Boy Pain, Girl Pain.

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Last Thursday, I finally had my oft-rescheduled wisdom tooth surgery, which is why I haven’t been blogging. It’s apparently a more complicated procedure once you’re over the age of 20; your bottom wisdom teeth sit next to a nerve and extracting them after they’ve fully grown means you run the slight risk of minor facial paralysis. (I also had to have all four of them out at once, which wasn’t what I was expecting when I went in.) I’ve spent the last few days mostly sleeping, eating soft foods and becoming intimately acquainted with some miraculous prescription painkillers. Good times.

But this experience got me thinking: Why do we deal with pain and comfort the way we do? That idea popped into my head while I sat in the oral surgeon’s chair and the nurse simultaneously tried to prep me for the operation and calm my nerves. (I’d never been under general anesthesia before.) “It’s the guys who come in here and get freaked out,” she joked. “The bigger they are, the worse it is.” I laughed nervously.

And in the woozy moments before I passed out, I filed away her comment for later. She was probably on to something.

Her aside touched on the subjectivity of pain and discomfort, which I think most of us recognize. And while there’s probably a lot of variance as to individual thresholds for those things, there’s a huge social component to certain perceptions and sensations. The ability to brush off the kind of agony you feel when you work out is a learned behavior, and often informed by things like gender and class and race in ways that we don’t always acknowledge. I tease my female friends that working out with them is always a drag because they’re crybabies.* (“It’s supposed to hurt!”) The arrogance/condescencion in that statement is twofold: it presumes not only that my friends can’t handle physical pain because they’re women but also that my very genderized notion of pain is the only way of understanding and experiencing it.

And, of course, my teasing them about their respective pain thresholds doesn’t hold up to the flimsiest scrutiny. these are people who regularly walk around in three-inch heels for fun, who routinely have various parts of themselves tweezed or waxed or sanded down or hotcombed, and who soldier through an often excruciating monthly ritual. If the nurse was right, and guys get all squeamish before surgery, I’m willing to bet a lot of it has to do with the fact that relatively few of our medical experiences as men are invasive ones. But my friends’ relationships to those things are not dissimilar to the way I experience DOMS: as inconveniences to be tolerated, even embraced. The way they shrug them off (or commiserate over them) has the added benefit of reinforcing the ingroup/outgroup dynamic.

Growing up male meant that I was actively pushed into sports and a very different kind of relationship to my own physicality. Me and the dudes on my block played ball on the court across the street from my house after school and all day on the weekends. You learned that driving the lane was an invitation to get hit, that posting up meant pushing and shoving and grappling for position, and that calling foul on some bullshit might get you the ball, but carried considerable social cost. (“Stop crying! I ain’t even hit you that hard!”) This physical interaction reinforced a bunch of ‘masculine’ virtues, and somewhere in there, we were being instilled with the idea that physical discomfort and sweat and fun and socializing can all be one fuzzy mess.

There’s also social location to consider. I grew up in the inner-city, which meant having to share physical play space with other folks. (It didn’t matter if you couldn’t play ball; if they needed another person to run a full, you were conscripted into service.) This very specific socialization might not have happened if I lived someplace where everyone had hoops in their backyards. And still, my genderized relationship to muscle pain and physical activity as an adult has become a decidedly middle class one. I have a gym membership. I work convenient hours. My job doesn’t entail the kind of grueling, taxing work that leaves so many laborers battling a constellation of progressive injuries at relatively young ages. And I have health insurance. Even our bodies function as class markers, and we live our lives with the physical and cultural limitations that have been written into them over time.

I’m sure I’m missing a ton of stuff, but all of the rambling brings me to a broader point. If our physicalities are so elemental and inextricable to our identities — class, gender, even race and religion — then it follows that most of us are not even experiencing the same corporeal world. And this goes not just for physical pain, but the way we express grief and humor and happiness. It’s no wonder that so many of our most banal experiences don’t translate across certain lines. (Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is exactly why diversity is so important to the crafting of policy: there are indeed plenty of instances in which a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.)

I’m not sure how much sense any of this makes. I was working this out while I was drifting in and out of fitful naps with a mouth full of bloody gauze, which I suppose is as good a time as any to mull over the vagaries of pain. And feeling remorse for being condescending to your friends. And knowing when to acknowledge that you can’t tell someone how they’re supposed to feel about any given experience, and subsequently shutting the hell up.



