Two main normative categories emerged from the data: (1) The ideal man is a winner: Masculinity and competitiveness; and (2) A real man is not a whiner: Masculinity and health issues. Being two sides of a coin, these two normative categories somehow represent upper and lower limits of how men should be, and encourage and discourage participation in health in different ways.
The ideal man is a winner: Masculinity and competitiveness
An important way mentioned by the interviewees to try to achieve or expose masculinity is by exposing their performances to other men. In the interviews, high achievements in sports, alcohol use, or other physically challenging risk taking behaviours are mentioned. It is vital that these achievements are noticed by other men or their value diminishes. The importance of dominance and public performances can also be derived from their image of the ideal man, which surprisingly does not differ much among the interviewees. According to most interviewees, the ideal man is successful in multiple areas such as sports, work, and risk taking behaviour but also as a father and a husband. To shortly summarize, the ideal man is a winner everywhere and always. Despite the ideal, all men recognize that being a winner always is not feasible and hence, the 'real life' standard is to at least try and be one. In order to show masculinity and gain respect, men are required to compete. Almost all men associate masculinity with impressing other men in the workplace and in regards to career and sports. Despite the possible variation in masculinity, a clear border of masculinity is sexual orientation; being gay is not considered masculine. Avoiding any association with femininity is important because other men will lose respect. For instance, several sports are mentioned as women's sports: ballet, Nordic walking, horseback riding, or netball. Rob explains that he would not play netball, because it is a women's sport and therefore, an embarrassment:
I: But would it hurt your masculinity if other men knew you played netball?
"Well it isn't that bad but a little, yeah. You are not really a tough guy that other men look up to and think: look at him, he plays netball. They would rather laugh at you than show respect for you." (Rob, 35 years)
When men are involved in a feminized sport, they have to be particularly good and passionate about it to gain respect from other men. Competitiveness is also shown by trumping each other by humour. Drinking a lot is often considered a high achievement and plays a role in establishing a position among men. Large networks with many friends are important and male friendships contribute to men's well-being. Raymond has to prove his 'equality' and therefore it seems that competition is part of the 'fun' experience among friends to which alcohol contributes.
"I just want to prove that I am nothing less than my friends. When we are together we generally drink some beers, I am certainly not going to drink cola when we are having fun." (Raymond, 29 years)
The interviewees state how men try to impress each other in work, sports and in other situations such as discussions, risky behaviour, using humour and joking, and story-telling. Some men also recognize a downside to trying to impress others, for instance in friendships:
"I had to book a short holiday with friends, something we do every year. But I was so determined to exceed the previous holidays in the years before that I had booked a hotel that was much too expensive and luxurious. I totally forgot what the essence of this holiday was. I was only busy making others look up to my perfectly organized holiday." (Maarten, 39 years)
In other domains, such as competitive sports, winning is a more clear-cut goal. And although workplace physical activity is not a competitive sport in itself, Jerry likes to show off in the gym:
"I like to show my colleagues that I am athletic. There is a competitive atmosphere between me and my colleagues. Maybe it is a way to demonstrate my capabilities, I think proving myself plays a role in this." (Jerry, 31 years)
Besides liking to prove themselves, the men are also often asked to prove themselves:
"Well, I am often challenged by my colleagues. They frequently say, come on old man, show us what you got. And then I have to accept that challenge. I cannot let it pass because I still want to win." (Jan, 53 years)
Rejecting the challenge already detracts from their masculinity and, thus, affects their position in male hierarchy. Nevertheless, some men perceive the requirement as a burden. Feelings of pressure may exclude men from certain contexts; they want to escape knowing they will not live up to expectations, or they may feel they prove their masculinity in other contexts. Age may play an excluding role in workplace physical activity. Jan, an older exerciser, said in the excerpt how he 'still' wants to win which suggests that he expects eventually an ending to this desire. Ben refers to feeling old being around young participants, and Tom thinks workplace physical activity is something for younger men:
"Only young guys participate in workplace physical activity. I cannot see myself standing between those young guys. Besides, I think after ten minutes I am too tired to continue. I just don't want to embarrass myself."
I: Are you ashamed to participate in workplace physical activity?
"Well, being ashamed is a bit of an exaggeration. But, I am not very athletic and it is hard for me to just step in and participate. Besides, I do not even know how these fitness machines work. No, I think working out is something for young men." (Tom, 47 years)
Comparison with other men is important. The men expect having to compete with athletic, possibly younger, men in the gym - not being athletic would be an embarrassment. The interviewees do not expect women to be around or at least they do not refer to them. Other younger men distance themselves from exercisers by framing masculinity differently. For instance Woud, a non-exerciser, challenges the muscle building norms he expects in workplace physical activity. He does not moralize that people should exercise for their health, but when they exercise, fun and health should be their motivation and men should not exaggerate looks. Martijn opposes the type of masculinity that is, according to him, displayed by male participants of workplace physical activity:
"They are only occupied with their looks; they are not fun to hang out with. You cannot really laugh with them and I always get the feeling I have to prove myself. Besides, when there is trouble such as a stressful situation at work or when they have a cold they are the first to complain about it. Furthermore, they may look strong with those big, muscular arms but they are not. It is like they have air in their arms." (Martijn, 23 years)
Again, fun is mentioned, and according to Martijn the male exercisers are not fun to be around. He feels he has to prove himself to the exercisers who seem physically stronger than they really are but whine about a common cold. According to him, real masculinity is exposed in having a good sense of humour, handling work stress, or stoicism in times of illness; they may think they are winners, but according to Martijn, they are not.
