Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Call me crazy, but the school building program is turning boys into girls
There was a small flurry of aghastness recently when primary school canteens were exposed as serial breachers of government healthy-food nazism. By “healthy”, here, we mean essentially non-fattening, worried as we are that before they hit 30 the roly-poly little dears will blow the nation’s entire health budget on diabetes, heart disease, joint replacement and fully funded lap-banding. Quite right, too. The danger is real.
But from the child’s-eye view, as I recall it, the whole point of the school lunch-order is to eat forbidden trash. Pie and chips, one-and-six, yum, yum, yum. I also recall the daily after-school pig-out on inch-slabs of fresh white bread, peanut butter and honey, all the while staying heedlessly skinny. This was bog standard, then. Not any more. So what else might be going on here?
On the basis that paranoia is just knowledge that precedes evidence, I offer the following hypotheses. The schools themselves are fattening our kiddies because, just as cricketers fix matches, governments now “fix” entire populations and bet among themselves, selling futures in lap-banding consultancies. Or this: a Gillardist fem-coup to make the Rudd assassination pale in comparison. Or, more sinister yet: a Third World plot to effeminate the West.
Sounds crazy. But look at the facts.
Schools across the country, force-fed by Julia Gillard’s “education revolution” funding, are eating their own playgrounds. Two-and-a-half thousand in NSW alone, yet we’re all happy about this, since it plumps the economy and could, we tell ourselves, drag our education system out of the toilet.
In construction are thousands of brick-veneer multipurpose halls and aluminium-windowed air-conditioned computer rooms with not a single string attached. No requirement to be carbon-neutral (kick-starting a new industry), or to be as gracious as their 19th-century counterparts, so steadfast in presenting education as a dignified pursuit. And no consideration at all, apparently, of what this rampant playground-guzzling might mean to the kiddies.
Perhaps, in Quirindi or Euchareena Heights where land is still (seen as) limitless, it’s fine. But here in mid-metropolis – where play space is already scarce and school rolls are still swelling after decades of naked government profit-taking neglected the inevitable city-centre revival as habitat for breeding pairs of young professionals – here it’s a problem.
Already, schools have lunchtime “no running” rules. This is true. No big balls (I’m refusing the obvious joke here, but have you ever tried to play soccer with a tennis ball?) and no chasey, barring the tamest possible version. Now that almost every school has a major chunk of its “open” space fenced and scaffolded, what will give?
Boys, and boy-ness, for a start. As even boisterousness becomes frowned-upon and the fighting that is bound to erupt in such pent conditions becomes punishable by that boys’ own worst-possible penalty, endless hours of raking-it-over talk, just being a boy becomes a problem.
The incentive is to stay static, watch the screen, make like a girl, gossip, get fat. Which is where the double whammy kicks in. Estrogen.
Double whammy, double mammy. For not only does estrogen generate fat; fat also generates estrogen. Add this feedback loop to the xenoestrogens already ubiquitous in the environment and you have a very interesting development in endocrine politics.
Xenestrogens are industrially synthesised compounds – chemicals, in a word – that are not estrogen but have estrogen-like effects. They are in almost everything, from petrol fumes to food additives to sunscreens to plastics (especially food packaging) to drinking water (which may also contain actual estrogen, which so many women ingest daily either as the pill or hormone replacement). It’s like feminism’s revenge; our whole environment is becoming estrogen-soaked.
A 2008 study published in the Chemical Research in Toxicology journal found that two chemicals in particular – propyl gallate and 4-hexylresorcinol – were estrogen-mimickers, likely to be acting as endocrine disrupters in the food chain. It concluded that “some caution should be issued for [their use] as food additives”.
Far from using caution, however, we gaily add these chemicals to cosmetics, hair products, food packaging and food itself. They’re in edible fats, oils, mayonnaise, shortening, baked goods, candy, dried meat, fresh pork sausage, dried milk and throat lozenges.
And these are just the ones that were tested. There are dozens of other suspects. BPA, or bisphenol A, is known to leach from food-packaging polycarbonates (including most drink bottles) and has been suspected for 20 years of links to cancer, developmental disorders and reproductive damage.
Many countries, including France and Canada, are in the process of banning it, at least from babies’ bottles. Food Standards Australia New Zealand, however, is blithe, saying “no one is eating unsafe levels”.
What is safe? We don’t know. Longitudinal studies don’t exist. We do know that these chemicals mimic estrogen in mice, that estrogens accumulate and that excessive estrogen in boys causes gynecomastia (man boobs), premature growth spurts, lack of muscle and facial hair, decreased adult height and quite probably (though this is poorly understood) sub-fertility. We also know that these characteristics are increasing – in the West.
This makes it a brave experiment we’re engaged in – turning our boys into girls while, elsewhere, they turn to AK-47s.
You could see this as offering the other cheek. Or you could see it as what goes around, comes around.