Monday, 14 May 2012

On Man flu

Last week I was ill. Not incapacitated, just a bit under the weather in an annoying way, rather than debilitated.

It was my son's fault. Millen (which is his name) caught a cold of some sort. Not sure how, he's not really been near anyone with a cold that we've noticed, but that's apparently just one of the things kids do, find and incubate illnesses without any seeming cause.

And, inevitably, I caught the cold too. It seems that if you have someone with a cold and spend as much time as possible in close contact with them and handle all (ALL!) their bodily emissions, you risk picking up any bugs they have. Who knew?

I admit I wasn't expecting to catch a cold from an 8 week old, but more fool me I suppose. It wasn't even a proper cold, it went from having an overweight but irritated bumblebee lodged in my sinus cavities, to my nose running like a satirical commentary on the British drought announcements, to sneezing more regularly than an apprentice pepper tester. Never all at once though, more like some symptomatic triple tag-team.

None of these were, as I say, incapacitating. My wife is on maternity looking after our first child, who is 8 weeks old. Even if I was the sort of person to complain about inconvenient personal ailments, I certainly wouldn't do that to a new mother, especially not one I live with.

But I did mention my cold to a few people. To those in work when I opted to work from home to contain the infection (I have that option), to people on Facebook and twitter, because I like social networking but with a new baby in the house your range of conversational subjects suddenly gets a lot more limited. My having a cold was something a bit different to talk about. It was either that or discuss the contents of Millen's latest nappy, and that seems like it would have 'niche' appeal at best.

So, I mentioned my cold once or twice, just as a passing comment. And, it turns out, I have man flu. This surprised me, if I'm honest.

As far as I was aware, man flu is a joke used by women to describe the phenomenon of men over-dramatising their symptoms and suffering if they happen to come down with a cold, often to a theatrical extent. I'm not denying that this happens. When it comes to physical weakness or failings, most men are seemingly programmed (by society, evolution, hormones, Hollywood, I don't know) to exaggerate whatever it was that caused them to demonstrate weakness. If asked after the event, a guy is unlikely to have been beaten up by one guy, more like four. It wasn't a child's scooter they tripped over, it was a motorbike accident, The fish that got away was always the bigger one.

That previous paragraph was, you may say, nothing but some unfair generalisations and stereotypes. Good point, and it brings me neatly back to man flu.

I thought that man flu was reserved for the over-dramatic emphasis of standard cold symptoms, but lately, as I've found, it's become more of an automatic classification. It could just be my experience, but it seems Man + Unwell = Man flu. If a man mentions being under the weather for non-alcohol related causes, it's man flu. I wouldn't mind so much, but I hadn't complained, just observed that I had a cold. I was still working, I didn't want special treatment or sympathy, I just felt like it was something to say. That's man flu now, apparently.

I'm very much a feminist supporter, as I hope my article about Unilad demonstrated, but I've seen/heard many women who, rightly, criticise this male tendency to be macho about everything, to posture, to reduce everything to a pissing contest, to refuse to show vulnerability or emotion. These women say this, and they have a point. But I've seen these same women who, as soon as a male mentions being ill in some way, immediately start mocking them for having man flu. 

If you're going to insist that men stop posturing and acting so tough, but immediately start mocking them the instant they confess a weakness, this will probably end up being somewhat counter-productive. I've known guys who turn up for work hacking their guts up and infecting everyone around them like a 14th century rat, rather than be accused of being a wimp.

All things being equal, the man flu thing is still mocking someone for being unwell, and that's not very nice. It's completely unacceptable in almost all other contexts. And I've no doubt there are women reading this, perhaps as many as two, who will say I'm being ridiculously over-sensitive, that this is just a front for wounded male pride, that I should grow up and learn to take a joke. All fair points, and to those women I might say this;

I had a stomach cramp once, I didn't even mention it, let alone whinge about it for a full week.

The previous statement would be seen, rightly, as extremely offensive by many. How could I mock someone for suffering in a way that I don't have any appreciation of? Yes, how indeed.

Obviously the man-flu thing is different. Women can experience a cold, and just carry on, whereas it seems to incapacitate supposedly big burly men. That logic cannot be denied.

Except for the fact that it's wrong. It's assuming that a woman's cold and man's cold are the same. But that isn't true. Because man flu actually is a real disease.

It's an evolved mechanism. The human male, evolved for hunting and fighting, has developed a more robust immune system and physiology that can endure more damage. Any virus that infects the human male can be certain of a rugged, durable host for as long as it can withstand the formidable immune system. So a virus would evolve that was strong enough to get through the immune defences and convert this mighty organism to its infectious ways. However, such a virus would be very powerful, too powerful for a lesser system to withstand.

Long story short, man flu is a real illness, and if a woman caught it she'd be killed. Instantly. She'd liquefy on the spot, like ebola on fast forward. And a pathogen which kills it's host in seconds wouldn't have any chance to spread, so would be an evolutionary dead end, so man flu has evolved to avoid women.

But, you say, you've known a woman to catch a 'cold' from a man? Of course, that's because the mighty male immune system eventually beats back this virus, to the point where one or two molecules will 'jump ship', onto a less demanding host, which may be a woman at times.

But what about when a man catches a 'cold' (Man flu) from a woman? It's the same thing, the weakened virus builds up it's strength until it is powerful enough to infect a man again. It takes all of it's strength to do this though, to so the female host is left with only a pale imitation of the true disease.

So think about that, next time you mock a man for being ill.

Although, of course, a lot of what I've just said is absolute nonsense. I'm certain viruses don't work that way. I'm just bored and stuck at home babysitting. And babies don't say much, so my social skills are seriously rusty.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It turns out that biological sex differences can have a real effect on immunological reactions to infection (at least in mice), see:

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