The existence of hegemonic masculinity is obvious to the men, although for different men different aspects are most important, and some hegemonic masculinities are resisted or not complied with. 'Real' masculinity means aiming for, but not necessarily reaching, the 'ideal'. Competitiveness is required to show masculinity to other men. Older men in particular, but also some younger men seem to refrain from workplace physical activity because they resist the type of masculinity, characterized as young, obsessed with muscle building, looks, being physically strong, and dominant in the gym. Furthermore, the men relate workplace physical activity to fitness equipment and do neither consider other physical activities nor do they mention the participation of women.
A real man is not a whiner: Masculinity and health issues
In regards health issues, hegemonic masculinity seems strongly expressed in male attitudes towards (in)vulnerability. According to most of the interviewees, real men should not be taking care of their health when there is no need; this would expose weakness and feelings of vulnerability. Most of the interviewed men relate invulnerability positively with being masculine and dominant and they desire to perceive themselves as invulnerable. This forms an obstacle for self-care only until psychological or physical health complaints can no longer be ignored. Most of the men consider themselves healthy because they do not experience health problems even if they would, for instance, smoke or drink too much. According to the interviewees, men only talk about health when there is something wrong, and there should not be something wrong with it. This gives the impression that men find their health uninteresting, and this indifference or nonchalance then becomes another source of masculine pride. In this theme, the physical results of working out are not necessarily associated with being competitive but rather with self-confidence and nonchalance ("looking fit").
Among men, only health problems that are large, serious, and solvable and affect work can be safely discussed. Using humour and joking is an outlet to discuss emotions or problems without being too serious about it and without coming across as vulnerable:
"It is just an easy way to discuss certain problems. When you tell them in a funny way you can place the problem in perspective. And it makes it light instead of dramatic." (Roan, 42 years)
Outsourcing self-care, hence outsourcing femininity, to female partners allows some men to take care of their health without harming their masculinity ideals. The role of women in taking care of men's health is vividly described by Roan, who mentions his difficulties with seeking help when he is ill:
"After some time of illness, my wife starts pushing me to go to the doctor. And the difficult thing is, that most of the time she was right that going to the doctor was necessary. But, you do not go to the doctor for each little thing." (Roan, 42 yrs)
The role of his partner liberates Roan from masculine norms to not take care of his health and disclose his vulnerability while maintaining his sense of masculinity: he goes because she thinks it's important. Not disclosing vulnerability also plays a role in relation to the men's family. On the one hand, it is to be placed in their sense of duty to protect the family, because a man should provide security and be a role model:
"I think a man has to be strong and should not cry over every disappointment in his life. Besides, he has to set an example for his kids and crying would not really help him. As a father, you like to show your kids how to be a real man. And set a role model of what a good father is like." (Ben, 54 years)
On the other hand, being a father legitimizes that men feel and show vulnerability. Some men with family responsibilities are allowed to pay attention to their health without it negatively affecting their masculinity or position within male hierarchies. Being a role model motivates Roan to admit to his daughters that he should have taken better care of his health:
"I have two daughters; they are twins and 16 years old. You are right I do not set a good example by smoking and I should stop for them. But, I do try to warn them for the negative effects of smoking and I hope they will never start smoking. And I also tell them honestly that if I could turn back time, I wish I had never started smoking." (Roan, 42 years)
Complaining or being emotional about minor problems is something that women would do and, hence, something to avoid. But sometimes, the men feel vulnerable and they need to discuss what they call 'vague' or emotional problems. Often, such problems can be safely discussed with women:
"Showing emotions is easier with women. I think women are better capable to understand your emotions when you are struggling with something that is not a very clear problem. It is just nicer to talk about problems with women than with men, I do not really know the reason for that." (Martijn, 23 years)
Tom, who said that his focus on work earlier in life had contributed to his divorce, even goes as far as calling his ex-wife when he has emotional problems, but other issues can be safely discussed with other men:
"There must be problems men can help each other with; otherwise, you should not mention them. But when I am having problems I call my ex-wife. I can tell her everything and it is a lot easier to talk about [such problems] with women." (Tom, 47 years)
Tom presents as a traditional family man who only began to take care of his health after his physician had said so:
I: Do you think it is typical for men to not pay attention [to health] too much and only take action when someone like a physician says something?
