According to a recent piece in The Times, a reputable English newspaper, symptoms are demeaning AND feminine. More specifically, the article reports on the prostate cancer experiences of Sir Michael Parkinson, or “Parky,” a famous British talkshow host. Parkinson reveals his harrowing experience of getting prostate cancer treatment and its “grueling” side-effects. While the treatments worked, they apparently produced menopause-like symptoms (hot flushes and weight gain) that reminded him of “how women feel when they are going through menopause.” Parkinson is quoted directly as saying, “In a sense you become a woman. I’m getting fitted for a bra next week!” The reporter goes on to say “he’s joking but he’s also deadly serious.” The “menopausal” symptoms that Parkinson had during his prostate cancer treatments are also described as “demeaning” in the same paragraph.
Parkinson is a major public figure in the UK, with significant media influence. I’m certain that this article was read by many as a result, and it makes me wonder about the far-reaching impact of the negative characterizations made about both women and bodily symptoms in this article. When I read this article, I find the equation of symptoms and femininity problematic, for lots of health conditions that produce bodily changes and sensations are not only experienced by women. Experiencing a hot flush or hot flash, while often attributed to menopause, is not menopause-specific all of the time. You can have hot flushes from exercising hard, from the flu, from medications that treat a range of diseases, or when you’re embarrassed. You can have weight gain at midlife (or any time of life for that matter) for a variety of reasons unrelated to menopause. Both the equation of women with symptoms and the definitions of symptoms as negative and “demeaning” show exactly how little progress we have made in eradicating gendered ideologies that harm us. Women are equated with their bodies and seen as lesser than men because of this equation. Men are supposed to be able to rise above their bodily functions, signs, and symptoms and live the life of the mind. Thus, when men experience a symptom they must rid themselves of it because, oh, the horror, they might be “like women” if they have to pay attention to their bodies at all. Research studies show quite often that women are ignored by doctors when they report a long list of symptoms and are not given the treatments they need to ease those symptoms as much as men are, because doctors learn to assume that women are just overreacting. Symptoms are not real if reported by women, studies suggest. Yet, when men experience symptoms and report them they are treated for them more often, especially when they report things such as pain. I interviewed a woman once who told me that “symptoms are always negative” and I wonder if that is partially because of the equation of symptoms with femininity and women’s bodies.
I am certain that it was difficult for Parkinson to undergo treatments for his prostate cancer. I also know that hot flushes and weight gain are never comfortable for people, especially when they seem uncontrollable. BUT, when we go on to support the characterization of symptoms as “what women feel” and then in the next breath say that those symptoms are “demeaning,” we head right into reifying gender ideologies that harm every single one of us. Men should be able to notice changes in their bodies without feeling “feminine.” We should recognize bodily symptoms as part of both health and illness that everyone experiences. And women should not have to be defined only by the fact that they go through certain reproductive transitions that include symptoms. I know Parkinson is perhaps from a generation that might still be holding tightly to gender ideologies that do not make much sense for the contemporary world, but I hold the reporter responsible for some of the characterizations made in this article, too. It is 2014, and aren’t we supposed to be more progressive than this? Because you experience a hot flush you should be fitted for a bra? In the YouTube video that appears along with this post, Parkinson himself admits “men are silly about their health.” I’ll say. But comments reported in the recent Times article go way past being silly.