CORVALLIS, Ore. -- Say 'goodbye, pretty in pink' and 'hello' to a little more dirt and grime. An Oregon State University researcher said we may be making our daughters more prone to diseases because parents don’t want them to get dirty at a young age.
“I happen to know that even still, broadly speaking, we raise our little girls differently than we do our little boys,” said researcher Sharyn Clough.
Clough thinks researchers need to dig a little deeper into the role gender plays in the ‘hygiene hypothesis’ – the idea that a lack of early childhood exposure to infectious agents and microorganisms can make immune systems weaker and more susceptible to autoimmune disorders.
In Clough’s new study, published in the journal Social Science & Medicine, she points out that women have higher rates of allergies, asthma, and other autoimmune disorders.
“For some autoimmune disorders for every one guy, it’s seven women. Sometimes it’s really skewed relative to what you’d expect,” said Clough. “When we find these patterns over and over again consistently across large populations, we realize that stereotypes are bound to have an effect on something as broad as hygiene and sanitation.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, asthma prevalence is higher among females than males, 8.9 percent compared to 6.5 percent.
In the study, Clough documents a variety of sociological and anthropological research showing Western society tends to socialize girls and boys differently. Clough said girls are generally kept clean while boys are expected to get dirty.
Clough suggests dirt may be at the root of some of the skewed numbers. In her study, Clough says young girls are generally urged to wear clothes that are intended to be kept clean, are expected to be tidy, and are more supervised during playtime than little boys.
“Over time, these kinds of things are bound to influence the amount of germs they’re exposed to,” said Clough.
Clough says playing in the dirt is correlated to ingesting trace amounts of dirt, thereby introducing the immune system to small amounts of bacteria. Clough said that can help make an immune system stronger, but only to a certain extent.
“I don’t suggest going out and eating dirt by the spoonful,” said Clough. “That would introduce too many microbiotic cells. Too much for our own good.”
Clough said just one gram of dirt has 10 billion microbiotic cells, and that too many microorganisms can do more harm than good.
Clough said she hopes the research can add to the argument for schools to preserve recess and to provide a counter argument for playgrounds that are increasingly paved over with rubber or cement.