"Well, as a man you, you will not pay attention to your health daily, no. That is more something for women. Besides, I had never had any problem before."
I: Okay, but why isn't that something men pay attention to?
"Well, I just wasn't very interested. And I do not start whining about every little complaint. As a man you just work and provide for the family and pay for expenses." (Tom, 47 years)
Tom's remark exemplifies how men may perceive their health in a more pragmatic way: health is not interesting unless daily functioning is impaired. In the excerpt, the interviewer responds to Tom's presentation of a man who complies with conventional hegemonic masculinity. However on Saturdays, Tom does household chores, because there is no "wife anymore who does these things for you." He does not seem to have problems with doing this work although he states that men are providers for the family who do not complain about little problems, and do not discuss intimacies with other men. By the end of the interview, Tom asks:
"Ok, but don't you find it weird to speak with men about these issues? I mean, I do not mind you know, but sometimes they are rather intimate issues."
I: Yes, I have to get used to it. But it goes a little better with every interview. I find it in particular hard to ask about how people feel or how they experience things.
And then Tom reassures the interviewer:
"I can imagine that. But I actually thought it was a nice conversation, you know." (Tom, 47 years)
This quotation shows that openly admitting to vulnerability may be difficult for men. Nevertheless, Tom directly asks the interviewer how he experiences discussing intimate issues, which is rather intimate in itself. This interview context, with a younger and uncomfortable male interviewer, allows Tom to make this statement without damaging his masculine identity.
When asked about health, almost all men relate health to sports or exercise but sports or exercise is hardly related to health. Competition, fun, and risk-taking seem more important than health, only when sports are fun, can they be healthy:
"I think it is healthy when people do sports because it gives them a good feeling and they like it and do not sport because of the 'healthy'." (Woud, 28 years).
Alcohol abuse is often referred to in the interviews as a way of showing masculinity by competing and sharing friendship but also a means of escaping masculinity and losing control. Openly showing healthy lifestyle behaviours is not masculine, while openly showing unhealthy behaviour is considered masculine. Interestingly, men who do not adhere to that norm such as Maarten, who puts effort into his health, do not contest it either but refer to the other domains where they have the highest achievements:
"There is a certain hierarchy within that atmosphere. They are the boozers; they are on top of the hierarchy when looking at the group when we are in the pub. I am on top of the hierarchy when it comes to sports." (Maarten, 39 years)
For Maarten, being masculine in sports outweighs the fact that he is not masculine in drinking but the reverse is also true for other men. The men seem to constantly balance healthy and unhealthy behaviours and these balancing acts determine the health price they are willing to pay for being masculine:
"The perfect balance is when someone lives a healthy life without missing the fun aspects of it." (Rob, 35 years)
"I think you should enjoy life, and drinking alcohol or eating unhealthy food from time to time is part of that." (Roan, 42 years).
Balancing short and long term health goals sounds fairly reasonable. However, the possibility that short term goals (fun with the guys in the pub) must be constrained at least a bit in order to reach long term health goals is hardly considered. What men consider 'from time to time' does not always concur with established norms. When confronted with the official alcohol health limit of five consumptions per occasion and a maximum of 21 consumptions per week for men, many of the interviewed men - including those who hardly drink - challenged its legitimacy:
"Well, if that is the case I seriously have to think about it because I drink more than 6. But I do think it is nonsense. I mean everything that gives pleasure is considered as bad." (Tom, 47 years)
From the interviews, other health knowledge appears to be present. Another matter is showing openly that you possess that knowledge or that you live a healthy life for your health. Jerry does associate sports and exercise with health, but for him this also seems connected to 'feeling good' and to looks:
"I did sport fanatically from an early age on. I just feel good about it and health is my top priority. And a part of it is also vanity I think (laughs)."(Jerry, 31 years)
And Maarten really takes care of himself in terms of healthy nutrition, self-care, and exercise, but health only vaguely motivates his behaviours:
"I like to look good, not just for myself but also for my girlfriend. For me, someone is masculine when he looks good and fit. Furthermore, he has to show toughness and nonchalance. When you look good, you feel good. It gives me a feeling of safety and self-confidence." (Maarten, 39 years)
Earlier, other men had recognized that workplace physical activity is for men who find looks important and want to come across physically strong. The quote above put 'looks' in a more psychological perspective. By looking good, showing toughness and nonchalance, Maarten tunes into a self-confident masculinity that protects him from feeling insecure and vulnerable. Looking good, presented in alignment with being fit and masculine, is mentioned by the exercisers. Health behaviours, preventive behaviours, or help-seeking seem not very masculine. But some men can legitimately pay attention to their health when they are role models for their children or when they actually have clear-cut health complaints. Workplace physical activity may help men to construct a certain type of masculinity, expose vitality, and be competitive. Looking good is important; sports or exercise may contribute to looking 'fit' and self-confident. Workplace physical activity, however, does not tune into ideas of what a good worker should do or is like, and it is hardly mentioned as an instrument to improve health.