As a follow-up to yesterday’s rant post about the anti-feminine fear-mongering often present in media coverage of endocrine disruptors, Rebecca Hammond was kind enough to give me permission to republish the following essay. She says it far better than I could.
I can see it now. 2008 will go down as the year that polycarbonate, the durable tough clear plastics we were all nursed on, the little plastic #7, takes the fall as the culprit responsible for emasculating our males for the past half century.
more specifically, it seems that everywhere – from blogs to the eco-media to the earnest conversations that happen on play dates around swingsets – talk is fixated on the horrors of BPA (biphesnol-a). BPA is found in polycarbonates as well as in the lining of canned foods (as well as in other non-food goods).
i’ve had this unease about the growing clamour around BPA. now, there are many stories within this story to catalyse unease: the discrepency between publicly and privately funded studies into the health effects of low-dose exposure to BPA; the nonaction by global and national bodies to stem the 7 billion pounds of BPA that’s created on an annual basis; the growing body of research highlighting potentially harmful effects on human health at exposure levels far below what’s considered ‘acceptable’.
yes, these are all troubling. i, however, am as much troubled by the panicked response to this chemical as i am by the chemical itself.
now, there is steadily mounting, and increasingly irrefutable, evidence linking BPA to breast, and possibly prostate cancer in adults. but a chemical linked to cancer, particularly one that is only marginally linked at the present time, has never been ganged up on like this. then *what*, i’ve wondered, is driving this unprecedented reaction? what has shifted in the eyes of moms across the continent to suddenly see the innocuous sippy cup as an object that incites panic about the health of their children?
i’ve come to conclude that such a sudden, complete reaction without a definitive health outcome means that concern is going beyond health concerns alone. sippy cups have become an object of moral panic, tweaking deep seated fears that our ‘boys’ are becoming weaker, more sensitive, and ultimately more feminine.
what is important to understand is that BPA is a chemical that mimics the effects of estrogen in the body. this estrogen masquerade it plays is why, in particular, concerns have been raised about long-term BPA exposure (as well as exposure at a young age) and the development of breast cancer – many forms of which are triggered by, and dependent upon, estrogen exposure.
BPA and cancer: here the link is inconclusive but strong enough to warrant serious attention. what has happened though is that BPAs estrogenic properties have triggered a fear that goes far beyond this. buoyed by studies in rats, such as this, many in both mainstream media, as well as in progressive ecological publications, are selling magazines and papers by stoking fears that BPA may be closing the gap between the genders by altering the gender-normative behaviour of ‘boys’ and ‘girls’.
now, before i go further, i want to say that I certainly would not dispute that limiting exposure to is a positive effort. we certainly should not wait for final and conclusive evidence linking BPA to breast cancer and other health outcomes, we should act now. what i worry about though is what fears are we reenforcing by playing up on enduring cultural fears of feminized boys (and, to a lesser degree masculanized girls)?
selling science stories is hard. and it appears that scientists have, perhaps unwittingly, found an effective route to catalyse change around BPA. media outlets are keenly are of this: mothers worry less about their own health and more about the health of their children; in particular, they worry about the social health and status their child will have. thus, even raising suspicions that they could be unwittingly poisoning their ‘boys’ by exposing them to estrogens has proven, in the case of BPA, to be the ‘story that sells’.
what is somewhat ironic is that mothers of appear to be *more* distraught about their ‘sons’ BPA exposure than their ‘daughters’. this is despite the much stronger evidence showing that BPA is going to affect the health and cancer risk of females more than males. this inversion of concern appears to be (yet another) irrational fear of the feminized male.
articles are promoting that BPA may not just alter behaviour but the bodies of ‘boys’. two days ago, the widely-read journal Discover chose to focus an article less on the links of BPA to cancer than on the effect that BPA and similar chemicals have on the size of baby ‘boys’ penises, on the distance between their anus and genitals (a sexually dimorphic trait, i.e. it’s longer in males than in females), and on suppression of testosterone within these ‘boys’. in its conclusions, the article *does* strongly highlight the mounting research linking BPA to cancer. but, by this point the reader has been whipped into a panic having images of micro-penises and fey little boys burned into their minds, the cancer data is icing on the cake.
scientists and media are thus seemingly eschewing evidence in favour of tapping into deep fears of femininity, specifically as its expressed in males, as a way to means to an end: to ban BPA. with sensationalist images like those in the Discover article, it’s not surprising mothers are tossing their lattes and reaching for protest signs in support of a ban on BPA.
and the results from this recent change of tactic are dramatic. the canadian government has recently (and the first country in the world) declared BPA as potentially harmful to human health. not waiting for government regulation, stores that sell themselves on being ecologically aware have pulled products with BPA off their shelves in many other Western countries. it seems that the fear of possibly emasculating the males of our nations overrides the drive for corporate profit. who knew?
the question that remains is ubiquitous: does the end (that being a partial or complete ban on BPA) justify the means we’ve used to get there?
the fear, perhaps even abject horror, affixed to feminization is a prevailing and shameful cultural cornerstone. it stands at the root of phobic outlashes against many queer men and trans women. trans men (and many cis men as well) who may not match up to external markers of masculinity can also experience bashing because of a perceived insufficiency of masculinity . ‘gender-variant’ ‘boys’ are referred at a rate of 20:1 to the Centre for Addiction & Mental Health’s Gender Identity Clinic – highlighting a broader cultural belief that being a feminine boy is *such* a problem that we have to treat it, nip it in the bud. and, of course, we all know the fate of a ‘boy’ choosing to wear a dress to school.
taken more broadly, our prioritization of masculine traits over feminine ones has helped to create a society where power, aggression, and authority are the currencies of power. women are perenially kept out of power and, like men who don’t match up to masculine norms, are subjected to violence and socio-economic penalties. being feminine is a handicap in the Western world, there is no disputing this.
the public reaction to BPA is a story about panic. and, while awakening to the health consequences of BPA are without-a-doubt important, it is also important to challenge our cultural prioritization of the masculine over the feminine and to address the panic that is instilled in us when our boys express femininity. the backlash against BPA has given strength and legitimacy to that panic. it may even catalyse a new wave of trying to (re)masculanize ‘boys’ that may have supposedly been ‘exposed’. this whole ordeal may *even* trigger the medicalization of femininity.
perhaps this is why i feel great unease.
*N.B. I have used quotes around ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ to call attention to the cisnormative way that male and female children are raised in our society. given that approximately 1 in 1000 of these boys will go on to be girls, and women, one day (and vice versa) i wish to stress that these labels are applied without first allowing the child to form and name their gender identity, and thus, these labels of ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ are both assumptive and transient.