When Gender Trumps Health

Men don’t do yoga, and women love Pilates. Men avoid doctors like the plague, and women schedule every family member's appointments.

These statements might sound rather archaic, especially in an increasingly “feminist” world of wellness that encourages to us to break out of gendered norms. However, underneath the current of change, the struggle remains: Gender continues to serve a barrier to health. And, interestingly, the concept of strength might lie at the heart of it.

When Strength Trumps Health

I continually remind my husband to schedule an annual physical, and he continually says that he doesn’t need one. He says that he’s fine, and he probably is. But his response exemplifies a widespread concern: Men often resist care that could either prevent or curtail disease. Whether due to lack of time, fear of test results, uncomfortable body exams, or any number of other reasons, men tend to steer clear of doctors. In fact, they are about half as likely as women to see a doctor.

Perhaps strength lies at the heart of it? As with most gender differences, the explanation is likely a complicated web of cultural influences and individual differences. Whatever the reason, from fear of appearing vulnerable to body discomfort (and, like women, shame) to the perceived threat of consulting with a physician who knows more than they do, for many men, healthcare carries an undertone of "weakness". 

This concept of strength can also serve as a healthcare barrier for women. Though they might readily seek care, their health concerns might be ignored or undervalued. Doctors might treat their symptoms less aggressively than men’s, partly due to the “emotional” component of their pain. Women are also more likely to be diagnosed with conditions like fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome, which may have psychological components and which many people consider “less legitimate” diseases.

In short, while men might "tough it out" and avoid doctors, women might be encouraged to "tough it out" when they go to doctors with symptoms. The bottom line: Gender acts as a barrier to healthcare.

 

When Appearance Trumps Fitness

Men love lifting heavy weights, and women love Pilates. I recently signed up for Class Pass and couldn’t help but sigh at the gender gap: In the course of two months, I saw a total of two men taking Pilates.

On the plus side, yoga is slowly integrating more Y-chromosomed members, and classes like Row House and Flywheel demonstrate a relatively balanced community. However, when you think about it, rowing and cycling are all about power, speed, endurance, and, well, high levels of exertion. While communal, they are also competitive--either against other class members, or against your personal bests. Classes like Pilates and Barre3, still dominated by women, are all about “long and lean”, “toning”, and, well, rather like synchronized swimming.

While major brands like Nike create more and more “strong female” campaigns, visit any gym, and you see men lifting most of the heavy weights--and women dominating Zumba classes. Perhaps women see the strong women campaigns and think, “Yeah, but those women are athletes: They’re supposed to be strong and have muscles. I just want to lose these love handles...I don’t want thick thighs.” Perhaps they see the men lifting extremely heavy weights with poor form and injuring themselves and think, “No thanks!”

Yes, this might sound rather caddy and simplistic. However, in the gap between Wonder Woman and cellulite treatments, between six-pack abs and chronic injuries exacerbated by heavy-lifting, lie norms that dictate wellness choices, and all too often at the expense of health. Men need mobility! Women need strength! Yet, all too often, they choose to stay inside the "safe box" and follow gender trends.

From quick fixes to regimented exercise and “clean eating” obsessions, both women and men continue to struggle with a well-rounded approach to fitness that both improves long-term health and actually makes them feel good.

 

RAISE THE BAR

As Melissa Elder articulated in last week’s article, our “Raise the Bar” campaign focuses on rallying members of the fitness community around a hippocratic-like oath, based on four pillars: Compassion  -  Mindfulness  -  Neutrality  -  Credibility.

We want to see more men valuing mobility, and we want to see more women embracing strength. Most importantly, we want to see more men and women alike building empowered paths to health and wellness that fit their individual circumstances, needs, values, and personal preferences. 

It’s time to increase awareness of the importance of ethical standards that prioritizes clients’ long-term well-being--and that breaks down gender norms. Health is too important to limit based on perceived “boxes”.

We don’t believe in a one-size-fits-all approach, but we do believe that wellness professionals lie at the heart of healthcare.

If you’re a wellness professional or ally, please consider joining the RTB movement! Take the pledge HERE and sign up to become a program ambassador. Ambassadors will receive a super-cute, organic cotton tote-bag to proudly display your support. Tag us in your social media posts using the hashtag # WHRaisetheBar: Twitter (@WalnutHealth ); Facebook (@walnuthealthllc); LinkedIn (Walnut Health LLC); Instagram (walnut_health). And please follow while you’re at it!