How The Sexist Stereotypes We Used To Have About Anxiety Affect Your Healthcare Today

Ad failed to load

Living with health anxiety — a kind of generalized anxiety disorder that focuses on the fear of becoming ill — is a real, serious issue, but "hypochondria," as it used to be called, is often stigmatized as a symptom of an overactive imagination, or a kind of attention-seeking behavior. Health anxiety or illness anxiety, which can encompass general anxiety as well as somatic symptom disorder, in which symptoms appear without any underlying medical reason, affects people of all genders and ages, and is thought to be experienced by between 1 and 3 percent of the adult population. But throughout history, anxiety, and particularly health anxiety, was viewed through a sexist, stereotypical, and stigmatizing lens: health anxiety was thought of primarily as a women's issue, and one of the potential consequences of that association affects how women get healthcare even today.

Women often face medical bias when seeking help for their health, from medical professionals underestimating their levels of pain to doctors insisting they're making their symptoms up. As many women know, this is not rooted in any proven truth; while women do go to see their doctors more, they also tend to live longer and are more likely to utilize medical services. But the roots of not believing women when they declare that they're in pain are found in some very ancient and profoundly misogynistic ideas.

In ancient Greek medicine, "hypochondria" wasn't thought of as anxiety is today; in fact, it was associated with the abdomen, not the brain. But what's interesting is that in ancient Greece, only men were thought to be afflicted. Psychotherapist Susan Baur, who wrote a history of hypochondria called Hypochondria: Woeful Imaginings, explains that the idea first pops up in the work of the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, to refer to problems with the region under the ribs. Eventually it became associated with mental states too, in the medieval period, but it was still seen as a problem only for men.

Ad failed to load
Jan Steen/Wikimedia Commons

Women, instead, were diagnosed with hysteria, aka a wandering uterus, that caused anxiety, hallucinations, and sexual desire. Hysteria, or "having the vapors" (as it was also thought to be caused by the vapors moving around inside a woman's body), was in many ways identical to hypochondria in men, at least up until the 19th century in Europe. A doctor in 1708 writes of "Hysterical Women and Hypochondriac Men." Hypochondria and melancholy were thought to come from things like "intense thinking" and "too much study" and were believed to be rooted in men's overuse of their rational brains, while women's hysteria was thought to come from their "delicacy" and general nervous weakness. They were also divided by gendered theories about emotions: an 18th century French doctor, Jean-Baptiste Louyer-Villermay, said that men were more inclined to feel ambition and hate, predisposing them to melancholia and hypochondria, while women felt love, making them hysterics. If you're getting astonishingly sexist vibes, you're not wrong.

Wikimedia Commons
Ad failed to load

But then the 19th century happened, and hysteria and hypochondria as categories began to be less gender-specific. The barriers, historians think, broke down because it became more fashionable for both men and women of the upper class to be "sensitive" and "nervous," with people calling it a mark of higher breeding. It was OK to say you were acutely affected by mysterious illnesses, or worried about catching them. Everybody from Dickens to Proust to Edgar Allan Poe to Charlotte Brontë had a reputation for being anxious about their health, or were known to be ill. Hypochondria, historians Barbara Ehrenreich and Deidre English have written, seemed to become a mark of status for rich women in the 19th century. "Boredom and confinement" as part of their everyday lives, they say, meant that women often became part of a "morbid cult of hypochondria or invalidism." This was obviously hugely ableist, erasing the difficult experiences of non-upperclass people with physical disabilities at that time, and giving chronic illness a fashionable aura. Eventually, however, Baur argues, hypochondria crossed class lines and became seen as an illness that was experienced by all, but for a while, it was seen in the public consciousness as exclusively confined to rich women.

Gustave Léonard De Jonghe/Wikimedia Commons

The way health anxiety came to be associated with women, with Sigmund Freud theorizing that women made up mental illnesses in particular to attempt to gain "privileges" like attention and space to think, evolved into one form of what we call medical bias today — the systematic disbelieving of women's pain.

