Thursday, March 26, 2009

The urinary estrogen theory. Part III

In a previous post, I suggested that something in the environment had begun to alter male sexual development in Western countries by the turn of the 20th century. Among a small minority of men, probably those already weakly predisposed to heterosexuality, the result was a shift to exclusive male homosexuality, i.e., development of a female-like sexual orientation in terms of search image and desired self-image.

To a lesser degree, there seems to have been a similar shift among men in general. The feminine ideal became that of the ‘flapper’ or garçonne: a woman with long legs, a flat chest, narrow hips, large shoulders, and tanned skin, like a young boy on the brink of puberty (Bard, 1998; Marchand, 1997, 1988). This look is described in a history of British fashion:

The Masculine Silhouette of 1920's Females

After the first world war (1914-18) when women's dress became more mannish, … [f]emale clothes became looser and more shapeless in fit. The bust was suppressed, the waist disappeared, the shoulders became broader and hair shorter and shorter. Narrow boyish hips were preferred. The silhouette emphasised a flattened chest and womanly curves were eliminated as the line became more simplified.

The Flat Chest of the Twenties

The slender flat-chested tanned body and face of a 15 year old became the desired silhouette of the bright young things of the 1920s. Health and beauty clubs helped women refine their silhouettes whilst getting fitter and healthier. It was a difficult time for the former matrons of Edwardian society, the previous leaders of fashion whose style of dressing became as passé as their rounded figures and older faces. More youthful women who could party all night and carry the boyish fashions well were all the rage.

Such androgyny is sometimes put down to the social impacts of World War I, either the wartime entry of women into previously male jobs or the postwar shortage of men. Yet the ‘boyish look’ was being mentioned as early as 1914, in the United States, three years before that country entered the war:

The new ideal in feminine figure, dress, and hair styles was all semi-masculine. The “1914 Girl” with her “slim hips and boy-carriage” was a “slim, boylike creature”. The “new figure is Amazonian, rather than Miloan. It is boyish rather than womanly. It is strong rather than soft.” Her dress styles, meanwhile, de-emphasized both hips and bust while they permitted the large waist. (McGovern, 1968)

It looks as though the male search image had been developing imperfectly, with some algorithms receiving the wrong parameters. Was the cause something new in the environment? And could this something have been estrogen-rich wastewater from modern sewer systems—then scarcely a generation old?

Well, there were a lot of other new things at the turn of the 20th century. Can we look elsewhere in history for cases that link environmental estrogens to a change in the male search image? One might be Japan from the 17th century onward, specifically the effects of increased soybean consumption.

Soybeans are rich in isoflavones, which have estrogenic effects. Such ‘phytoestrogens’ exist in many plant species and may have evolved as a form of biological warfare to prevent overgrazing. Indeed, they have been shown to cause infertility in herbivores (Cassidy & Setchell, 1998; Hughes, 1988; Hughes & Tansey, 1998). In humans, research has focused on the beneficial effects of isoflavones, notably their usefulness in preventing heart disease in both sexes, breast cancer, osteoporosis, and menopausal symptoms in women, and prostate cancer in men (Cassidy & Setchell, 1998; Knight & Eden, 1996).

Much less is known about their effects on male sexual development. On average, Japanese men ingest 20 mg of isoflavones per day, an amount that seems too low to have acute hormonal effects (Cassidy & Setchell, 1998). Nonetheless, when infants ingest the same amount through soy formula, they attain plasma isoflavone concentrations that are ten times those of Japanese adults (Cassidy & Setchell, 1998). The effects on children remain uncertain but have raised much concern (Santti et al., 1998).

In Japan, high soy consumption began during the Tokugawa period (1603-1867, also called the Edo period). This period saw a sharp rise in population that reduced meat consumption per capita. In coastal areas, people had to obtain protein mainly from seafood. Elsewhere, they turned to soy products:

Inland, the main source of protein was the soy bean, which has a much higher calorie output per acre than animal flesh, an inefficient source of protein in terms of the amount of land and grain needed to produce it. Thus tofu and other soybean products became a major source of both protein and calcium during the Tokugawa period. (Hanley, 1997, pp. 67-68).

This period also saw a shift in male aesthetic preferences:

Gen Itasaka has described the change in taste during the Edo period as the transition between the styles of woodblock print artists Moronobu and Harunobu. Moronobu’s women are pleasantly plump, Marilyn Monroe-type beauties with round faces, ample bosoms and hips. Harunobu’s women are less sensual, androgynous beauties with slender faces and delicate, willowy figures. (Kurokawa, 1994)

Changes occurred in the ideals of feminine beauty during this period of continuing peace. Gradually, slim and fragile women with slender faces and up-turned eyes began to be preferred to the plump, pear-shaped ideal that remained dominant until the middle of the eighteenth century. (Wagatsuma, 1967)

The shift in search image thus seems to resemble what occurred in the Western world at the turn of the 20th century. Are we looking at the same underlying phenomenon?