Gene "G.D." Demby is the founder and editor of PostBourgie. In his day job, he blogs and reports on race and ethnicity for NPR's Code Switch team.
  • I like this. Although I don’t think you need to feel bad about telling your women friends to butch up about working out–that’s part of the (masculine, but not necessarily) culture of working out (as you’re saying), no?

    My totally anecdotal two cents is that women tend to say that men are babies, not only about medical procedures, but about being sick in general: wanting to be waited on and fussed over. Whereas we (women who say this sort of thing) prefer to just be left the hell alone when we’re feeling crappy. I don’t know why that is–periods? privacy? “maternal instinct”?–but I’m one of those women that thinks it tends to be true.

  • ladyfresh

    hrrm glad your better…

    i liked this essay and esp the enlightening reminder of the impossibility of walking a mile in another bunions

  • Welcome back G.D. :-)
    Great piece. I’ve been chewing on this idea for a while since a read it and thinking about the genderized ideas of what we think of as pain and our expectations regarding pain and what activities are painful. I’ve been an athlete for a long time and for me “exertion” doesn’t read the same as “pain”. In the gym I expect to feet tired, but I don’t expect it to “hurt” but a lot of my female friends say that weight training results in pain. I don’t get it.

    I also try to sympathise with people like shani and my best friend about their paralyzing menstrual cramps, but I’ve never had them…I don’t know why. Even in making tea and handing my bestie ibuprofens I don’t think I really *get* what she’s feeling even though she’s obviously in pain. But then, I don’t think people who don’t have migraines understand how I say I feel when I have one – “Can’t you just take an aspirin? It’s just a headache.” It’s infuriating to me when people do that because to me they feel like I’m dying and I want nothing more than to drive and ice pick into my eyeball to release the pressure in my skull.

    I know I’m kinda rambling now, but the nurse talking about how the bigger the guy the more nervous they are about going under made me think about gender and vulnerability and our feelings about being in control. Do you think the reason some of those big dudes have such a problem with being put under is because part of the masculine ideal is to always be in control of oneself and if possible one’s surroundings and being knocked out means relinquishing that? Seems to me that women might be a more accepting of that idea because of how we’re socialized. I’m even thinking of things like going to the gynecologist. With the exception of prostate exams or colonoscopies after a certain age, do men ever have to go through regular medical examinations that involve such total passivity and someone tinkering around *inside* you?

  • eaf

    There is also the fact that society expects women to be in pain, or to be more familiar with it. Menstrual cramps and childbirth as both a reality for women and an ostensibly “natural” condition for all women, but also a general mode of self-sacrifice that makes physical pain seem par for the course. I don’t know how much of this is straight up Eve’s punishment, religious crap. General social misogyny. Etc.

    Great post!

  • Lisa J

    Hope you feel better soon. I can sympathize b/c I had 3 wisdom teeth (one isn’t there) at age 35 just a few months ago. PAIN. Plus the dang dentist didn’t offer to anestetize me and just used novacane, everyone else I know says they got knocked out. I was terrified and shook like a scared bunny rabbit for the first 20 minutes. And she only gave me some craptastic extra strength ibuprofin afterwards(like if I just took 4 OTC ones). Witch. I accidently bit her during the procedure and felt bad at the time but now I’m kind a glad it happened since I didn’t feel I got the care I deserved. I was in pain for about 2 weeks and looked like a chipmunk for a week and a half. Girl pain or boy pain, wisdom teeth extraction sucks. Guys do get a little crazier though with pain.

  • lilacsigil

    I work in a rural pharmacy, and I found this post really interesting. Men will often come in with horrible injuries (a third degree burn, a torn muscle from fence wire, arc welding burns to the eye, cuts on the hand down to the bone) and just want a bandage and some antiseptic for it, not bothering to go to the doctor. The same men will come in with a mild cold and think they’re dying, demanding every medication they can possibly have.

    It seems to me that pain with an observable external cause is entirely okay for these men – they have ways to cope with it. But something from within that they can’t control is a frightening betrayal. A strategy of “it’s not because you’re sick, it’s to keep you healthy” seems to help encourage men to take their regular medications more than the idea of severe complications and/or death.

