Gender roles, play and the phthalates in between

Renee James Contributor
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Today’s new word: phthalates. Yes: spelled p-h-t-h-a-l-a-t-e-s. You’ll thank me that next time you’re playing Scrabble, have lot of consonants in front of you, and someone has already spelled out “l-a-t-e” on the board.

Why should we care about phthalates? Scientists and various research projects from around the world report a number of phthalate-linked concerns. One Chinese study indicates that exposure to phthalates during pregnancy leads to risks of low-birth-weight babies. Mexican scientists report that women with higher exposure during their third trimester of pregnancy were more likely to deliver their babies early than women who hadn’t. Reports in Environmental Health News tell us that the phthalates in beauty products may weaken bones by destroying cells that are required for healthy bones. Yet another report studied newborn girls who had been exposed to phthalates. When tested for attention and alertness, they scored lower on a standard test than the boys.

I’m no scientist but none of that sounds good. So let’s all plan to avoid phthalates starting right now. Unfortunately, that’s not so easy. Phthalates are groups of chemicals found in scores of common products. In the research I read, the list included PVC, food containers, soft toys, inflatable toys, plastic tubing, flooring, vinyl bibs, dirty washing-machine water, flip-flops, some sandals, and certain kinds of personal care products like lotions, cosmetics and nail polish. That’s a pretty eclectic list, isn’t it?

In other words, exposure to phthalates in the Western world seems virtually unavoidable.

While the inevitability of phthalates in our lives is disturbing, and all of these health statistics are troubling, the headlines I read recently had not one thing to do with low birth weights, early deliveries, weak bones or low test scores. No, they were much more dramatic. This is what the European Academy of Andrology titled their report: Prenatal phthalate exposure and reduced masculine play in boys. Environmental Health News made an even more startling statement with their title: Prenatal exposure to phthalates feminizes play in boys.

I have two questions. Well, I have more than that but let’s just concern ourselves with two of them. Here’s the first: What is “feminized” play?

Answer: it means that young boys “play” like young girls. This should surprise no one. The studies reveal that phthalates “can interfere with testosterone during development leading to a less masculinized brain.”

By the way, stereotypical “play” differences found between human girls and boys (quieter and more sedate vs. louder and more physical) are not human attributes alone. Male rats and male rhesus monkeys play “rougher” than female rats and female rhesus monkeys. In fact, male rhesus monkeys really like playing with toys that have wheels. Just like little boys.

The report’s text included phrases like “regression coefficients” and “covariates” and “the interquartile range.” I’ve never had the occasion to speak any of these aloud, much less use them correctly, nor do I plan to now. I did learn that the study followed women during their pregnancies and measured the phthalate levels in their urine. Researchers continued monitoring the children from ages 4–7 years through a questionnaire.

The conclusions are clear. Phthalate exposure during pregnancy can potentially produce a number of significant effects on baby boys, and those with the highest exposure in utero played less often with “boy typical” toys as they grew up.

My second question is this: And…? If this is true, is “feminized” play by boys wrong? That’s debatable.

But that’s the thing, right? Little girls play a certain way. (Most of the time, and not every little girl, and some of them are very physical and spirited. Got it.) Little boys play a certain way. (Most of the time, and not every little boy, some of them are quite serene and peaceful. Noted.) If nothing else, this research shows us that our “natural” inclinations are real and measurable and biological; they aren’t taught or forced on us by society. Terry O’Neill and all the Women’s Studies majors on campuses across the country notwithstanding, we are not all the same. And now we have the phthalate studies to prove it.

Renee James is a freelance writer who lives in Allentown, Pa. Her e-mail address is raaj3@msn.com and her blog is It’s not me, it’s you.