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The Man Flu: A Sign of The Times?

The science behind the popular myth


by Ebba Strutzenbladh

The Guardian, CNN, and my 30-year-old brother are all examples of sources reporting that the phenomenon known as ‘the man flu’ might actually be a real thing. This means that rather than being a term used to chide men for exaggerating symptoms of what others would call your average cold, it could actually indicate that men do suffer from more intense symptoms when ill. Dr. Kyle Sue argues in his 2017 British Medical Journal article that the man flu can indeed be considered a scientific reality.


So how do we approach Dr. Sue’s claim? Do we turn to Scripture, where the man flu can perhaps be interpreted as the equivalent of Eve’s punishment for eating the apple? It seems a little unfair that Eve would get the pains of childbirth and Adam the pain of staying in bed for a couple of extra days every February. Should we instead turn to the suggestion that in hunter-gatherer societies, men having more serious symptoms when ill prevented them from going out hunting when they were still weak? Both suggestions are inconvenient in their lack of conclusive evidence.


We want hard facts, so we look to science. Normally I would consider it below me to acknowledge the existence of experiments on mice, but apparently it’s still a thing: several studies show that female mice have higher immune responses than male ones. Dr. Sue connects this to the theory that testosterone diminishes the immune system’s response to influenza, while some female sex hormones increase it. This is all still about mice, though, so the only thing I’m willing to do at this point is offer my condolences to Mickey and Minnie. I would very much like to believe that a woman has more in common with a man than with a mouse of whatever gender.


As for humans, Dr. Sue points us in the direction of research stating that men in the U.S. have higher rates of death linked to the flu than women of the same age. This is where it gets interesting, as those mocking men for over-exaggerating symptoms obviously wouldn’t want them to die from insufficient care. However, even though I won’t argue with scientific reports, I will say this: is the connection between my brother making me massage his feet because he’s had a cold for three days really in the same league as men (and women) dying from the flu and influenza? There’s a leap here, and a giant one at that. Jokingly, Dr. Sue ends his article by suggesting that ‘perhaps now is the time for male friendly spaces, equipped with enormous televisions and reclining chairs, to be set up where men can recover from the debilitating effects of man flu in safety and comfort’. Well, perhaps now is also the time to decide where this discussion is going. Is it about serious research and actual problems, or about the same old jokes where women should let men watch TV in peace and ask nothing of them?


Another approach might be to think about the saying ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’. Is the problem that we are fed with images of muscular, strong, active men and fragile, pale, and doll-like women? The culturally created male self-image makes sure that male weakness is so stigmatised that there is no way of dealing with it as a natural part of life. Instead, the boyfriend or brother or dad has to awkwardly regress back to childhood in order to find it in himself to be weak. He has to emphasise his immense suffering to justify not fulfilling the role assigned to him. He HAS to be what he can’t see (because there is no way of not getting ill), and thus he must also write articles about it and find research that justifies it and constantly talk about how difficult it is.


These are some possible ways of thinking about the man flu and Dr. Sue’s article. As for other scientists, one of the most common responses to Dr Sue is that while there might be differences between men and women, someone’s sex is just one of many factors that can impact how one’s body reacts to an infection. So perhaps in the future his article will be considered a document symptomatic of our time; in an ocean of possible scientific (and unscientific) explanations, we still  go for the man/woman dichotomy, rather than that of poor/rich, child/adult, or even smoker/non-smoker and so on. While these latter distinctions could be useful to explain responses to illness, they rarely make the headlines.


We simply love to think in terms of gender distinctions. To future societies this might be one of the curious, amusing little peculiarities of 21st century thought.

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