Academic journal article International Journal of Men's Health

"Standing out from the Herd": Men Renegotiating Masculinity in Relation to Their Experience of Illness

Academic journal article International Journal of Men's Health

"Standing out from the Herd": Men Renegotiating Masculinity in Relation to Their Experience of Illness

Article excerpt

In this paper we investigate whether a mental illness (i.e., depression) presents different challenges to masculinity than those experienced in relation to a stereotypically male disease (i.e., coronary heart disease [CHD]) and a gender-specific disease (i.e., prostate cancer). Fifty-nine men from central Scotland participated in 15 focus groups, and nine took part in individual interviews between June 1999 and February 2001. We found that masculinity is negotiated and re-negotiated by men in the light of the limitations placed on them by their own and others' understandings of the social and personal consequences of these diseases. Participants with depression believed that if their mental illness was made visible to others it would distinguish them from other men with less "feminized" illnesses or injury. There remains a taboo for men reflected in the absence of discussion of this issue between them in disclosing and help-seeking with regard to depressive illness.

Keywords: men, depression, masculinity, heart disease, prostate cancer

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The importance of exploring male gender in relation to men's health has been recognized (Courtenay, 2000; Sabo & Gordon, 1995) but has rarely been incorporated into the design, data collection, and analysis of studies of men's experiences of health and illness (Annandale & Hunt, 1990; White, 2004). Male gender identity is understood to emerge from social interaction through a range of gendered practices that men engage in which has been described as the process of "doing gender" (West & Zimmerman, 1991), or "doing masculinities" (Morgan, 1992). There is a range of studies that have explored the social practices that men undertake in order to construct and negotiate their identities as men, which may vary depending on the cultural and social context (Barrett, 2001; Frosh, Phoenix, & Pattman, 2002; Herdt, 1981, 1999; Kehily & Nayak, 1997; Leyser, 2003; Messner, 1987; Tomsen, 1997; Watson, 2000; Willis, 1979). These accounts suggest that just as being a father (McKee & O'Brien, 1983) or a factory worker (Willis, 1979) or placing oneself in the masculine hierarchy of a school (Connell, 1989; Mac an Ghaill, 1995) can be revealing of the ways masculinities are constructed through social practice, the study of men's everyday health-related practices such as going to consult a doctor or displaying a resistance to recommended health practices may also offer insights into the ways men "do masculinity" (Courtenay; Saltonstall, 1993; Williams, 2000). There has been some discussion as to how different aspects of the relationship between masculinity and health might be explored through empirical research (Courtenay; Sabo, & Gordon; Watson).

Studies of men's experiences of a range of illnesses have been important in highlighting some of the ways in which male identity and health are inter-related (Chapple & Ziebland, 2002; Elgie, 2002; Gijsbers Van Wijk, Huisman, & Kolk, 1999; Kilmartin, 2005; Mason & Strauss, 2004; White, 2001). Chronic illness is a major catalyst for "biographical disruption" (Bury, 1982). Men's chronic illness has been characterized as a period of "intensity, severity, and uncertainty" that can pose fundamental challenges or "dilemmas" for masculinity (Charmaz, 1994). The loss of work identity, social roles, and the sense of isolation that can accompany the physical and mental effects of serious illness can present significant challenges to men, resulting in a "loss of self" (Charmaz, 1983). Giddens, who has discussed the disruption of identity following "critical incidents" has noted, that "we can learn a good deal about day-to-day situations in routine settings from analyzing circumstances in which those settings are radically disturbed" (Giddens, 1979, p. 123, cited by Bury, 1982). It is thought that when "masculinities" (Connell, 1995) are "radically disturbed" by illness, this prompts men to reflect on taken-for-granted gendered beliefs and the practices of masculinity they engaged in prior to illness, as well as those affected subsequently. …

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