Imagine a world where one day a red traffic light meant Stop, then
next day red meant Go and green meant Stop! We’d never get anywhere in
that world. We’d just be confused. Nonetheless, the conflicting
messages and rules around masculine role models are creating just that
effect, and in some cases even compromise our health. Do we have to
accept these rules or can we decide for ourselves? Read on…
By Dr Michael Vallis, health psychologist, Associate Professor of
Family Medicine, Dalhousie University, Canada June 2020
Making of the modern man
It's called gender ideology. Your internalized, cultural belief
system telling you how you should feel and act.
ideology goes something like: Men should never show weakness or
engage with feminine things; they should seek out adventure, even if
it means violence, strive for success and be “the sturdy oak” with a
“give-’em-hell”, “no-sissy-stuff” kind of personality.
I suspect most guys reading this paragraph recognize these
attitudes. But to what extent do you believe in and follow these kinds
of attitudes? And is it possible that doing so might be more harmful
to you than helpful?
We all know that humans have survival instincts. We usually think of
this in terms of physical survival. Well, guess what? On top of
physical survival, we also have an instinct for social survival.
Humans are social animals. We want to fit in and avoid being rejected.
It is no surprise, therefore, that there needs to be a set of rules as
to what is OK and not OK.
Is it possible that you have developed beliefs about how you should
act that are interfering with your ability to manage
Impact of masculine ideology on obesity rates and men’s health
So what? What difference does it make? Well, consider this. Men
appear to misperceive the extent of their extra weight relative to women.
You hardly ever hear a man ask his female partner “Does this make me
On the contrary, it is not uncommon to see a man slap his belly,
push out his chest and say “I’ve always been a big, strong guy.”
Even when men acknowledge their excess
weight, they are less likely to connect it to health problems than
women. And men are less likely to consider trying to manage their weight.
So, what’s up with this? Good question! Because obesity is on the
rise across the world. Would it surprise you to learn that amongst men
born from 1946-1964, there has been a 29% increase in the prevalence
of obesity each decade since 1950? A pretty shocking statistic, actually.
“Another problem with traditional masculine
ideology is that men are less likely to seek help when they need
it. Help-seeking is inconsistent with the belief that one must be
strong and self-sufficient.”
-Dr Michael Vallis, health psychologist, Associate Professor of Family
Medicine, Dalhousie University, Canada
Imagine that you are not happy with your weight; it makes you feel
bad about yourself. By repressing this emotion nothing changes, which
feeds back into your weight problem to make you feel even worse. Our
self-image can take quite a beating in this kind of vicious circle.
Some people even develop the so-called “fraud syndrome”. Tough on
the outside; damaged
goods on the inside.
Coping response and stress: the denial trap
OK, so something in men makes them suffer
in silence and feel bad that nothing changes.
But now, to add insult to injury, men in developed countries are at
a higher risk
of developing almost all the chronic diseases: Lung cancer, liver
disease, heart disease, stroke and, yes, obesity.
Men’s default response to stress underlies their tendency to not
accept that there is a problem and not reach out for help. Here is
instinct kicking in again. By instinct, we approach pleasure and
The most common coping
response is Escape or Avoidance.
“Men’s default response to stress underlies their tendency to not
accept that there is a problem and not reach out for help.”
The emotions associated with stress
can be handled by pushing them away (minimizing the emotion -
repression) or by focusing on them directly (sensitizing).
These responses form a pattern;
goes well with repression and is associated with what we call action
Tend/befriend goes well with
sensitizing and is associated with what we call emotion focused coping.
It is not a good-bad situation. I’d like you to think about these
ways of reacting to stress as choices. If your plan A isn’t working
consider plan B.
If men tend to be action-focused copers, with a tendency toward
and engaging in fight/flight behaviour, then there are choices. Being
open to expressing feelings and focusing on caring for self and others
can open a world of choices.
“Being open to expressing feelings and focusing on caring for self
and others can open a world of choices.”
Choices are good because obesity
is a complex disease; it is not simply a result of poor personal
choices and lack of willpower. Rather, it is a reflection of
biological, genetic, social and environmental (as well as personal) factors.
It is for this reason we classify it as a chronic
disease. As with all chronic diseases, they can’t really be
managed on your own.
What works for men when it comes to obesity management?
What can you do about this? When we look at research on managing
obesity, we see that women outnumber men in most of the studies.
This makes it harder to help men.
Many typical obesity programmes are perceived to not recognize the
needs of men but to be feminine orientated. There have been successes, though.
Let’s look at two studies of weight management targeted directly at
men. One was called the FFIT programme (Football Fans in Training)
where participants attended the programme at football (soccer) stadiums.
Another was called HAT TRICK and made use of the locker rooms of a
semi-professional hockey stadium to communicate to their male audience.
Research suggests that programmes are more appealing to men if they
Like in sport, who should make up your healthcare
team really depends on your individual needs and health status,
but in general, it may include a doctor specializing in obesity
medicine, a nutritionist, an exercise physiologist and a heath psychologist.
Nutritionists can help you achieve a healthy
diet and help you find ways to reduce calories to promote
healthier weights. Exercise physiologists can help find the tailored
physical activity plan. And a psychologist is helpful with behaviour
change and promoting healthy self-esteem.
So, in closing, start assembling your healthcare
team. And to use an expression common to my native Canada, keep
your stick on the ice.
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Your Body Mass Index (BMI) is a number calculated from your weight and
height. It’s not a precise calculation of percentage of body fat, but it
is an easy way to determine where your weight falls in the range from
healthy to unhealthy.