Bard, C. (1998). Les garçonnes. Modes et fantasmes des Années folles. Paris: Flammarion.

Cassidy, A., & Setchell, K.D.R. (1998). Clinical experiences in assessing dietary effects of phytoestrogens on the human endocrine system, in: Dunaif, G., Olin, S., Scimeca, J., & Thomas, J. (eds.) Human Diet and Endocrine Modulation, Washington, DC: ILSI Press, pp. 155-165.

Hanley, S.B. (1997). Everyday Things in Premodern Japan. The Hidden Legacy of Material Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Hughes, C.L. Jr. (1988). Phytochemical mimicry of reproductive hormones and modulation of herbivore fertility by phytoestrogens, Environmental Health Perspectives, 78, 171-175.

Hughes, C.L. Jr, & Tansey, G. (1998). Phytoestrogens and reproductive medicine, in: Korach, K. (ed.) Reproductive and Developmental Toxicology, New York: Marcel Dekker Inc., pp. 277-298.

Knight, D.C., & Eden, J.A. (1996). A review of the clinical effects of phytoestrogens, Obstetrics & Gynecology, 87, 897-904.

Kurokawa, K. (1994). Rikyu grey and the art of ambiguity (chap. 6), in The Philosophy of Symbiosis. London: Academy Ed.

Marchand, S. (1997). Rouge à lèvres et pantalon. Des pratiques esthétiques féminines controversées au Québec 1920-1939, Montréal: Éditions Hurtubise HMH.

Marchand, S. (1988). La « Garçonne », un nouveau modèle féminin (1920-1929), Cap-aux-Diamants, 4, 19-20.

McGovern, J.R. (1968). The American woman's pre-World War I freedom in manners and morals, Journal of American History, 55, 315-333.

Santti, R., Makela, S., Strauss, L., Korkman, J., & Kostian, M-L. (1998). Phytoestrogens: potential endocrine disruptors in males, Toxicology and Industrial Health, 14, 223-237.

Wagatsuma, H. (1967). The social perception of skin color in Japan, Daedalus, 96, 407-443.


Anonymous said...

Correction:Borax in food was common earlier than 1897.

"In the 1870s, it was discovered that sodium borate and boric acid could be used to preserve foods. ... By the 1950s, boron as a food preservative was essentially forbidden throughout the world" here

Nutrition Applied to Injury Rehabilitation and Sports Medicine By Luke Bucci (p151)
"Boric acid and borates were widely used as food preservatives from the 1870s [...] worldwide ban on borates as a food preservative in the 1920s. World War II saw a resurgence of boric acid used as a plentiful and inexpensive food preservative [...]Once again use of boron was banned in the 1950's"
(Reference 1003 is given for the above dates in the text, I can't acccess that page on Google Books)

"Detergents also contain phosphate additives to soften the water and thereby improve the effectiveness of the detergent molecules. It was noted that between 1940 and 1970 the amount of phosphates in city wastewater increased from 20,000 to 150,000 tons per year.[citation needed]

With the increase in phosphates, algal blooms grew splendidly on the excess phosphorus and consumed most of the oxygen in the waters, killing fish and plants

here Being a source of phosphorus laundry detergent can bring about Eutrophication leading to dissolved oxygen depletion. Favourable conditions for the non-decomposition of the estrogen molecule may have been an unprecedented peak around the late 60's.

Anonymous said...

The Corset: A Cultural History

"For 400 years, women wore corsets that controlled their shape and constricted, and sometimes crushed, their ribs and organs. In the 18th century, "tight-lacing" was a common phenomenon, but in the 19th century, technology allowed for more effective corsetry. Shortly after the turn of the 20th century, the corset became less popular and gradually faded almost completely from use",

Isoflavones in breastfed infants after mothers consume soy Boys have a peak in hormones at 3 months and could be affected

Jason Malloy said...

Ok, I did a cohort analysis for the General Social Survey. The sample sizes are adequate. Here are the percentages of men who have never (have ever) had a male sex partner by birth cohort:

1900-1919 = 94.0 (6)
1920-1939 = 94.4 (5.6)
1940-1949 = 94.5 (5.5)
1950-1959 = 93.4 (6.6)
1960-1979 = 93.4 (6.6)

Homosexual behavior drops slightly for those who entered adulthood during the 40s, 50s, and 60s compared with those who entered adulthood in the 20s and 30s. Those who entered adulthood during the 70s, 80s, and 90s have a slightly higher rate of homosexual behavior.

