Sex and Gender Roles in Relation to Mental Health and Allostatic Load

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Abstract

Objectives

Beyond male/female binaries, gender roles represent masculine and feminine traits that we assimilate and enact throughout life span development. Bem proposed that “androgynous” individuals adeptly adapt to different contexts by alternating from a strong repertoire of both masculine and feminine gender roles. By contrast, “undifferentiated” individuals may not adapt as well to social norms because of weak self-endorsed masculinity and femininity.

Methods

Among 204 adults (mean [standard error] age = 40.4 [0.9] years; 70% women) working in a psychiatric hospital, we hypothesized that androgynous individuals would present better mental health and less physiological dysregulations known as allostatic load (AL) than undifferentiated individuals. AL was indexed using 20 biomarkers using the conventional “all-inclusive” formulation that ascribes cutoffs without regard for sex or an alternative “sex-specific” formulation with cutoffs tailored for each sex separately while controlling for sex hormones (testosterone, estradiol, progesterone). Well-validated questionnaires were used.

Results

Independent of sex, androgynous individuals experienced higher self-esteem and well-being and lower depressive symptoms than did undifferentiated individuals. Men manifested higher AL than did women using the all-inclusive AL index (p = .044, η2P = 0.025). By contrast, the sex-specific AL algorithm unmasked a sex by gender roles interaction for AL (p = .043, η2P = 0.048): with the highest AL levels in undifferentiated men. Analysis using a gender index based on seven gendered constructs revealed that a greater propensity toward feminine characteristics correlated only with elevated sex-specific AL (r = 0.163, p = .025).

Conclusions

Beyond providing psychobiological evidence for Bem's theory, this study highlights how sex-specific AL formulations detect the effects of sociocultural gender.

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