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Girly Girls, Manly Men Have Higher Cancer Risk

Update Date: Apr 16, 2014 06:52 PM EDT

Manly boys and girly girls are more likely to engage in behaviors that increase their risk of cancer, according to a new study.

New research reveals that 'feminine' girls and 'masculine' boys are significantly more likely to engage in behaviors that boost cancer risks.

For example, feminine teenage girls are significantly more likely to use tanning beds and be physically inactive compared those who were considered less feminine. 'Masculine' teenage boys were found to be more likely to use chewing tobacco and to smoke cigars, compared with their gender-nonconforming peers.

"Our findings indicate that socially constructed ideas of masculinity and femininity heavily influence teens' behaviors and put them at increased risk for cancer. Though there is nothing inherently masculine about chewing tobacco, or inherently feminine about using a tanning booth, these industries have convinced some teens that these behaviors are a way to express their masculinity or femininity," lead author Andrea Roberts, research associate in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH), said in a news release.

The latest study involved data from 9,435 adolescents (6,010 females and 3,425 males) participating in the ongoing Growing Up Today Study (GUTS), which began enrolling participants from ages 9 to 14 in 1996. Adolescents were asked to respond to questions about gender expression like how much girls described themselves as 'feminine' or boys as 'masculine'.

The findings revealed that boys who described themselves as very 'masculine' were almost 80 percent more likely to chew tobacco and 55 percent more likely to smoke cigars than boys who described themselves as the least masculine. 'Feminine' girls were 32 percent more likely to use tanning beds and 16 percent more likely to be physically inactive than their less feminine counterparts.

However, the study found that the least masculine boys and least feminine girls were more likely to smoke cigarettes. Researchers believe smoking could be in response to social stressors, like social exclusion or harassment related to their gender nonconformity or perceived sexual orientation.

"Engaging in risk behaviors in adolescence likely increases the risk of engaging in similar behaviors in adulthood," said senior author S. Bryn Austin, associate professor in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at HSPH. "So it is important to focus on prevention during the teen years, challenging notions such as 'tanning makes one beautiful' or 'cigar smoking and chewing tobacco is rugged or manly.'"

The findings were published online April 16 in Journal of Adolescent Health.

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