Women’s Life Problems Aren’t Always Medical Problems

Medicine and the media are helping to medicalize everyday life experiences like anxiety, sadness, weight loss, menopause, and reproductive health, and women are the primary targets, according to psychologists and co-authors of a new book, “The Wrong Prescription for Women,” who spoke at a symposium on the topic.

While it’s important to acknowledge and treat real illness, women are too often prescribed medicines and medical procedures, more so than men, even when their experiences are normal.  “Many of these treatments aren’t problematic,  but the problem is they make normal parts of our lifes and bodies and experiences [seem abnormal]. The pharmaceutical industry created [these issues] to sell drugs to everyone, and sadly they’ve been very effective at this,” said Maureen McHugh, PhD, of Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

For example, modern society has a tendency to look at the prolonged grief that may naturally accompany a loss as depression that needs medication. Women are more likely to express their grief more explicitly and intensely, said Leeat Granek, PhD, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

“Women [have long been] expected to carry grief for their families and communities and states. Today, women are being pathologized for doing this job too well,” Granek said. Society — and clinicians — see grieving as a much briefer process with a deadline for moving on, which can be as little as two weeks, she said.

Woman taking medicines

Women are far more likely than men to be diagnosed with depression and to be prescribed medications for it, which can be a broad form of social control, said Alisha Ali, PhD, of New York University. “If you’re a deviant outside the norm, we are believed to have the responsibility of ‘fixing you’ so we can bring you inside of the norm,” she said.

However, women most prone to depression are also the most marginalized, including those who are abused, poor or victimized. When they take medication for depression, women report reduction in self-destructive thoughts, but also report apathy and disengagement, Ali said.

“Therefore, treatment for depression chemically neutralizes the very feelings most needed to fight for social change. We need approaches to depression that can support women in changing the material conditions of their lives. We need empirical research documenting the effectiveness of feminist-informed approaches to treating depression and other mental health problems,” she said.

Even menstruation is becoming taboo, said Jessica Barnack-Tavlaris, PhD, of The College of New Jersey. Perhaps influenced by advertisements that promote convenience, women are increasingly using contraceptives to suppress menstruation, and doctors giving them to young women to counter the effects of early puberty.

“Viewing menstruation as negative, not normal, or unnecessary has implications for women’s physical and emotional well-being. Some women will then experience shame with menstruation and those who do that are more likely to self-objectify,” she said.

Mindy Erchull, PhD, associate professor at the University of Mary Washington, spoke of how media promote an unnaturally thin body, with the result that it has become the norm for women to be dissatisfied with their bodies.

The thin ideal now often encompasses a fit ideal, especially in advertisements, Urchell said – a dual standard that may be even harder to achieve, as “Most people assume that to be fit you have to be thin. But muscles take up room,” she said. At the same time, breasts are seen as desirable, yet they mainly consist of body fat.

Even public health officials may cause undue worrying with the so-called war on obesity that primarily targets women, said Christine Smith, PhD, of the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. Women are more likely to be labeled obese and more likely to turn to bariatric surgery – now offered to women who are as little as 20 pounds overweight — which can have serious side effects, such as digestive problems and nutritional deficiencies. Yet the link between weight and health isn’t definitive, she said: “The war on obesity is common trope … that we need to have people lose weight, otherwise our health system is going to collapse.”

Worrying about your body can limit women’ lives on multiple levels, including “how we think of our bodies, of ourselves and how we think of other women,” McHugh said. “When you feel your or your body isn’t good enough, it makes it hard to become socially engaged. And worrying about our thighs takes attention away from other activities.”

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