One men's health magazine cover features a handsome, broad-shouldered man and highlights a few stories in that issue--"Read her filthy mind," and "Never have a heart attack." Another men's mag flaunts a similar image of the perfect bare-chested male spotlights: "Lose flab faster," "The body you want without setting foot in the gym," "Five body parts that make women drool," "The new erector set."
"Very healthy messages," quipped Roderick Hetzel, PhD, a speaker from the University of Rochester at APA's 2000 Annual Convention, in the session "Men's health in the new millennium," while showing the audience slides of stereotypical typical male images as portrayed on popular magazine covers.
Women have complained for years that magazines don't reflect their real bodies and lives. And the same has become true for men: The sturdy-oak guys on the men's magazine covers don't seem like they ever cry, get sick, feel pain or get depressed. And like women who try to conform to an unrealistic ideal of beauty, men who read these magazines pay a high price for striving to reach the masculine ideal.
Hetzel and other panelists at the session explored men's body image concerns, how men manage cancer, why men are not involved in family planning and a host of other men's health-related issues. They all agreed on one thing: The pressure men feel to live up to the macho image is literally making them sick. Many men, for instance, don't get regular check ups because they "avoid the vulnerability and passivity inherent in the patient role," explained Hetzel.
Men also have traditionally shied away from therapy because talking about their feelings was viewed as negative, non-masculine and against male robust image, added Will Courtenay, a panel speaker and founder of Men's Health Consulting, in Berkeley, Calif. As a result, they place themselves at risk of contracting many diseases that could be prevented if they took control of their health, Courtenay continued. Men live shorter lives than women and have higher risks for all 15 leading causes of death.
But the profession is moving toward developing a better understanding of what men need to improve their health. Research, for instance, shows that men can positively influence each other through group discussions about health. Studies have found that men are less likely to report pain when they are in front of a female clinician--a finding that points to the possibility that men may be more honest about their condition with other men.
That's why a men's health program geared toward lower income adult African-Americans and Latino males, sponsored by Action for Boston Community Development, hires mostly male counselors. "Traditionally," explained Irvienne Goldson, the program's education and training manager, "family planning programs have neglected to serve men in the belief that women need privacy and autonomy in reproductive health. There have been few opportunities for men to get education and counseling about sexual and reproductive health care from service providers....But now there is sufficient evidence to suggest that men are more likely to use such service programs when they are offered in male only clinics."
Courtenay urged practitioners who work with men to learn more about how the biological, psychological and social factors affect men's well-being. It's also important, he said, for mental health care providers to be aware of their own values and biases about men--and how these attitudes influence their treatment.
Marcela J. Kogan is a writer in Chevy Chase, Md.