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‘Feminine’ girls and ‘masculine’ boys are more likely to engage in behaviors that could increase their risk of cancer, suggests a study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

The pursuits of teenagers and cancer risk

According to the study, girly teenage girls are significantly more likely to use tanning beds and be physically inactive compared those who were considered less feminine. ‘Manly’ 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,” said lead author Andrea Roberts, research associate in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH).

cancer and teenagers

Photo by Jed Villejo on Unsplash

Teenagers and gender expression

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 (aged 9 to 14) in 1996. Adolescents were asked to respond to questions about gender expression, such as how many girls described themselves as ‘feminine’ or boys as ‘masculine’.

The findings revealed that boys who described themselves as very ‘masculine’ were almost 80% more likely to chew tobacco and 55% more likely to smoke cigars than boys who described themselves as the least masculine. ‘Feminine’ girls were 32% more likely to use tanning beds and 16% 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.

The bottom line

“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.

“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’.”


Guest Writer

This post has been curated by a Longevity Live editor for the website.

The content in this editorial is for general information only and is not intended to provide medical or other professional advice. For more information on your medical condition and treatment options, speak to your healthcare professional.