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Unmasking women’s health month

The National Cervical Cancer Coalition named May as Women's Health Month, and I want to use this final day to talk about women's mental health.

For the sake of this article I use female when referring to people assigned that sex at birth and women as people who express themselves as such on the gender spectrum.

First, a brief history lesson on the origin of women's mental health, as defined by two Ancient Grecian men 2,600 years ago. Both Plato and Hippocrates referred to the female's womb (hystera) as the root their physical and mental problems. Plato's and Hippocrates' contributions to philosophy and medicine, respectively, remain studied today. The subject of "female hysteria" lingers too. Approximately 2,300 years later it became one of the leading diagnosed "disorders," in the 1700s.

At that time, French physician Joseph Raulin determined, "women were more more predisposed to [hysteria] because of their lazy and irritable nature." Another physician, François Boissier de Sauvages de Lacroix, later validated Raulin's findings, agreeing hysteria was primarily a women's disorder, and that “men are only rarely hysterical.”

"Hysteria" was considered a perfectly valid medical diagnosis until the 1980s. Symptoms included, "Swollen abdomen, chest pain, excessive emotion, increased or decreased sex drive, increased appetite, increased heart rate or pulse."

Plato and Hippocrates may have been onto something about the womb, because that list of symptoms is really looking like premenstrual syndrome, a condition that can be treated with relaxation therapy techniques. Or in the more severe premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), antidepressants can help. By the way, PMDD wasn't added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5 (DSM-V) until 2013.

This lesson matters, because the "hysteria" stigma prevails, and assigned female at birth people still face disproportionate barriers to medical equity and justice.

Modern efforts like Women's Health Month are dedicated to education and advocacy for female-specific health issues like breast, cervical, and ovarian cancer, osteoporosis, sex and reproductive health, and mental health. These conditions may seem a long way off for Generation Z, but mental health requires a lifelong balance.

Misogynist labels like "female hysteria" create stigma that prevents women of all ages and backgrounds from receiving proper care. Some may be unable to speak openly about their experience, others may face judgement from caregivers with personal biases. Others still, often women of color, may be labeled as dramatic or aggressive while advocating for their care.

It wasn't until years of therapy and mental health education that I realized I "masked" and downplayed my own concerns to circumvent these (and many other) problematic stereotypes about assigned female at birth people. While, masking is a term originally used in the autistic community, it has also been studied in nonautistic people who "experience stigma that might drive them to suppress aspects of their identity."

"Masking relates to social practices (such as identity management) and is often driven by stigma avoidance... All groups reported that masking made them feel disconnected from their true sense of identity and had a negative effect on them." (Source)

Masking aspects of my femininity and my health led me to aim for perfection in everything I did, I was always "fine," and I didn't realize or understand the toll chronic stress was taking on my psyche and my body.

An example of how health stigma can lead to masking is the effects of puberty, something more familiar to Gen Z than, say, cervical cancer. Kids are hitting puberty earlier now compared to fifty years ago (8 versus 13, for females). Research shows that early puberty is correlated with higher rates of "depression, anxiety, substance abuse issues, eating disorders, and an increased risk of suicide."

I was one of those early kids, so I can speak to feeling shame and alienated while looking outwardly out of place amongst my peers. I can't count how many times I was called to the principal's in middle school over the dress code (You try finding rainbow shorts long enough for a five-foot-six ten-year-old). I'd joke about it with my friends later, while my self esteem subconsciously suffered. I ultimately relied on my athleticism to manipulate my natural body and began to develop an eating disorder.

Mental illness is more complex than the simple puberty story. But stigma is real, and my mental health will always be intrinsically tied to my physical wellbeing. Through masking, I neglected my mind too long.

girl climbing rockwall

Me at 10 <3


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