AGING BODIES AND MASCULINE IDENTITY
When I was writing my master’s thesis, one topic that I researched at length was exercise and identity. In particular, I explored some of the ways in which we try to overcome some of the less positive aspects of aging though exercise. Certainly, social research shows that exercise is helpful in this regard. However, men and women experience age-related bodily changes in very different ways. Granted, physically, we all experience many of the same changes: our skin wrinkles, we experience age-related loss of muscle (sarcopenia) and balance, and we become slower due to fast-twitch muscle fibre changes. However, men generally have a much harder time adapting to these changes. Historically, men have been encouraged to be tough, strong and healthy. Therefore, a man who feels he is not as strong and healthy as he was in his youth may find his own self-concept to be challenged. Unfortunately for men, this psychological side-effect of aging is rarely discussed. Men are not accustomed to talking about such things to each other, and are often uncomfortable talking to the women in their lives about feeling vulnerable. Our society embraces the ideology of the self-made man (Kimmel, 1997) in which masculinity is earned and “manhood must be proved – and proved constantly” (Kimmel, 1997, p. 17.) Thus, men are more likely align their identities with their physical selves and with performance. Any deterioration in these areas can prove mentally difficult for older men to adjust.
However, exercise is often a very positive way older men can gain some control over the process of aging. A study by Kronenwetter, Weidner, Gerdi, Pettengill, Marlin, Crutchfield, McCormac, Raisin & Ornish, (2005) investigated the perceptions of older men involved in a prostate cancer outpatient program that included exercise. The study found that the practice of exercise and other lifestyle behaviours gave the men hope and optimism about their conditions. The researchers linked this finding to the idea that these men were able to take control over aspects of their condition, tying them to feelings of power and mastery in a situation which otherwise rendered them powerless (Kronenwetter et al., 2005). In addition, exercise programs that involve strength training, skill building, and competition can help older men feel more competent, strong, and autonomous (Maliha, 2010.) These practices can help older men feel they are regaining aspects of themselves.
Sources: Kimmel, M.S. (2006). Manhood in America: A cultural history (2nd Ed). New York: Oxford University Press.
Kronenwetter, C., Weidner, G., Pettengill, E., Marlin, R., Crutchfield, L., McCormac et al. (2005.) A qualitative analysis of interviews of men with early state prostate cancer. Cancer Nursing 28(2), 99-107.
Maliha, K. (2010.) Older Adults’ Experiences of an Age-Segmented Exercise Program