Health is an issue for everybody. Our bodies are not just tools that allow us to do the things we do, they are the very precondition for life. Therefore, if our bodies happen to fail us, it is a threat to life as we know it and affects us all. Why, then, should health be a feminist issue?
As women, we often become aware of our difference in health care when our first visit to the gynecologist is scheduled. For most girls this is a very particular experience, ranging from dreadful to “not a big deal”, but in any case it is an experience that separates us from the boys like a secret only we can share. Rarely do we question this special treatment; after all, we‘re the ones who menstruate and we get pregnant and give birth, enough reason to justify the special attention. But with that ‘privilege’ comes a huge burden as well: a focus on women’s bodies that is not only positive, a stronger responsibility concerning contraception and STD prevention, and, more generally, discrimination in the labor market, in the health care and insurance system etc.
At this stage I should mention that women’s health has different connotations for every woman, according to certain crucial factors such as race, class, sexuality, age and dis(ability). We should never forget that there is still a large percentage of women out there who have never been and may never be able to go to a gynecologist. In this article, I will try to focus on women’s health issues that concern most women all over the world.
In the history of women’s health the most well-known ‘disease’ attributed to women in particular is hysteria. Towards the end of the 19th century its medical diagnosis became a huge trend, especially in Victorian England, and special cases, such as Freud’s patient “Anna O.”, became widely known and discussed. Hysteria was a particularly female phenomenon and men were only diagnosed with it if they were considered somewhat ‘feminine’. Today, hysteria is not considered a valid medical disorder anymore and has been replaced by differently termed diagnoses that are applied to both men and women. However, similar diseases specific to women still exist, as we can see with the ongoing discussion about what PMS is or isn’t, or other modern illnesses such as anorexia and bulimia, which are primarily affecting young women. Like hysteria, these disorders reflect women’s issues with regaining control over their lives and bodies and negotiating stereotypes and their roles in society.
Eating disorders have been on the rise in Western consumer societies for a while now, which brings me to my first focus: the beauty industry. Obviously, women are the major targets of the beauty industry for reasons I do not need to mention here. This becomes a health problem insofar as it creates false body images of women who try to live up to these ideals even at the cost of their health. I am aware that this is largely a Western problem, but globalization has affected women all over the world: in Japanese fashion magazines the minority of models are Asian; in India and African countries the ideal of typically Caucasian features is celebrated in advertisements for skin-lightening lotions and hair-straightening products. As a consequence of this beauty craze, particular health risks can be attributed to wearing high heels, using poisonous beauty products, as well as eating disorders and plastic surgery.
Despite the worldwide interest in women’s beauty, historically they have also been considered unclean because of their monthly menstruation. The idea of women’s ‘unsanitary’ bodies has prevailed until today, as exemplified by the numerous cleansing products available for our vaginas, most of which are in fact dangerous to women’s health.
Sexual health is also an issue for everyone, but for women even more so. STDs are simply more dangerous for women, as they can lead to infertility, higher risks during pregnancy and childbirth, and cervical cancer. The AIDS/HIV crisis in Africa affects women in particular, as they often are the victims of rape and sexual assault.
At the same time, decisions about contraception are often left to the women because they run the risk of getting pregnant. Today, the most common forms of birth control are hormonal contraceptives, specifically the pill. Despite all of its known (and perhaps not yet known) side-effects, it is the first and sometimes only solution doctors suggest to girls and young women for various problems, and little is done to research and find new methods.
We simply aren’t offered many choices but have to deal with the consequences of them, physically (risk of pregnancy vs. risk of cancer, physical changes etc.)and psychologically (i.e. relationships can be affected by loss of sexual drive).
Last but not least, there is the undeniable fact that as of now biological women are the only ones able to conceive and give birth to children, which leads to a variety of health risks only women are exposed to. This is not the place to start a discussion about abortion, but it should be clear to everyone that women’s reproductive health is a huge issue all over the world and demands special attention.
All of these examples I have given about the difference of women’s health should not lead to the conclusion that men’s health can simply be ignored or is of less importance. STD prevention and birth control are only two examples that show that men’s health, too, is a feminist issue that concerns both men and women. We need to know about the specifics of men as much as they need to know about us. This is the only way we can establish equal relations, in private as well as in public life. The first visit to the gynecologist should no longer be a girl’s club secret; it should be talked about and be taken for granted by girls and boys as a universal right. Likewise, boys should have access and be encouraged to get medical information about their bodies, as well as STDs and birth control, because it concerns them as much as us. The special status of women in health care is important, but it is useless without getting men involved as well.