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Gender norms affect teen cancer risk

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Teenage girls who see themselves as the most feminine and teenage boys who perceive themselves as the most masculine may be more likely to behave in ways that increase their risk of cancer and other health issues, compared with teens who do not strictly follow gender standards as they are marketed by certain industries.

In a new study, the researchers found that adolescent girls who most strongly conform to popular norms of femininity were 32 percent more likely to use tanning beds, and 16 percent less likely to exercise than their female peers who conformed to gender norms the least.

And adolescent boys who most strongly stick to popular norms of masculinity were 80 percent more likely to chew tobacco, and 55 percent more likely to smoke cigars, compared with boys who follow these norms the least, according to the study. [Never Too Late: 5 Bad Habits You Should Still Quit]

"There is nothing inherently masculine about putting a bunch of plant in your mouth and chewing it, or lighting the plant on fire and smoking it," and the same goes for tanning and being feminine, said study author Andrea Roberts, a research associate at the Harvard School of Public Health.

But the tanning-bed and tobacco industries have convinced some teenagers that getting tanned, smoking cigars or chewing tobacco are effective ways to appear more feminine or masculine, Roberts said.

These industries "try to recruit people to use their products, even though they are dangerous," for instance, through marketing techniques targeted specifically at men or women, she said.

In the study, the researchers examined data from nearly 9,500 teenagers, including about 6,000 girls and 3,500 boys, who participated in an ongoing study of 9- to 14-year-olds that began in 1996. The teens in the study answered questions about how "feminine" and "masculine" they thought they were.

The researchers also analyzed the teens' unhealthy behaviors, some of which are associated with cancer risk and other serious health issues, such as indoor tanning, cigar smoking, tobacco-chewing, cigarette smoking and lack of physical activity.

"Boys who want to appear more masculine are drawn to these behaviors [such as cigar smoking or tobacco-chewing] because of the advertisements," Roberts said. And indoor tanning is marketed specifically to women by associating tanned skin with ideas of beauty and attractiveness, she said.

On the other hand, those teenagers in the study who described themselves as the least feminine or masculine were more likely to smoke cigarettes, the researchers found. Some teens might smoke because they feel socially excluded or harassed, the researchers speculated.

The researchers were surprised that the most "feminine" girls in the study were also the most likely to be physically inactive, Roberts said.

"We are not doing enough to make physical activity appealing to girls," she said. "We need to make it just as normal for girls to be physically active as it is for boys."

The study is published today (April 16) in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

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