Here's How Sexism Can Affect Your Mental Health, According To Science
You will probably not be shocked to hear that being a woman in the world can be hard on your your mental health. The ways in which sexism can inflect our lives — from overt repression to microaggressions to "benevolent sexism" (which emphasizes gender difference that enforces traditional roles in ways that appear empowering, but aren't) — are pretty extensive. Do the pressures of sexist ideologies about women's inferiority, circumscribed gender roles, and dudes who think they have the "right" of dudes to catcall cause us very real psychological harm? The answer is yes.
Adult women from every nation have likely been exposed to sexism at some point in their lives, whether directly or indirectly — and, increasingly, we have evidence that long-term exposure to the notion that women are unequal to men, with all the constrictions of rights, freedoms and expression that entails, places enormous weight on women's basic ability to remain mentally healthy. The World Health Organization explains:
"Depression, anxiety, somatic symptoms and high rates of comorbidity are significantly related to interconnected and co-occurrent risk factors such as gender based roles, stressors and negative life experiences and events. Gender specific risk factors for common mental disorders that disproportionately affect women include gender based violence, socioeconomic disadvantage, low income and income inequality, low or subordinate social status and rank and unremitting responsibility for the care of others."
So if you're wondering if being a woman is making you lose it, the answer might be yes — but not because you're "over-emotional," "irrational" or "mentally weaker" than men. Being disempowered, burdened with emotional labor, silenced, mansplained to, and economically disadvantaged can really take it out of people.
Structural Sexism Increases The Risk Of Mental Health Issues
The most obvious way in which sexism creates mental health risks for women is through depriving them of rights and opportunities. If women aren't earning as much as men, aren't as legally protected, aren't as free to make their own decisions about their bodies and health, can't rely on experiencing as much career success, and are more likely to experience poverty, one of the biggest preconditions of severe mental health issues — stress — is likely to be higher.
According to stats from the National Women's Law Center, women in America are 35 percent more likely to live in poverty than men (with the percentage higher for women of color). And data collected by the American Association Of University Women (AAUW) indicates that in 2015, women in full-time work across America were paid an average of 80 percent of their direct male counterpart's salary. (And no, that cannot just be explained by factors like women's differing choices in job areas.)
The link between poverty, social inequality and mental health is, according to one researcher, "a well-recognized fact." A disadvantaged group of people is always going to be more at risk of mental health issues than their more privileged counterpart — meaning that women of color, queer women, socioeconomically disadvantaged women, and women with other marginalized identities are especially at risk for mental health issues. But even if you're a woman with a lot of privilege, sexism can still hurt you.
Objectification Can Leave Women Alienated From Their Own Bodies & Needs
While having one's rights curtailed creates obvious mental health pressure, the stress of objectification can also lead to extremely negative mental health outcomes. Women who are constantly told, by the media and other sources, that their bodies exist as objects for the gratification of men suffer for it. Objectification theory, explains Emma Rooney of NYU, posits that "constant exposure to sexually objectifying experiences and images socializes women to internalize society’s perspective of the female body as their own primary view of their physical selves." In other words, women who are fed the constant opinion that their bodies are objects for the use of other people — rather than something to be inhabited and nourished — can start to believe it.
This sort of self-objectification, according to psychologists, can lead to a lot of mental pain. Self-objectification can lead women to become both anxious about and disconnected from their bodies, ashamed of them, guilty about their needs, prepared to ignore their pain or problems in favor of serving someone else's needs, and less likely to experience "flow", or immersive focus. Researchers also see a link with eating disorders and sexual dysfunction.
Being Permanently "On Guard" Against Danger Takes A Toll
Another way in which sexism creates conditions for negative female mental health outcomes is in the existence of hypervigilance. In her now-classic column "Sexism is making women sick" for The Guardian, Jessica Valenti explains the theory that the constant threat of attack — physically, mentally or in tiny microaggressions — has created a tendency for women to always be on their guard in some way, creating a sense of hypervigilance and, in turn, greater levels of "psychological distress." The finding came from a study that established a clear link from perceived risk of crime (being sexually assaulted, for instance) to greater distress, and so to worse mental health outcomes.
The stress of encountering sexism — like racism, homophobia, transphobia and other biases — is a big deal. Researchers have compared it to the stress levels of encountering "terror, torture, or disaster" for its affects on the human spirit and vigilance responses; every time something needles or full-on hits us — from some dude calling us a bitch on the street to outright gender discrimination at work or encountering gender-based violence at home — it takes a serious toll.
Sexism Can Make Existing Mental Health Issues Worse
When it comes to the intensity of our mental health issues, sexism may be partially to blame, too. An interesting study from 2000 found that women exhibited more traits of depression and anxiety — but that those women who were frequently subject to sexism had significantly more symptoms than men. This also isn't helped by the apparent existence of sexism within the mental health framework in general; women being perceived as more "emotionally unstable" than men may be treated differently by mental health professionals; women often get more depression diagnoses than men even when they present with the same symptoms. It's a big parcel of disaster.
Emotional Labor Can Grind Women Down
Here's a fun puzzler for you: women are supposed to be the more "caring" gender. So they are expected, as part of their natural role, to take on the emotional work of those around them, from partners to children to coworkers and bosses, helping them sort out problems, providing emotional support, and controlling their own emotions to become "acceptable" at all times. The cost of this is substantial but unseen, because, hey, women love doing this stuff! Except not. Because taking on a sh*t ton of emotional work is a recognized cause of stress that can escalate into mental health problems; the issue is particularly discussed in professions based around care, like nursing or psychology.
Emotional work is tiring, particularly when it's based around the emotional needs of others, and women are often expected to do it naturally or for free. Unsurprisingly, a comic on something related to this issue, specifically the "mental load" of remembering domestic tasks and organization at home and how it mostly falls to women, went wildly viral this month. The pressure on women to perform domestically and also do so much emotional work is a high-stress situation, and it's fueled by sexist expectations about gender roles and women's work.
So if dealing with a sexist jerk on Twitter, misogynist remarks from your uncle or being talked over at work makes you inexplicably miserable or adds up to a feeling of immense pressure on your solar plexus, don't worry: you're not alone. And while it's awful that you have to experience what you do, please know that there's nothing weird or abnormal about feeling stressed or depressed — or like your mental health issues are being worsened — by sexism. Speak up about it and fight back when you feel like you can — and get yourself a non-sexist mental health professional to talk through it.