Also comparing only the men who were age 18-23 in the 80s and 90s, with men who were age 18-23 in the 2000s shows that the latter exhibit less homosexuality. 6% of those entering adulthood in the 80s and 90s had at least one male sexual partner, compared with 5% for their same age counterparts during the 2000s.

Additionally 1.7% of men in the former category had over 20 male sexual partners by that age, compared with only .8% of the latter group.

Homosexual behavior appears to have peaked for men born between 1950-1980, and is now (apparently) on the decline.

Jason Malloy said...

For comparison, here are the same numbers for women. Interestingly, we get the same dip after the 1920 cohort for women, suggesting the dip had a shared cultural, instead of a unique biological cause for the men.

1900-1919 = 96.0 (4)
1920-1939 = 96.3 (3.7)
1940-1949 = 96.4 (3.6)
1950-1959 = 94.2 (5.8)
1960-1979 = 92.6 (7.4)

Age 18-23
1960-1979 = 93.5 (6.5)
1980-1990 = 91.2 (8.8)

For women, though, in contrast to men, the homosexuality numbers have continued to move upward after 1950, right on into the 2000s.

This is consistent with other surveys showing that female homosexual behavior just keeps increasing.

The fact that male homosexuality has gone in the opposite direction might mean there is a biological cause.

Biological theories:
-- Some sort of environmental estrogen/s was/were reduced during the 1980s-1990s (and possibly 70s).

-- Less gay men reproducing (i.e. producing gay offspring) during the 80s due to uncloseted lifestyles and AIDs deaths.

Culture theories:
-- Aforementioned AIDS deaths made homosexuality a less appealing lifestyle choice. (No, really, this is actually a serious theory)

-- Increasing promiscuity among women means less need for facultative homosexual behavior. (e.g. where a chaste culture mimics prisons or British boarding schools)

Anonymous said...

It was suggested in Race, J.R. Baker(1974)P538 that many portraits of Japanese women painted in the latter half of the eighteenth century appear to be stylized representations of a distinct physical type supposed to be especially common in aristocratic circles. That does not explain why the fashion for such women arose at that time however.

Mechanisms for endocrine disrupting chemicals with estrogenic activity.

Peter Frost said...


You've pointed to an interesting source of environmental estrogens, i.e., the use of Borax for food preservation. If, however, this source had been the main one, the worldwide ban of the 1950s should have caused a decline in testicular cancer incidence rates sometime in the 1980s. Yet the decline seems to have begun only in the past few years.

I'll check out your other references. Again, thanks!!


Thanks for the age cohort data. I would expect to see a significant decline in exclusive male homosexuality among post-1970s cohorts. Since these men are only now reaching the 30 year mark, we may have to wait a few years before we know whether the apparent decline is real.

The steady rise in female homosexuality suggests we are looking at a culturally constrained behavior. I suspect the dip in the 1920s cohort is related to the revival of Christian fundamentalism during the interwar period.

Tod said...

Maybe there is a case to be made that the ranks of fashion designers ('haute couture') have been disproportionately filled with men who have a propensity to find masculine characteristics attractive, this may have been reflected in the women chosen to model the clothes in magazines. It was not that long after the birth of haute couture that the designs began to minimize the femininity of women.

"The first fashion designer who was not simply a dressmaker was Charles Frederick Worth. Before the former draper set up his maison couture (fashion house) in Paris, clothing design and creation was handled by largely anonymous seamstresses, and high fashion descended from that worn at royal courts. Worth's success was such that he was able to dictate to his customers what they should wear, instead of following their lead as earlier dressmakers had done.[...]
Around the start of the twentieth-century fashion magazines began to include photographs and became even more influential than in the past. In cities throughout the world these magazines were greatly sought-after and had a profound effect on public taste."

Anonymous said...

One other thing you need to consider is that fashion designers, gay or straight, men or women, know that a certain body type, which is normally a very slender one, provides an easier form on which to hang and showcase their designs.

Remember this--it is NOT the wearer of the design that designers are trying to promote--it's the design itself. A full-figured woman or a sturdy man detracts from what the designer is selling---the design (and, of course, himself or herself as the creator of it.)

Actually, in contrast, stylists who counsel women and men on how to look their best show them how to choose clothing that showcases them, not the garments, but designers are not after the same thing!

Tod said...

