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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.

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.

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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As a female of color I can definitely relate and can admit I too have masked my concerns and health conditions in order to avoid judgement, stigma, and disbelief. I really hope we as a society get better with this and work towards breaking subconscious biases that affect mental and physical care of women. Thanks for bringing more awareness to this.

Megan Bazzini
Megan Bazzini
Jun 15, 2023
Replying to

Thank you for adding perspective and sharing your thoughts. Yes, I completely agree - I too hope society can get better with this

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