “take their health seriously“.

And yet despite the above, all too often the focus of campaigns and articles about men’s health seems to be an implied or overt suggestion that men’s health problems are of their own making – that if men weren’t so silly/lazy then everything and everyone would be better off.

For now I’ll just mention a few examples, with more perhaps to be added later.

I came across this article about a men’s health campaign fronted by well-known actor Samuel L Jackson. Jackson was visiting the UK to promote a new male cancer campaign called ‘One For The Boys’ that hopes to “change male mentality”. Apparently men in the UK are 60% more likely to get the cancers that affect all sexes and 70% more likely to die from these cancers.

The campaign is based on the premise that the higher incidence of cancer in men is caused by men neglecting their health. “If only men would only stop being so dumb and talk about our health then we’d stop dying from cancer in greater numbers.”

The author of the article disputes both the validity and appropriateness of this message, claiming that a major reason for the different rates of cancer between men and women is greater expenditure of research and treatment in relation to women’s health.

The author would prefer a more positive message for men, and suggests something more along the following lines:

“Listen brother, every man’s and woman’s life is precious so why are we putting less time, energy and money into fighting cancer in men? It doesn’t make sense to me. Is it any wonder that more men than women are dying of cancer every single day? Are you okay with that? I’m not. So here’s what we’re going to do. Us men, all of us, we’re going to get together and make sure we start putting more time, energy and money into fighting male cancer, cos that’s the only way we’re going to beat this goddam, mother***ing disease. So who’s with me? Are you with me brother? Are you with me?”

The author closes with: “Now that’s the kind of good man narrative that I’d be happy to be part of, and it could apply to any of the issues that men and boys face.”

Fast forward to February 2015 and Ice-T has established the Male Awareness Foundation (MAF), which appears to be in a similar vein. MAF is described as a non-profit organization whose mission is to reach men and boys where they live, work, play, and pray with sickness prevention messages and tools, screening programs, educational material, advocacy opportunities, and patient referrals.

Now the following media story may appear relatively benign, and the research was no doubt well-meaning, but male-shaming remains nonetheless quite apparent. On 6 October 2014 an item appeared on the television news entitled ‘Men at risk of mental health problems‘.

I subsequently wrote to the Australian HQ of the ‘Movember’ organisation to query whether the ‘problem is that men don’t take their health seriously’ angle for the story originated with them or whether the media created this angle of their own volition. I received the following reply the next morning:

“Thanks for your email this morning in response to the news coverage overnight.
With regard to the claim that some men don’t take their health seriously, this was a finding from a study we conducted last month into the attitudes Australian men have towards their health and well-being.  It revealed that 1 in 3 Aussie men don’t take their health seriously, in response to a specific question that asks whether they agree or not with the statement ‘I take my health seriously’.  We surveyed a representative sample of over 1,500 men from around the country, aged 18+.
The media reported it as 1/3 , so they (nor Movember) are saying it’s all men.  In fact, it’s good to know that 2/3 do take health seriously, but there’s still some work to be done to raise awareness amongst the remaining 1/3 who don’t.
The purpose of the report is to shine a light on some of the challenges facing men and their health, with a view to raising awareness and sparking conversations about these issues, something the Movember aims to do through our annual Mo growing campaign.  It certainly wasn’t intended to denigrate men or portray them negatively.  We’re all about supporting men, raising awareness about their health and funding programs that help tackle prostate cancer, testicular cancer and men’s mental health.
I hope that answers your query, Chris.  Please do get back in touch if you have any further questions or concerns.” (Meagan Bell, Movember, 7 October, 2014)
I wrote back as follows:
“Thanks for your prompt response. Yes, I don’t disagree with the fact that some men need to take their health more seriously, and they should be encouraged and supported in doing so. My concern is that there are many factors contributing to men health problems, and that how seriously they take their health is but one of these. It is unfortunate though that this aspect – which brings with it an element of male shaming – seems to more often than not be the focus of media articles and health campaigns. I would like to see more effort made to put this variable into a broader perspective of mens health and for men to be encouraged – in a positive way – to do what they can to maintain good health.
Recognition must also be given to the fact that some contributing factors, like government support for medical research and treatment for men’s health issues versus the level of support given to women’s health issues – are not directly under men’s control.”
Another common assertion about men and their health – particularly mental health – is that men need to talk about things more. Especially their feelings.
A couple of issues crop up here:
When men do speak up they are often shamed or called things in the media/social media. Things like ‘whiny man-child’
Research and anecdotal evidence suggests that many men are not helped by talking about things, this approach only adding to their anxiety. Most likely this is a point of difference between most men and most women.
On this last point I asked for relevant references on Reddit mensrights and several relevant sources were nominated including this excellent discussion thread with more than 200 readers comments.
See also:
How’s your walnut, mate? Why men don’t like to talk about their enlarged prostate (4 May 2016) The second shaming article in ‘The Conversation‘ this week. The theme of this one is that men are ignorant. Author avoids mention of contentious issues like number of related male deaths and paucity of research funding relative to (for e.g.) breast cancer.
Men more reluctant to go to the doctor – and it’s putting them at risk (2 May 2016) Apparently masculinity is the problem (isn’t it always?)

One thought on “Is it my imagination or does media coverage of mens health focus too much on shaming men?”

  1. Yes this is good. I too have read these calls to men as patronising. On the other hand what you suggest would also leave me cold. It comes across as a little too ‘US black’ street talk.
    ‘Yo bro’ sort of stuff leaves me just as cold as ‘men shouldn’t be silly.’
    More to the point why get ourselves into the the massive ‘medical monster’ until we start falling over. Going to a GP for 10 minutes will give them $80 of your taxes and what’s in your wallet.
    Get a blood test and that could cost more . Go to a specialist and that’s when your bank account starts to seriously bleed.
    What do they say? ‘If you don’t want to get sick stay away from hospitals’.
    What price health? they say. Well I’ve been having tests for thirty five years. I started when i had children and they got sick. The only thing I’ve had is a border line diabetes diagnosis after having probably 70 tests. I’ve propped up that industry and forked $1000s and its all smoke and mirrors and maybes. I’m just one of 24 million. No the whole health industry relies on the same mantra as the insurance industry.
    We get sucked in. This is the reason why sensible blokes leave it until its too late.

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