TV health experts Dr Chris and Dr Xand van Tulleken on everything you didn’t know about your body. Spoiler: you still have a bit of a labia
From miracle anti-baldness injections to faintly terrifying penis size preference charts, the male body is being prodded from all angles at the moment. It would be easy to shrink away from the scrutiny, to continue to see your frame as a jumble of orifices you occasionally brush cake crumbs off. But the science at work in each of us, and we’re talking specifically about men now, is utterly fascinating.
Here, Dr Chris and Dr Xand van Tulleken, the infuriatingly talented twins behind shows including Trust Me I’m A Doctor and Medicine Men Go Wild, lay bare all that flesh. Whether it’s the truth about that seam on your scrotum or the reason polygamy was briefly legalised in Germany, there’s plenty to get your head around. Embrace it, we say. Just don’t be surprised if you never look at a Bic Biro in the same way…
1. ONCE, YOU WERE A WOMAN
If you’ve ever wanted to be a woman for a day but haven’t got the ankles for high heels or the pain threshold for waxing, good news! You’ve already spent a few weeks as one. For the first seven weeks in the womb it could go either way: all you have between your barely formed legs is what is technically called a ‘sexually indifferent gonadal ridge’ containing your labio-scrotal folds: bits that were headed to become labia in your lovely womanly embryonic body until something interfered.
So what happened? One minute you’re floating there in the womb with your labia all ready to go and then 30-odd years later you’re reading ShortList and fondling your scrotum. Well, there’s one thing that almost all men have and almost no women do: a Y chromosome. Inside is a tiny bit called the ‘sex determining region’ that switches on and turns you into a man by, basically, producing the cells that make testosterone. And it’s all downhill from there. Three months into life you’re recognisably a man.
2. Your scrotal seam is a labia
Ever wondered why you have a seam running down your scrotum? You start life as a tiny sheet of cells that gradually roll up, leaving just three holes (one at your mouth and then the two below – OK, we’re not counting nostrils or ears) and the seam is the remnants of what were originally your labio-scrotal folds: bits that were headed to become labia.
3. BALDNESS KEEPS YOU SAFE and makes you attractive to lions
There are more important issues than male-pattern balding, but if you’re going bald then it’s high on your personal agenda. This problem almost exclusively afflicts us men (30 per cent of guys over 30 are starting to lose it) and there are two ways of looking at it. First, there is an evolutionary explanation that says that hair loss has developed as a signal to other men that you’re past your sexual prime and that you shouldn’t be a target of aggression. This theory also suggests it as a way of making you less attractive to (other) women. The underlying reason for the loss of hair is the effect of testosterone (or rather its derivative, dihydrotestosterone) on the hair follicles. We’ve know about this since the Italians noticed that their castrated choirboys never went bald later in life.
A small compensation, you’d imagine. Anyway, the second explanation uses evidence from lion packs (specifically, Tsavo lions in eastern Kenya) in which bald/balding male lions have more females in their packs. Baldness, in this theory, is a sign of seniority, wisdom and strength. We speak without bias when we say that this second theory is far more scientifically plausible.
4. MOST PENISES AREn’t quite THE length OF A BIRO
Penis size truly is the dimension that’s endlessly discussed and never revealed. What’s wonderful is that it isn’t just fascinating to the average man – there are medical researchers travelling the world comparing penises for your edification so you can get a very good idea of where you, ahem, stand.
The first thing to say is that you’re wrong. Whatever you think. The abundance of data on this subject means that total self-knowledge is only a ruler away. If you don’t have a ruler then a Bic Biro is 5.7in. Average penis length (erect) is 5.57in in the UK, so you’re fine to fall short of the mighty Bic.
Now if by this point you’re weeping over your Biro, don’t despair. In 2006 a team from California published a paper entitled ‘Does Size Matter?’ and the conclusion was, for the most part, not at all, except for men: “Whereas 85 per cent of women were satisfied with their partner’s penis size, only 55 per cent of men were satisfied with their penis size.”
This all leads to one big, final question though: why do we even have penises? There is a useful consensus from the evolutionary biologists: It’s because we’re up against other men so all the back-and-forth during sex is using the penis as a pump to remove any sperm from a previous encounter. Nice.
5. Our bodies are far from invulnerable
Our odds of being born male are slightly more than 50 per cent – in the UK there are about five extra men for every 100 women. The big differences, however, really begin as soon as we leave our mothers. The third most common cause of death in Britain for newborn boys is, incredibly, “homicide/suspected homicide”, and almost 30 per cent more baby boys than girls die in the first five years of life. If you can make it past that (and in the UK you should be able to as the actual numbers are very small), then between the ages of 5 and 49 the most common causes of death are either ‘suicide’, ‘injury’ ‘poisoning of undetermined intent’ or ‘land transport accidents’. The ladies are getting diseases all this time, but in far smaller numbers.
But if it seems bad here, you can be consoled that after the Hundred Years’ War there were so few men in Germany that polygamy was briefly legalised. Some Tibetans have taken the opposite approach to high male mortality, allowing women to have more than one husband, usually brothers who then have the added bonus of not having to fight over their inheritance. A fittingly cheery note to end on.