New research by Sharyn Clough, a philosopher of science, demonstrates that contemporary American gender roles may have a very real effect on the health of children.
According to her reviews of scholarship on autoimmune disorders, gender, and cleanliness, adult women suffer from many more autoimmune disorders than men do (such as Krohn’s disease, asthma, and so on). However, this ratio is reversed in early childhood.
Clough suspects that because boys are encouraged to play (and dressed appropriately for playing) in the mud and dirt, they are exposed to more allergens, parasites, and bacteria early on, leading to higher rates of asthma initially. However, as their immune systems mature, strengthened by the amount of things with which they’ve come into contact, they are susceptible to fewer autoimmune disorders as adults. Little girls, on the other hand, suffer fewer of these disorders early in life, but mature into a greater likelihood of accruing autoimmune disorders.
The “hygiene hypothesis” may or may not turn out to be the whole story; research is still in early stages. However, I find the author’s argument that we still know very little about bacterial ecosystems to be very compelling; we are, as scientists are learning, still very new at figuring out how exactly the world around us works, especially on the levels we can’t see with our own eyes. This hypothesis has ramifications for the ways we think about gender roles and how young children should dress and act. If it were more widely known that playing in the dirt had long-term health effects, would more parents remove the requirements for frilly dresses and dainty manners from their daughters? If I’d known that staying inside might’ve heightened my chances of having adult allergies (which as a Californian transplant to the Midwest, I suffer from lots), I would’ve chucked the My Little Ponies and sci-fi novels to spend more time hiking and playing soccer. Okay, maybe I would’ve kept the novels. But I would’ve read outdoors more.
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