As a child, I was sick with relative frequency. I remember returning to third grade after a month off with mono, several pounds lighter, and my skin pale from lack of exposure to sun. As I walked in, all Colin from The Secret Garden, the bitchiest girl in the class announced “You’re, like, always sick.”
It had occurred to me that I was sick more often than my peers. True, my mother had a fairly lenient stay-home-from-school policy, but by the time I was 10, I’d had mono, bronchitis, pneumonia, an ongoing bladder reflux issue and several sinus infections. My sisters are the same way. We’re evolutionarily weak. Whatever.
One might posit that having two orthopedic surgeries and a few viral and bacterial infections would foster some stoicism around unwellness. Well, one would be wrong. Practice, in my case, does not make perfect. When I’m ill, I’m a nightmare.
“Honey, have you seen my jeans?”
“UGH I’M SICK.”
“Do you know what—”
“Can I get you anything, babe?”
“ET PHONE HOME.”
That’s right, I’m Eliot, only without the dying alien to account for my dramatics. I’m awful. If I vomit, I’ll tell you about it. If I need tea, you’re making it. I’m grumpy and everything hurts. I take up a lot of space — both literally and figuratively — when I’m sick.
One day when I was laying on my couch in London surrounded by my usual arsenal of health — toast, tissues, tea, magazines, nose spray, multiple layers of clothing and throat drops — I was accused of having “man flu.” According to the bastion of empirical research that is Wikipedia, man flu is “a pejoratively used phrase that refers to the idea that men, when they have a cold, exaggerate and claim that they have the flu.” Vicks Vapor Rub surveyed 1025 New Zealanders and found that three quarters of Kiwi women said that man flu “exists,“ in that men are more childlike about cold and flu symptoms than women. One third of women surveyed admitted to waiting on a male partner “hand and foot” while he laid down, moaning with man flu. ( Apparently, as a nightmarish sick woman I’m sort sort of anomaly.)
So man flu is not science, right? WRONG, says a study by the Stanford University School of Medicine (who maybe should be focusing their efforts elsewhere? Not reinforcing the gender binary? Cancer? I digress). Apparently men experience cold and flu symptoms more severely than women due to higher levels of testosterone, which weakens immune response. Men with lower levels of testosterone had an equivalent response to a flu vaccination as women (sissies! right guys? right?!). Canada’s McGill University found estrogen to be an immune system booster.
There’s also a valid case for man flu being learned behavior. Because duh. In a response to Vicks’ research, a professor of clinical psychology (who would have gleaned this same wisdom from a school playground) said he believed that man flu was a result of socialization and psychology, rather than medicine. More research carried out by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical medicine found that while men may be more dramatic about illness, women are more likely to admit to being sick. However, while they do note that there are gender differences in reporting flu, researchers claim to have debunked the man flu myth. Asked to rate cold and flu symptoms on a scale from 0 to 100, men and women were virtually the same. One article in the UK’s Telegraph summarizes Cambridge research in the most cringe-worthy of ways: the author suggests that it’s men’s “live fast, die young” attitude (BARF BARF BARF) that leads them to invest less in immunity and thus, get sicker. Blah blah, evolutionary science, blah, “maintaining ability to mate” is paramount, blah. Let’s not forget, associating “woman” and “man” with testosterone and estrogen, as the Cambridge and McGill studies do, is a slippery slope. What about people with hormone imbalance? Or people with gender identities that are more ambiguous than their chromosomes would suggest?
So, man flu is the latest manifestation of the old reliable nature vs nurture question. Citing gender as the explanation for a response to being sick is no better than assuming mathematical ability or baking prowess based on gender. It’s crap. Anecdotally, in my relationship I am far more likely to exhibit symptoms of man flu than my male partner. Why? Because he was raised in a household where you aren’t sick unless you’re vomiting on your sweaty, feverish deathbed and I was raised in a household where you go to the doctor with a runny nose. Asking men and women how they respond to cold and flu symptoms is only scientific if you control for the fact that EVERY ANSWER WE’D GIVE is based on subjective opinions of how we’re expected to behave. Perhaps physical weakness due to illness is more socially acceptable than emotional signs of “weakness” like crying, or heartbreak, or stress. Perhaps the men with “man flu” are secretly grateful for an opportunity to just have a luxurious lie down and feel sorry for themselves for a minute.
Truth be told, I appreciate a reprieve from the “like a girl“ narrative we usually hear around weakness. But crying “man flu” is no different from saying that someone behaves “like a girl” — it’s just another way to invalidate our experiences or tell us that we’re being weak. If I turn into a snottier love child of Eeyore and The Incredible Hulk when I’m ill, I’m just doing me. It doesn’t mean I’m being like a man. That’s sexist, guys. Don’t fence me in. Don’t gender-police my sick! Now go bring someone sick a cup of tea — they deserve it.
[Image of a sick woman via Shutterstock]