Your Face Mask is Actually a Sign of Strength

Men are not carrying their weight when it comes to preventing the spread and transmission of COVID-19. According to a recent paper, men are less likely than women to wear masks to protect themselves from COVID-19 transmission. The reasons? Men are less likely to believe they’re at risk for catching or experiencing serious complications from COVID-19 and men are more likely than women to view wearing a mask as shameful or embarrassing.

When I first read about this study, my mind flashed to another shocking health disparity between men and women—that nearly 80 percent of all drowning victims are male. The reasons range from the admirable (men are more likely to dive into the water to save someone from drowning) to the cringe worthy (men are also more likely to go swimming while drunk). But the main reason that overlaps with this COVID-19 study is that men are more likely to underestimate the level of risk involved in a given activity. They’ll swim in conditions that aren’t safe (cliff jumping anyone?) and, just like with COVID, they’re less likely to wear protective equipment like life jackets.

In other words, this is not new. Why are men so averse to acknowledging their vulnerabilities? Are you less of a man if you wear a mask or a life jacket? Anyone who has ever played organized sports has surely felt the pressure to play through pain. And we all have that older relative who won’t cut back on his red meat even though he might, you know, die. Do we really need to pretend like we’re superhuman? Well…apparently yes. Acknowledging our weaknesses is anathema to a lot of us.

As a therapist, I have a vested interest in helping men accept themselves as they are, not as they wish they were. It may seem obvious, but we can only grow when we come up against our limitations. That’s true when it comes to our relationships, our job performance and our workout goals.

But I also hate being lectured to about another way that men are coming up short and I hate being shamed for playing by the rules that society wrote for men long before I was born. Yes, we should all learn we can still be men and acknowledge our vulnerability. Not doing so leads to some disastrous consequences (like potentially contracting a deadly virus or drowning). But I’d also like to highlight something else from that study about COVID, masks and masculinity. It turns out that gender differences around wearing masks essentially disappear when we stop talking about personal risk. When it gets framed as an issue of taking care of our communities and families, mask adoption is equal for men and women. That’s no surprise to me. Set aside the worst of our gender stereotypes, this is the best of what it means to be a man: Sacrifice, responsibility and looking out for others. And maybe, as men, we would do well to remember that we take better care of our loved ones when we care about ourselves.

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