“Our insistence on turning efforts to achieve good health into a greater moral enterprise means that health also becomes a sharp political stick with which much harm is ultimately done.“
– Kathleen Lebesco, “Fat Panic and the New Morality”
Each summer a spate of articles remind us that men refuse to wear sunscreen at higher rates than women do and that this harms the menz. In case you weren’t aware, men ages 15 to 39 are more than twice as likely to die of melanoma than women in the same age range. The media and doctors are generally smart enough to realize that gender expectations play a role in this phenomenon, but generally not smart enough to realize that this isn’t a case of the big P harming men.
What these articles are missing is that men’s knee-jerk reaction against sunscreen is part of a larger orientation to life that ultimately protects, not harms them: masculinity. We need to see that men’s dismissal of the need for bodily interventions, their refusal to see the male body as a project, and their avoidance of the medicalization of their bodies is boundary-setting that is granted to them and not to women in this culture.
In other words, the rights to bodily autonomy and bodily integrity are part of the benefits of masculinity, not part of the downsides. The body that is safe, protected from intervention, manipulation and gazes-with-the-power-to-sculpt-flesh is a male body; the male body, defined in opposition to the penetrable female body, is understood to be intact by definition. Pause and let the full range of the word “intact”—reproductive, sexual, and otherwise—resonate.
Yes, in this instance men fare worse in that they die of melanoma more often than women. But men’s actions speak, and what they say is that being a man comes with many many benefits, and that the benefits of maintaining that protective masculinity outweigh the risk of getting skin cancer—just as the benefits of being a smoking, harley-riding dude who “gets” harley-riding women, respect, and adventure simply outweigh the risks of lung cancer and traffic accidents. It is a quality of life issue and men see it that way.
Whether men refuse sunscreen because of conscious preferences (“I don’t like how it feels on my skin” ) or unconscious ones (“real men don’t worry about things like sunburn”), the fact that they are men means that their refusal is respected. It doesn’t have to be the healthy choice or even the smart choice, it just has to be their choice. And if you accept that gender exists to protect men, you have to accept that on balance men who “do” masculinity will benefit.
Fans of the “patriarchy harms men, too” mantra might say that men are not allowed to show feelings of concern about possible cancer, or not allowed to ever stop taking the stupid risks that ease their anxieties about being “man enough.” But the truth is that an individual man’s choice whether to use sunscreen or not is not particularly fraught; proof of this is that the social repercussions for either using or refusing sunscreen are negligible. For men, sunscreen is not an exquisite mashup of beauty and health mandates that link compliance to social worth. There aren’t campaigns—either health or beauty-based—to coerce men into using it, and wives don’t leave husbands for not taking care of themselves and their skin. They simply outlive them. Life is inherently risky and, in the case of men, we seem to have accepted that. It’s simple: their body, their choice. When it comes to balancing cost and risk for the intact male body, individual men make individualized choices. We don’t always agree with them, but who asked us anyway?
The motivation to “be a man” can look self-destructive, but it protects and maintains the satisfactorily utilitarian relationship men have with their bodies. Men refuse to see their bodies as anything but their own—in sickness and health, stupidity and adventure, right and wrong, unquestionably. Sadly, women’s harmful relationships with their bodies are often depressingly great foils to men’s. If you want to see what is required of a body that is not one’s own, but must seek the approval of others and give the “right” answers when intervention is “requested,” look no further than the feminized female body. “Consent” to femininity is overwhelmingly given because it is the “right answer” under threat of social sanctions. In the absence of those sanctions, who can say what women would choose to do? Constantly checking, re-checking, testing, applying, primping, preparing, posing, weighing, buying, and reappyling, normal women live with a plague called “health and beauty.”
We don’t moralize about men’s health decisions. We might try to encourage men to use sunscreen, wives might lovingly nag, and doctors might recommend sunscreen in black bottles, but we seem to accept that, ultimately, risk simply cannot be eradicated without cost to quality of life. And as we all know, society cares deeply when men’s quality of life is reduced, even a little bit. After all, “boys will be boys” is code for “males are happiest when allowed to do whatever the fuck they want,” and this law of nature is always put above the dictates of logic, health, and even harm to others.
