Dating back to the Victorian era, a common myth within the medical community is that female illness is attributed to make-believe stressors that are commonly caused by a strong desire for attention. During the nineteenth century water cures and extreme bed-rest (think the yellow wallpaper) were used to treat “hysteria” aka, female illness. It would be nice to look back on that and think, wow, look how far we’ve come! However, even today, women are treated far differently within the medical community than their male counterparts.
How many of you have watch discovery health? (And for those of you who do we can have a totally separate conversation about the fact that it is going to be gone for good starting January 1, 2011 later) Discover health features a show that is called Mystery Diagnosis, which retells the stories of various men and women’s struggles with rare and undiagnosed diseases. In each episode, the victim of a horrific disease recounts his/her battle against a disease that doctors are unable to diagnose. The particularly interesting thing about Mystery Diagnosis is the number of women who were accused of all of their symptoms being “psychological”. I am continually shocked and appalled at the number of women on the show who are told that their diseases are “all in their heads”. I have yet to see a man being given the same diagnosis.
There was an episode that stuck out in my mind called “The Girl that Nobody Believed”. It was about a teenage girl who suffered from extreme dizzy spells, tachycardia (abnormally fast heart beat), and fainting, especially during physical assertion. Doctors repeatedly told the girl that her symptoms stemmed from her inherent laziness, lack of physical exertion, and an over active imagination. In reality, the girl had a fatal lung disease called Primary Pulmonary Hypertension, she would most likely not survive her teens.
The phenomenon of Doctors, even female doctors, chalking women’s complaints of physical abnormalities up to “stress” or “hypochondria” is rampant in the medical field. Any female who has attempted to express symptoms like chest pains, tachycardia, dizziness, or fainting spells has probably experienced similar diagnoses. The problem with this is if a male presented with the exact same symptoms, he would be taken very seriously, and a battery of tests would be run. Why is it that female illness is not taken seriously,while male illness is treated with the utmost seriousness? The myth of female hysteria, women over dramatize their illnesses, making them all hypochondriacs, a stereotype that can very possibly be deadly.
Thinking that it doesn’t happen around here? Or that the myth of female hysteria is something I or other feminists have fabricated so we have something to bitch about? Think again. When I was 14 years old I was diagnosed with Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS). This relatively benign disease causes incredibly low blood pressure that can often lead to dizzy/fainting spells among other things. My issues with the disease are well documented in my medical records and have been confirmed by various cardiologists. Last year I was having a particularly tough time managing my POTS, I was constantly being hospitalized for passing out, and was on 6 different medications in an attempt to control my symptoms. (SOURCE: PharmaWatchDogs.com) Once after I had passed out in my dorm and had woken up in the hospital, the doctor on call at RMH came in to do his once over and without even asking me any questions, told me that I had had an “excitable episode” probably caused by not eating or stress and told me that I had simply had a fainting spell. I later informed him about my disease (which he had never heard of, go figure) and informed him that he was a complete jackass and I (along with my parents) would be alerting his superiors as soon as possible for negligence.
I had similar experiences throughout the course of my year long struggle to keep my symptoms under control. It wasn’t until my gynecologist realized that I was having a terrible reaction to my birth control pills that I finally found an answer to my questions. The sad thing is that I had seen various male and female cardiologists and pulmonologists who had a full list of all of my medication and none of them had even thought twice about the birth control, most were too busy telling me that my symptoms were due to an increase in stress. One actually asked me if I was having any “boy problems”.
This problematic approach to something as important as medicine is indicative to the dangers of the stereotypes that are placed on women by society. By stereotyping women as hysterical, we undermine the importance of women’s health. Instead of chalking up all women’s symptoms to hysteria, we would be much better served to treat them as humans, and take their symptoms seriously, much like we would if a man presented with the same symptoms.