March 10, 2022
It's hard to fathom that in 2022, with advancements in areas like technology, science and communication, that archaic interpretations of masculinity continue from generation to generation, but they do.
You know them. Men don't cry or show a hint of emotion. Asking for help is a sign of weakness. And, my favorite, it's not manly to go to the doctor, particularly when nothing feels wrong.
Incredibly, despite hundreds of years of evolution, the stereotype largely persists and permeates men of all socio-economic classes. Heck, even the fact that Tony Soprano had a shrink didn't seem to put much of a dent in changing this deeply embedded culture.
Recently, I've been reading a lot about toxic masculinity. The term has some broad definitions that range from being abusive toward women to the self-inflicted harm associated with refusing to seek medical care. The latter, a major focus of my advocacy for men's health, had me thinking about my own lived experience, and questioning why I didn't fall prey to this traditional male reasoning about being health conscious.
Yes, I work in health care, but my behaviors were established well before I entered the industry. While I credit active parents with a degree of influence, as I look back, it was my time as a single dad that was the tipping point. Performing traditionally female roles opened my eyes to things I would have not experienced otherwise.
Today, as I study male-female differences about health care and other dimensions of toxic masculinity, I can see how my exposure to these roles balanced my perspective and shaped the values I hold today. It's not a path I would wish on any man, but if there is a sliver lining in my story, perhaps other men can learn from my experience, and contribute to a desperately needed redefinition of masculinity.
Coming out of college, I had some very specific career goals and personal ambitions that I jumped on with the vigor of a determined twenty-something. Just a few years out of the gate, the plans came to a crashing halt, largely though factors out of my control.
In short, by my late 30s, I was a single dad with two sons living under my roof. My days were spent juggling lunches, homework, laundry and back-to-school nights with my career and rebuild of my personal life. Part of this was making sure the kids had regular doctor and dental appointments, and trying to feed them a reasonable diet. Monday through Friday, I was both mom and dad.
Did this experience change me? I certainly learned a lot. The moms I encountered were amazingly helpful with recommendations for the best places to find the necessities of life. They were like a well-oiled intelligence network, with a sophisticated communication system.
Bottom line, I saw the other side. I walked in traditionally female shoes just enough to see the importance of maintaining your health and well-being. I accepted my vulnerability as a single father in the moment, and the need for help wherever I could find it. I learned that it's OK to let down your guard, because for me, it was a matter of survival. There was no choice. No time to think that what I was doing wasn't masculine. There were larger, more important factors in play.
Experts who have studied the impact of toxic masculinity point out the detrimental impacts these values can have on a man's health. Researchers at Michigan State University found that aging men who exhibit toxic masculinity run a higher risk of becoming socially isolated and impacting their health, well-being and overall happiness.
The American Psychological Association calls traditional masculinity harmful, noting it reduces the likelihood to engage in healthy behaviors. This reluctance for self-care extends to psychological help.
The American Heart Association refers to traditional views on masculinity as misguided and says that hesitancy toward visiting a doctor has serious health ramifications.
And, writing about the male mental health stigma in the American Journal of Men's Health, Benita N. Chatmon, the assistant dean for clinical nursing education at Lousiana State University, called for redefining manhood and transforming American culture so that men are more comfortable expressing themselves.
Fast forward to the present, and to my go-to guys who keep me feeling good, active and competitive in work and play.
Dr. Dan Hyman is a primary care physician at Cooper University Health Care who exhibits the perfect balance of clinical skill delivered in a style that makes you feel like you did the manly thing by coming in. My son echoes the same sentiment. As a sixty-something runner and gym rat, Dr. Dave Gealt, a sports medicine specialist from Cooper's orthopedics department, attends to my occasional aches and pains, and helps me maintain the great feeling I get from a run.
Together, these guys keep me going, and offer great honesty and counsel as I age. They are a lynchpin to the rewards of an active lifestyle. If seeing these guys allows me to wrestle with my grandson, have the energy to grab dinner with my adult sons, or get the most on a vacation with my wife, then I'm all in. Nothing unmanly about that.
As my story shows, a big part of seeing a doctor regularly, and rejecting old-school views on masculinity, is the relationship you have with your doc. The right fit can go a long way to overcoming traditional hesitancies. It starts with finding the right one. Whether male or female, you need a doctor with whom you can to be totally honest and transparent. They can't treat what they don't know.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services offers some basic tips for your search.
Seek out references from friends and family. Trusted opinions carry a lot of weight, but also do your homework. Hint, there's a ton of information on line.
Check with your insurance company. Paying the bill is important. If the doc you like is not in your company's network, this could present a problem. Resolve these issues up front.
Finally, ask questions on your first visit. Dialogue with the staff and doctor can help you evaluate the experience. Also, go through a mental checklist of the overtures made, or not, by the care team to put you at ease and answer your questions. Though it's a doctor's office, you're still the customer.
You don't need to go through a decade of single fatherhood to appreciate that an aversion to medical care is neanderthal thinking. Emerging role models like Eagles player Lane Johnson are demonstrating that male social mores are changing, if ever so slowly. Be a part of this movement. Tend to your physical and mental health. It's the masculine thing to do.
Louis Bezich, senior vice president and chief administrative officer at Cooper University Health Care, is author of "Crack The Code: 10 Proven Secrets that Motivate Healthy Behavior and Inspire Fulfillment in Men Over 50." Read more from Louis on his website.