Anonymous- someone's had a go at answering that argument. Take a look at this please. (contains some non work safe pictures, i.e. nudity). The same site discusses a study (Carol Byrd-Bredbenner, Jessica Murray, Yvette R. Schlussel. Temporal changes in anthropometric measurements of idealized females and young women in general. Women Health 2005;41(2):13-30.) which covers the period 1920-1999 here I don't agree with everthing on that site but it makes some telling points

Anonymous said...

Not helping add "flesh to the bones," so to speak, is that the entire field, including designers and models and mag execs and writers and photographers, and hangers-on in general, is full of speed freaks and all other assortment of dopeheads. They haven't a clue anymore as to what "normal" or "attractive" looks like.

Tod said...


It has been suggested that phyto-estrogens are produced by the plant kingdom as a population control device and that the plants are attempting to ensure their own survival by controlling the fertility of their predators through estrogenic compounds, with questionable success.

These compounds are very common in natural foods Phytoestrogen Content of Foods Consumed in Canada, Including Isoflavones, Lignans, and Coumestan
" Food groups with decreasing levels of total phytoestrogens per 100 g are nuts and oilseeds, soy products, cereals and breads, legumes, meat products, and other processed foods that may contain soy, vegetables, fruits, alcoholic, and nonalcoholic beverages"

Resistance to these effects may have evolved (which may explain the U-shaped response). Deleterious effects would require a large amount to be taken; as when soya was the staple food. Dual effects of phytoestrogens result in u-shaped dose-response curves

Tod said...

Further to the last link which was about endogenous aromatase activity in cells converting some of the testosterone to 17beta-estradiol here is Wikipedia on
Estradiol's Role in sex differentiation of the brain

"One of the fascinating twists to mammalian sex differentiation is that estradiol is one of the two active metabolites of testosterone in males (the other being dihydrotestosterone), and since fetuses of both sexes are exposed to similarly high levels of maternal estradiol, this source cannot have a significant impact on prenatal sex differentiation. Estradiol cannot be transferred readily from the circulation into the brain, while testosterone can, thus sex differentiation can be caused by the testosterone in the brain of most male mammals, including humans, aromatizing in significant amounts into estradiol. There is also now evidence that the programming of adult male sexual behavior in animals is largely dependent on estradiol produced in the central nervous system during prenatal life and early infancy from testosterone. [9] However, it is not yet known whether this process plays a minimal or significant part in human sexual behaviors although evidence from other mammals tends to indicate that it does." (reference for that statement) WIRED FOR REPRODUCTION: Organization and
Development of Sexually Dimorphic Circuits in the Mammalian Forebrain
( a very detailed review)

Peter Frost said...

Tod and Anon,

I read an article where a gay fashion designer was asked about this point. He replied that fashion designers operate in a very competitive market and that a designer would soon go out of business if he/she produced fashions that the public didn't want.

Were fashion designers largely gay back in the 1920s? My impression is that the main ones were hetero women (e.g., Gabrielle Coco Channel).

The historical chart is interesting, particularly the return to a curvaceous feminine ideal during the 1930-1960 period. This period also saw a levelling off of the rise in testicular cancer rates, perhaps because less urinary estrogen was being excreted by an aging female population (as a result of the 1920-1945 baby bust).

I knew that estrogen was produced in the brain through aromatization of androgen. Is it true that the blood-brain barrier blocks estrogen from other sources? If so, this would take us back to Greg Cochran's pathogen theory.

Tod said...

Is it true that the blood-brain barrier blocks estrogen from other sources?
Maybe not-

"Whereas the present dogma states that the female brain develops independently of estradiol, many studies have hinted at possible roles of estrogen in female sexual differentiation. Accordingly, it has been proposed that α-fetoprotein, a fetal plasma protein that binds estrogens with high affinity, has more than a neuroprotective role and specifically delivers estrogens to target brain cells to ensure female differentiation. Here, we review new results obtained in aromatase and α-fetoprotein knockout mice showing that estrogens can have both feminizing and defeminizing effects on the developing neural mechanisms that control sexual behavior. We propose that the defeminizing action of estradiol normally occurs prenatally in males and is avoided in fetal females because of the protective actions of α-fetoprotein, whereas the feminizing action of estradiol normally occurs postnatally in genetic females"
Role for estradiol in female-typical brain and behavioral sexual differentiation

How Paul Poiret freed us from the corset
"But Paul Poiret, though little known outside the fashion world, was fashion's Picasso. Although he titled his 1932 autobiography King of Fashion, Poiret's break with the past was so great that he might better be called fashion's revolutionary, the man who brought modernity into being. Dispensing with social mores and tradition, he changed not just how women dress, but how they move and live.

GregA said...

At any rate, I liked some of the vadlo mouse cartoons!