What is hysteria?
Have you ever wondered where the stereotype of the “crazy” and “delusional” woman comes from? Why exactly is this trope still so common and does it still have an effect on female experience with their medical practitioners and diagnoses? For many thousand years, women’s health issues and complaints were treated under the umbrella term of Hysteria or more appropriately, men belittling women’s experiences and issues due to the very little understanding they had (and have) of the female anatomy and the female experience.
This “hysteria” as it turns out was just women voicing their health complaints and was met with some of the most gruesome and unorthodox treatments which include medical horrors such as lobotomy, involuntary admittance into insane asylums and even induced sexual stimulation to soothe the “Wandering Womb Syndrome” that has its roots stem from the word hystera or “uterus” which was first coined by Hippocrates in the 5th century BC.
To think that up until the 1950’s the American Psychiatric Association still believed that perfectly rational and normal women suddenly had neurotic tendencies and outbursts due to unruly or “possessed” wombs is quite unsettling to say the least.
So, why is it still relevant today?
According to one study, back in the day women who had multiple sclerosis which is an ailment that targets the central nervous system were never diagnosed because the symptoms for a disease that was in no way gender specific was misconstrued as female hysteria.It is quite surprising that even today women are far more likely to have their medical symptoms or sensations of pain ignored and misdiagnosed as they may exhibit symptoms that are considered “Atypical” or basically those not found in men. This is true for quite a vast variety of diseases and disabilities including autism, lupus and even chronic fatigue syndrome.
Perhaps the most recent and well known case is that of Hollywood actress Selma Blair who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and that too after an unbelievable seven years of unexplained pain and fatigue. However, when she asked doctors, they would wave it off as the rantings of an “exhausted single mother.” This is just one example in a well-documented and unfortunate history of women being branded as hysterical and emotional beings with their pleas for help being ignored and instead punished.
As per a recent report by the BBC, women’s symptoms and their pain are less likely to be treated as seriously as men’s because let’s face it, the world was not designed keeping women in mind.
Don’t believe us? Well, according to studies, most medicines including contraceptives are designed keeping the male anatomy in mind because for centuries, the male form was considered to be the epitome of perfection and was quite honestly, the center of attention. Other than that, clinical trials for most pain medicines and even tests to identify symptoms of heart attacks are primarily conducted on men which is not only a one sided approach to medicine but also sidelines and ignores the female experience.
The female experience is one that has been shunned, ostracized, punished and trivialized for a better part of our cultural, religious and even literary history but that does not mean that this is how it should continue to progress. Reading up on the works of female authors, artists and literary giants such as Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton might help us shed some light on the actual female experience with the focus being on female sexuality, their navigation of a widely male centric world view and their mental health and can perhaps help us finally bury the age old sexist and trivializing trope of the crazy and emotional woman.