The Toxic Masculinity I See With the Language Used to Talk About Illness


Most people living with a chronic condition, an incurable disease, or most cancers knows that the reality of this life is an ebb and flow. Our lives are not typically the vision of decisive finality that the patriarchal language used to talk about them implies. When we are spoken about, we are warriors, we are fighting battles, we are survivors, we have beaten something, we have survived, or we have lost. I feel we are expected to, and thus expect ourselves to fit into these binaries that leave little room for the fluidity that disease actually looks like. Moreover, I believe that this type of language and subsequent thinking and behavior contributes to a diminished quality of life for us as patients and as people.

We currently live within such a rigid structured timeline of illness, with goalposts and finish lines where you graduate from one particular label to another. People make the shift from “patient” to “survivor” or are at some point pronounced “cured” or “disease-free,” as if this pathway was one-directional. This is just not how most illness works. Illness has a timeline all it’s own; it deviates. So when people act and speak with such linear certainty, patients can be, and are sometimes rightfully blindsided when reality hits back, when bad news resurfaces, or simply when uncertainty persists.

Living with any incurable or chronic illness is a lifetime of daily experiences with patience, persistence and kindness with oneself and one’s body; practices consistent with a true and intersectional feminism. To be alive and sick is to occupy a radical body and as such, instead of continuing to live by binaries that make up the bedrock of the healthy heteropatriarchy, moving forward, and I believe we need to put into working practice the flux of the sick femme body.

I want a renaissance in the language around illness. “Warrior,” “‘battle,” “fight,” “survivor,” “cured,” etc – I feel they are all incredibly polarizing and does not allow for the liminality of disease. Neither does it respect the individuality that is due all patients, nor allow for us to be precise in our language about ourselves, and that alone is validating and necessary. Specifically, phrases like “conquer” or “beat,” often used in cancer speak is grotesquely macho and militaristic.

There is a long history of women calling out the violent war metaphors used in cancer dialogue; from Susan Sontag and Barbara Ehrenreich, to most recently Xeni Jardin. How horrifically self-destructive to be speaking in a way that posits the patient on both sides of an internal civil war. In my opinion, it constructs a dialogue in which we are both our own invading enemy and defending army. And while with many illnesses this may actually be the physiological case, I think mentally positioning our body and internal systems as arch antagonists can only do more harm to ourselves.

Similarly, this vernacular makes having illness into an event, or worse an expedition. One definition of “to conquer” is literally “to climb a mountain successfully” and I cannot help but compare the scenario to scaling Mount Everest, since that has always felt like the epitome of toxic masculinity to me: the needless risking of life to defeat a natural wonder. The word choice implies a finality, a need to define the relationship in terms of “win” or “lose,” when illness rarely works like that. I believe that the language conveys an active discomfort with a more feminine approach of not needing to “conquer” or “defeat” illness, but instead being able to exist in tandem. Not only does it not give credit to the process, but it completely negates the life of the living, breathing person, the give and take they experience actually living with an illness.

On that note, for all of the ways that this vocabulary and those who use it claim to be life-affirming, it in fact often makes for an unreal and romanticized image of disease, solely about the climactic act of succumbing. “Warriors,” “fighters,” “survivors;” making the story of someone with disease into a Hollywood epic takes it out of the norm, out of everyday life. When we make sick people into heroines or heroes, tragic or not, it becomes typical when we die because that was what we were expected to do: fight and die.

We were never allowed to be average, we were never allowed to be, exist, have, or simply live. Oddly enough, people with illness are not referred to as “warriors” for doing laundry, nor are cancer patients “fighters” for going grocery shopping. These heroic metaphors only persist in the public sphere, where ableism reigns supreme. The language is incredibly patronizing and simply puts more of a burden on the sick person to be or fill the role of something for the healthy person. It is akin to calling people with physical disabilities “brave” or “inspiring.” We do not exist in our daily lives to be your inspiration, to be your warrior. This type of language belongs in a patriarchal society in which sick bodies are fetishized by healthy bodies and privilege goes unchecked.

I believe that our community of the sick and ill can and should hold a higher standard to ourselves and others. In speaking of disease, instead of focusing our attention on the finite moment of death, we need to shift into a place where we view and speak of it as a long-term relationship with life. Instead of our immediate thought being of people “dying of X,” it should be more of people “living with X.” That is a more feminist, and healthier way to talk and live with illness. You do not need to conquer it, you can, dare I say have to, learn to live with it.

We need to rewire our minds to cohabitate with disease. It is terrifying to realize that science and medicine, fields that have always stood for truth and certainty, can sometimes not have all of the answers to our pain. It is even more terrifying to comprehend your own life as not easily definable as safe, in the clear, or out of danger, despite medicine’s best efforts. However, as hard as that is to make acceptable for ourselves, we live in a world full of people who do not understand or respect illness, much less undefined illness.

People outside of disease, and even many within it, want to live with the linguistically curated fantasy of a definable solution instead of the reality of life with illness, hence the ignorant, machismo diction. Calling us warriors and fighters thus seems the inverse of victim blaming; it allows those privileged enough to have their health to mentally clear a path of victory for their own survival should they ever fall victim to our similar misfortune. So while this place of uncertainty is perhaps the most uncomfortable a human being can be in in regards to their life, if we can learn to be in it, I think embracing that feminine vulnerability would make for a much healthier relationship with illness.

Follow this journey on Siobhan Hebron.

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