Re-thinking masculinity and men’s health

by Matt Ventresca, PhD Candidate, Queen’s University




Last month, throughout the month-long phenomenon known as Movember, it was virtually impossible to ignore the widespread growth of male facial hair across Canadian university campuses. Some of these moustaches led to informed conversations about health issues for men (as the campaign hopes they would), while many others were simply good for a few laughs. But among all the hairy, in-your-face displays of manliness (or perhaps I should say “on-your-face”? See what I did there? Pardon the pun – but try to remember this when it gets a little heavy later on) that we’ve witnessed throughout November, I felt that few attempts were made to talk about what masculinity has to do with our ideas about “men’s health.” 



I also wondered why the stories of men who had been diagnosed with “male illnesses” were not a major focus of the Movember campaign. These concerns forced me to look past the moustache. They gave me an opportunity to reflect on my own lived experiences of illness and how certain social pressures around masculinity and the male body affect how I understand health and illness. 

But first, a disclaimer: I have a lot invested in the idea of “men’s health.” Through my PhD research at Queen’s University, I’m hoping to add a critical voice to discussions around Movember and shed some light on the movement’s limitations (as well as some of its successes) in trying to “change the face of men’s health.” Of course, this does not mean that I am against health-related campaigns or those directed specifically at men; for a long time, I’ve actually been very annoyed by the stereotype that all men don’t care about their health and am quite happy that these issues have reached the public consciousness. But now that we’ve got people talking, I’m just wondering if we should change the conversation to include a greater diversity of experiences. My opinions on the subject of “men’s health” have been deeply influenced by my own experiences with a number of invisible illnesses – acute prostatitis, reactive rheumatoid arthritis, pilonidal cysts – some of which are specific to men or more prevalent in men.

But I’m not writing this to convince anyone that my experiences of illness have been more difficult or more severe than anyone else’s or that my identification as a man made it any harder to cope with these illnesses. Instead, I’m hoping to discuss a much larger point and demonstrate how our experiences of health and illness are significantly shaped by the culture in which we live.

We don’t often take the time to think about how our gender affects our daily lives. At least I never did. I have been fortunate enough to enjoy relatively good health throughout my life. I had to the opportunity to play a number of sports competitively (some even pretty well!) and saw playing through injuries as proof of my toughness and determination. I was sure that any problem could be solved if I just worked hard enough. I wanted to be strong, fierce and aggressive. Any amount of eating or drinking could be cured by an extra half hour at the gym or another lap around the track. I didn’t think that this philosophy had much to do with my gender. I never thought that these ideas were based on what it meant to be a “real man” and that my behaviours showed that I was desperate to prove my manhood. I thought I was just being me.

Then my body started to feel different. Then I was told to start taking medication and stop exercising. Never mind, we were wrong – stop the medication and start exercising. I had surgery to take care of one problem only to have others emerge. I started making lifestyle changes to be more “healthy,” but they only helped so much. This doesn’t make sense. Another surgery. Problem solved. What do you mean it’s not healing? What can I do? Wait. Keep waiting. More surgery to help heal the last one. Don’t move. OK, get up. You’ll be back to normal soon. It won’t be long.

It was through these trials and tribulations that I learned a lot about myself and my body, a lot about pain, and a lot about masculinity. At many times throughout this process, I felt like I wasn’t myself. The masculine identity through which I imagined myself for so long was no longer available to me. The sports and other activities that had been so much of who I was simply weren’t options anymore. I felt weak. I felt passive. I felt emasculated having to say no all the time. “No, I can’t help you move your couch.” “No, I don’t work out much anymore.” “No I can’t stay out for another beer.”

Re-thinking masculinity

Certainly, the tolls of my challenges with invisible illnesses were often physical, but they were also social and emotional. There were many times when I felt like I could no longer live up to what we learn are the ideal qualities for a “normal” young, white, Canadian male – be a tough, strong, virile, beer-drinking, hockey-playing, mountain man. I was lucky enough to have a loving partner and family in which I could confide, as well as understanding friends and colleagues. But mostly, I kept my illnesses and feelings to myself – men aren’t supposed to show emotion, weakness, or vulnerability. So I made excuses. I was vague. I changed the subject. Despite my involvement in an academic program that encouraged me to question dominant gender norms, I did just about anything to avoid having my manhood called into question.

These are challenges that face many of us who have a history with invisible illnesses and gender is always a part of these stories (intersecting with race, class, sexuality and ability). Our diverse identities bring about specific challenges that make each of our experiences with invisible illness unique. For those of us who identify as men, invisible illnesses change the ways in which we navigate the masculine cultures in which we live. These are cultures where you are much more likely to hear “Be tough. Shake it off. Man up” than “Are you okay?” or “How does that make you feel?” 

And here is where Movember comes back into the picture. My experiences with invisible illness, as well as my current journey through academia, have helped me think about masculinity differently. It’s helped me realized that masculinity is not one thing; but that we need to think about there being multiple masculinities that should not be held up against any one narrow definition of what it means to be a man. It is in this spirit that I would like to challenge Movember participants and supporters to consider whose stories are not being told amidst all the moustache jokes and hijinks, and to think about how our shared ideas about masculinity make some experiences unspeakable. One of the goals of Movember is to “raise awareness” about men’s mental health issues and depression, but are the potential pitfalls of these masculine cultures part of the conversation? Can we even have these discussions through a movement in which “Moustache is King” and masculinity rules the day? We need to be having critical and informed discussions about men’s health, but I’m hoping that we can have them in a way that ensures that no voice goes unheard and no illness has to remain invisible.