  • DAS

    I’ve noticed something similar with respect to my own body: I’m sure if I were a woman, I’d have been diagnosed a long time ago with “irritable bowel syndrome”. Not to diminish the very real pain, discomfort, embarrassment, etc. of IBS, but if you are a guy who has large/frequent bowel movements, constipation, diarrhea or is gassy or whatever — well, “a king has to sit on his thrown for a while” and “dad says ‘pull my finger'”. OTOH, if your a woman, you aren’t supposed to be gassy, “irregular”, etc. So while a doctor might say to a man “maybe you should be a bit more careful about what you eat — but its not abnormal for a man to have to take a long dump and suck up the pain and be a man”, the same bowel habits in a woman get “you have a disease, we call it IBS … have some yogurt — they put fruit in it!”

  • There IS a gender lesson here — just not the one some people want to hear. Isn’t it about time we ditch the stereotype about men being bigger babies than women when it comes to pain? I mean, seriously — why are these inane stereotypes acceptable? (Please don’t make me say it.) That reaction is far more likely a manifestation of women expecting men to accept and handle pain “like a man,” and then being shocked and disappointed that even big men feel pain the same as little women. I could quote Shylock here but ’nuff said.

  • lexa flasher

    Your own article points out several examples that show that gender has no effect on perceived level of pain; that it only affects what painful experiences are considered bearable and which are not, which are “worth it” (looking hot in heels certainly has commonly recognized rewards for women but doesn’t for men) and which are not (being built and strong is not commonly recognized as being a benefit for women I’ve been battling a brick wall trying to talk my g/f into it). And given the number of condescending remarks I receive from my workout buddies and in articles from I’m a bit confused as to why you *only* do it to women. Why are you short-changing your male workout partners on valuable negative reinforcement?

    The really interesting thing that you seemed to have missed is that negative reinforcement is used in a variety of situation but when it’s used across gender lines there appear to be additional considerations that come into play that determine how effective it is (and make you to feel like an ass for doing something that is actually very normal group activity, especially workouts). Is there any actual reason to not call someone a wimp only because they are a woman and you aren’t? If so: What is it? How does it work? Why does it exist? Does it have any biological basis? Can/should it be overcome? These are the actual questions. Women are not more wimpy: they are not less capable of pushing themselves to the max(they’ll get less muscle gain for the effort but they didn’t want as much anyway so that can’t be the reason it’s less motivating), they are experiencing the same pain that men are (there is zero evidence to suggest otherwise), they don’t have different pain tolerance levels (as pointed out by examples in the OP), they are perfectly capable of responding to negative reinforcement by redoubling their efforts (they commonly do it for “feminine” things as pointed out in the OP). It seems that they just don’t feel the same motivation.

    The reason adults respond poorly to what should be effective stimulus only on cross-gender issues might actually be a brain maturity and situational thing. Young boys and girls do just great in sports. Older people people without athletic backgrounds rarely adopt athletic lifestyles later in life without significant and prolonged ‘encouragement’. Such encouragement is heaped on men from childhood well into their 40s; it seems normal (what they’re missing is the encouragement to cut back on calories and sugar, but even your typical fat male couch potato still gets out and picks up heavy things on a weekly basis for some reason or another). To be suddenly informed in her late 20s that she’s a wimpy sloth when it comes to strength and endurance tasks is probably a bit of a shock to a woman. It’s not that it isn’t true, and it may not be that it needed to be said in a nicer way (is there a nice way to say that?!), or that she couldn’t/shouldn’t change: it may simply be that she’s suddenly being asked to live up to an expectation that her brain isn’t wired to accept. Changing an adult’s perceptions of expectations can take considerable effort (which may indeed include some hand-holding and coddling from time to time).

    Pierce Harlan above makes an interesting point that perception of pain isn’t just a personal thing. There is also other people’s perception of how much pain you’re feeling. If a woman complains about shoes hurting her feet too much she may be seen as more wimpy than she objectively is not because it isn’t painful but because she’s expected to accept it. If a man appears to be afraid of a surgery he may fail to live up to the expectation of infinite fearless pain tolerance.

    Oh G.D., btw, I had all four of my wisdom teeth taken out as an adult, at the same time, with the lower jaw done in small pieces (about 8 pieces per wisdom tooth) with just local and nitrous. Went back to work for an hour and then went and pick up my codeine at the store and was back to work on monday (3days). You’re a wimp 😛 Although, honestly, they wanted an extra $500 cash for general anesthesia and warned of a crap ton of side effects so I declined. Maybe you’re only a wimp because you have better dental insurance?

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