We need to ask ourselves: are women balancing cost and risk? Are we allowed to do so without being told we are doing something wrong? In discussions about wearing sunscreen I hear women say, there is no reason not to. But what I hear them saying is that, unlike for men, there is no acceptable no. We don’t get the luxury of balance. When it comes to women who are laboring for health and beauty, dieting, beautifying, self-monitoring every 30 seconds and reapplying sunscreen every two hours there is no balance. The patriarchy, doctors, and popular opinion, along with targeted makeup and pharmaceutical industry campaigns, make those decisions for us.
I read a great comment once in a discussion about breast feeding, which asked: “Do we believe that risks to babies and children must be eliminated at any expense, or only if the costs of eliminating these risks can be paid by mothers?” The point is that, when making health decisions balancing risk and cost, who is it that will shoulder the cost factors monumentally into the perception of risk.
Just as people call breast-feeding “free” because women’s labor is understood to be worth nothing, there appears to be no cost involved in avoiding skin cancer with daily, hourly applications. No cost in the routine self-examination and weight-monitoring we are told helps keep us “healthy.” No cost in women submitting to invasive birth control regimes and health exams. I’ve heard plenty of women say “there’s simply no reason not to wear sunscreen every day.” This is a shorter way of saying that women’s labor feels “free” because our quality-of-life costs and intact female bodies are of no value. Society sees it as understandable—if not “smart” or necessarily “recommended”—that men want to avoid having the type of relationship with their bodies that women have with theirs. The requirement to constantly self monitor, tweak, be evaluated and found lacking is seen as “nothing” when women bear it…not so much when it’s men. When its men’s labor and men’s bodies, we can see that society judges there to be something of worth at stake.
If we position men as the victims here—harmed by the big P— and compliant women as benefactors, then how are we to conceive of non-compliant women: wrinkly old sun-baked women who have clear likes, dislikes, irresponsibilities, desires, and thrills, women who have lived and used their bodies for themselves—not for men, beauty, or abstractly-defined health? If women are seen to have “no reason not to” comply, vitriol will always be reserved for us.
But women should be allowed to take health risks in the way men do. Women should be allowed to choose *NOT* to get invasive (and often unnecessary) medical tests like pap smears or mammograms without being called “irresponsible,” and we’re not. We should be able to choose not to breastfeed with a clear and breezy conscious, but we’re not able to. We should not have pharmaceutical birth control campaigns targeted at us, and we should be allowed to demand that it not fall to us alone to be responsible for where men decide to jizz, just to avoid harm. We should not have the propaganda machines pumping out beauty standards that coerce young girls into obsessing over those standards and using sunscreen and makeup—conveniently in one!—in order to meet them. Not looking at the 77% of all sunscreen ads that appear in beauty magazines for women might just be a risk some women are interested in taking.
I propose that, for once, women take a lesson from masculinity. The healthiest thing we can do is to have resistance—a “no”—be our knee-jerk response to any suggestion that our bodies are not okay as they are, that with just a little tweak here or there our bodies will finally be okay. Interventions on our bodies are not always unnecessary—if I broke my leg, I would go to the hospital— but the point is that we must take time to question why we are on this yellow brick road of constant vigilance and intervention, and why we feel judged and frightened if we step off of it.
As lay people and women, it’s very hard to resist what is labeled as “healthy”—how can anyone be against health? Indeed. We should be suspicious of anything so “obvious” that we can’t imagine anyone not obeying it! I hope that someday women can come to see “health” outside of a moral framework and as something attainable—not as a never-ending project in which we are routinely fearful, locked into an anxiety-fueled vigilance. Sunscreen is neutral, but WHY we use it and they don’t? Not neutral at all.
With thanks to A Freudian Nightmare.
Coming Friday: Vee Esselar declares war, and radical feminism welcomes Kaye Murdoch home.