Take a good look at yourself

Men spend too much time talking about women's bodies and not enough talking about their own
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The Independent Culture
THERE WE were, all girls together, four friends out for a drink on a summer Saturday evening, minding our own business. Then some words started wafting towards us, words that we were clearly meant to hear.

"There's a bunch of old slappers who look like they've been round the block a few times," one of a group of men at the bar was commenting.

"I won't be going round any blocks with them, anyway," another chipped in.

Much laughter ensued, but mainly from us. It wasn't that we were likely to win any beauty contests or anything - it was just that our various physical conditions were absolutely tip-top in comparison to the men who were passing judgement on us. While we were all in our early- to mid- thirties, these guys were easily in their fifties, and could have passed for much older than that.

Dirty, unshaven, with huge beer bellies drooping over voluminous, stained trousers, hands ingrained with nicotine marks, hair unwashed and red necks boil-scarred, they were three clones of Stan Ogden from Coronation Street, circa 1985. Of course they weren't going round any blocks with us. It would have taken fork-lift trucks to get them off the bar stools.

Men and their bodies, men and our bodies. While these guys were of one of the last generations of men to be quite so self-destructively complacent about their own lack of physical well-being, they're not going to be the last to believe that the presence of a woman is in itself an invitation to consider her penetrability, without reference to their own allure or utter lack of it.

The idea that men spend too much time talking about women's bodies and not enough about their own, is represented in an awareness campaign that was launched yesterday by the Institute of Cancer Research, aimed at young men. Running in tandem with a picture of a pair of female breasts, the copyline reads: "No wonder male cancer is ignored. These are all you ever think about."

The advertisement has been created as part of a month-long campaign in response to a Mori poll commissioned by the Institute, which has found that more than two-thirds of young men know little or nothing about testicular and prostate cancer. The poll comes hot on the heels of last month's exhaustive report by the Men's Health Forum, which revealed that eight times more money is being spent on women's health in Britain than on men's.

This appalling imbalance is best illustrated by way of comparison between prostate cancer and breast cancer. While breast cancer kills 14,000 women each year, prostate cancer kills 10,000 men. While breast-cancer research attracts funding to the tune of pounds 4m a year, the total spending last year on prostate cancer was pounds 37,000. While 150 charities are linked to breast cancer awareness, only one is linked to prostate cancer.

The more reasonable male commentators have discussed how men don't like talking about their bodies. But the more rabid of male opinion-formers have leapt to blame women for the fact that men don't look after their physical health. One such charmer, a chap called George Tyndale, declared that "a loud, protracted and selfish campaign by feminists has been allowed to distort budgets and programmes across the nation so dramatically that health provision has become profoundly and dangerously unjust. It will take more than a new report to change the situation," he summed up. "It will need men to raise a voice as loud, selfish and demanding as the female campaigners." Heavens, George, you don't mean radical stuff like looking after your own health instead of waiting for the little woman to book an appointment at the doctor for you? That would just be incredibly selfish of you, wouldn't it?

Another commentator, Julian Critchley, told how he himself discovered by chance that he suffered from prostate cancer, and suggested that men's ignorance about the disease was because "we have, without protest, allowed ourselves to become the victims of the feminist triumphalism that is rampant in our society". Since Critchley is a man of no little intelligence and of vast general knowledge, it's hard to see how women vocally having health problems ever led him inexorably to assume that men therefore can't possibly have any.

Now, I'm one of these wussy women who has always been chary of calling myself a feminist, because I've always believed that the breakdown of gender stereotypes is a necessary process for evolved humans that will be of benefit to men as well as women. For years, when women have cited health issues such as breast cancer to me as reasons why women "must fight on", I've argued that the poor treatment of diseases such as testicular and prostate cancer suggests that these kinds of issues unite men and women more than they divide them. So now that these problems are finally getting an airing, the comments of men such as Tyndale and Critchley appal me all the more.

While these men appear to be suggesting that advances in women's health have been made at the expense of men's, the truth is that without feminist campaigns, specific female problems would be as little researched and understood as men's are. And while this would indeed have been a kind of equality, it is also a perfect illustration of how the tenets of "feminism" can create a force in society that could be just as beneficial to men as it has been to women.

Except that many men just keep on insisting on blaming women for the progress they have made in improving the female lot, instead of resolving to take a leaf out of their book. Like the bar-room bullshitters so eager to get across to a group of uninterested women that we were there for their sexual pleasure, these men are deluding themselves.

It's hard to imagine such chaps taking the time to read the "cancer pants" their wives may have bought them from Tesco. Launched last week after consultation with the Royal Marsden Hospital, they have instructions on how to self-examine for testicular cancer printed on the labels. It's hard also to imagine them pinning rubber "perkins" - badges designed around the XY chromosome symbol which are being distributed through WH Smith and House of Fraser shops to raise male-cancer awareness - on to their greasy lapels.

But these, and other "feminist" measures, are ones that men will have to adopt if they are to improve their physical and mental health. This, of course, is harder to do than to sit around blaming women for the fact that 75 per cent of suicides are men, that girls now perform better at school and university than boys, that men are three times as likely to become drug addicts as women, that men die six years younger than women, that they are more ill, more stressed, more dislocated from their children and massively more likely to end up in prison.

For while there is some truth in the argument that women's advances have been made at the expense of men, that is only because most men have proved themselves so inflexibly resistant to the idea that they can learn from the ways in which women have recast their lives during the last century.

In another depressing poll, released yesterday by the Reader's Digest, it was found that most young British men would not commit themselves to their partner for the sake of their child. Almost nine out of 10, though, said they would accept financial responsibility for their offspring. The message is plain: that the majority of men really do still want to reject any responsibility for themselves and others, that their interests in the family stop at copulating, and providing it with money.

Why can't they see what a narrow and joyless view of human existence this really is? Why can't they see that such a stubborn refusal to engage with women and with children is simply life-denying? And why can't they see that the first step towards being able to share a meaningful life with others, is for them to take responsibility for their own bodies and their own selves, instead of spending all their time ogling the bodies and denying the minds of women?