A fascinating but not entirely surprising result from a study about narcissism suggests that men incur a higher cost health-wise for trying to appear manly, or otherwise in conformity with stereotypical gender roles.
For the new study, Konrath and colleagues David Reinhard of the University of Virginia, and William Lopez and Heather Cameron of the University of Michigan examined the role of narcissism and sex on cortisol levels in a sample of 106 undergraduate students. Cortisol, which can be measured through saliva samples, is a widely used marker of physiological stress.
The researchers measured cortisol levels at two points in time in order to assess baseline levels of the hormone, which signals the level of activation of the body’s key stress response system, the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. Participants were not asked to complete any tasks that would elevate their stress. Elevated levels of cortisol in a relatively stress-free situation would indicate chronic HPA activation, which has significant health implications, increasing the risk of cardiovascular problems.
Reinhard, Konrath and colleagues found that the most toxic aspects of narcissism were indeed associated with higher cortisol in male participants, but not in females. In fact, unhealthy narcissism was more than twice as large a predictor of cortisol in males as in females.
They also found that there was no relationship between healthy narcissism and cortisol in either males or females.
So the more you try to attain the unattainable body images and general attitudes impressed upon men by society’s definition of what is masculine, the higher men’s maladaptive narcissist traits, and the higher their cortisol levels, which takes a direct physical toll on their overall health. Yet another way that society’s prescriptive gender roles harm men. To you guys fighting against the idea of doing away with gender roles, who think it’s perfectly acceptable for society to tell you what you can and cannot like, and how you can and cannot look, know that you’re hurting yourselves.
See also the PLoS One study.