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Proudly Pro-Phthalate

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I question the findings of a new study that says that phthalates make boys less masculine. Amongst other problems, what's so wrong with a little less roughhousing and playing with toy trucks?

boy playing barbie doll

Brett Berk: A study was recently published in the International Journal of Andrology that claims that phthalates (weird chemicals made up mostly of bizarre consonant combinations like thylh and which appear to be in everything, from packaged food to cosmetics to air fresheners) have an "adverse" effect on pregnant women, causing them to give birth to boys who exhibit "less masculine" play behaviors. While one of my colleagues here has already commented on it, as momlogic's resident scientific study deconstructor, I'd like to more carefully analyze this alleged finding in three ways.

1. Is it true? The sample size of this study was relatively small, the data were self-reported by the participating parents -- a notoriously inaccurate means of assessment -- and the moms who were included had already taken part in another widely publicized study correlating phthalates and smaller penile and testicular volume, potentially biasing their responses. None of this wholly discounts the findings, but in combination, it certainly calls their objectivity and veracity into question.

2. What the hell is "less masculine" play? The study defines masculine play as involving traditionally "male" toys like cars and trucks, and incorporating the exhibition of traditionally "male" behaviors like roughhousing. I've worked with tens of thousands of preschool-age kids over my 20 years in early childhood education -- and I can tell you, not all boys play like this. Moreover, what were the standards for defining what was and was not roughhousing or vehicle play? I've seen kids vroom Barbies along the ground like roadsters and play house with cars and blocks. This feels like an incredibly slippery rubric on which to hang one's findings.

3. Why is "less masculine" play an issue?
More than anything else, the study attempts to whip people into a frenzy by problematizing the idea of boys potentially behaving in this manner. Though it may not make my friends at Hot Wheels or General Motors very happy, the world as we know it will not come to an end if fewer boys play with toy cars. And the earth will not suddenly implode if there is less "roughhousing." (In fact, it's possible that this will have the opposite effect.)

Obviously we don't want all our boys to end up sterile -- this would stop our continuing the glorious reign of humans on this planet. And I'm obviously opposed to anything that may adversely affect penis size. But given the evidence, I'm considering coming out in favor of phthalates. Put a stop to aggression and war, and end the needless burning of fossil fuels in vehicles. Bring on the Lunchables, L'Oréal, and Glade.



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