Ad failed to load

Medical bias and the practice of undervaluing or dismissing women's medical complaints is a big deal. It means women can wait long periods for diagnosis for extremely painful conditions like endometriosis, and risk the serious health consequences of underestimated symptoms and untreated issues. And that's not even touching the pretty miserable mental health issues that can be caused by systematically not being believed by doctors. Sexism runs pretty deep in the way we view illness, including anxiety, but the tie between illness anxiety and gender is an entirely illusory one that continues to be damaging to people of all genders today.

Ad failed to load
Must Reads

Your Weekend Love Horoscope For May 19-20, 2018

We’re constantly fascinated by what our zodiac sign says about our lives, whether it's which signs are most compatible or how each sign handles conflict in relationships. That's why Bustle has enlisted Mecca Woods, a New York City-based astrologer of…
By Mecca Woods

7 Last-Minute Royal Wedding Party Ideas Worth Waking Up Early For

We're only two days away from the royal wedding, so it's safe to assume Prince Harry and Meghan Markle are finished with their planning (we hope). But if you're a commoner who's procrastinated on planning a watch party, you still have time to decorat…
By Ayana Lage

10 Little-Known British Traditions Meghan Markle Will Learn When She Marries Prince Harry

As an American woman dating a Brit, I am no stranger to the mishaps that can result from the cultural differences between the U.S. and England. And while I'm sure Meghan Markle has a slew of royal traditions to learn, titles to remember, and fancy ha…
By Kristin Magaldi

16 Brand New YA Rom-Coms To Add To Your Summer Reading List

Ah, summer. Post-Memorial Day it's all about being outside in the sunshine, lazy pool days and exciting beach trips, warm weather treats, and — most important of all — tote bags packed to the brim with all of the biggest and best summer reads. Whatev…
By Kerri Jarema

I've Paid $18,000 To A $24,000 Student Loan, & I Still Owe $24,000

It all became real the summer before my senior year of college. It was 2010, and my home phone still had a cord, which I wrapped around my fingers as I waited not-so-patiently for the apathetic representative on the other end to tell me the bad news …
By Kaitlyn Cawley

12 Personality Quizzes That Will Help You Determine Your Exact Strengths

Learning more about yourself can be tough. It's so easy to observe others to learn what makes them tick, what areas they really excel in, and the things they could be better at. Doing that to yourself, however, is a whole different story. That's exac…
By Jessica Booth

5 Brand New Short Story Collections You Can Finish In One Sitting This Weekend

Since 2013, May has been known by book-lovers by another name: Short Story Month. If you're ready to kick off this year's celebration the right way, make sure to pick up a short story collection to read over the weekend. Modern life moves more than …
By Sadie Trombetta

I Got Styled By 'Queer Eye's Tan France & Realized I Still Have A Lot Of Fashion "Rules" To Unlearn

When I walked into a New York City Express store on May 2 to get styled by Queer Eye's Tan France, I was ready for anything. And I mean truly anything. I am such a massive fan of the show and Tan that if he had instructed me to wrap myself in tin foi…
By Olivia Muenter

It Isn’t Bad To Have A “Princess Fantasy” — Mine Made Me The Woman I Am Today

What do you want to be when you grow up? If you were anything like me as a kid, at some point, the answer to that question was "a princess." Thanks to good old-fashioned gender stereotypes, most little girls born in the '90s (and even now) grew up in…
By Nicole Pomarico

9 Mother's Day Gifts For Your Mom That Also Give Back

Mother’s Day is around the corner, and unless you’re the type who’s got gift-giving on lock months in advance — and seriously, who is that person? — you might be scrambling a bit for great Mother's day 2018 gift ideas. And while it’s important to cho…
By Carolyn de Lorenzo

Here’s How To Get A FREE 30-Minute Facial At Sephora That Sucks Your Pores Clean

Sephora has long been a mecca for both serious and amateur beauty lovers alike, where they not only have makeup artists that help answer questions about products, but free samples to let you play with new collections. But now they have upped the ante…
By Marlen Komar

Kris Jenner Is FINALLY Launching A Makeup Line With Kylie

Maybe you don't have a favorite sister of the Kar-Jenner clan, and that's perfectly fine. The one thing you can't deny, though, is that when it comes power, no one in that family has more than the world famous momager. Now, Kris Jenner x Kylie Cosmet…
By Shea Simmons

This Kendall Jenner “Diva” Moment Is Really Being Taken Out Of Context

The fashion always takes center stage at the Met Gala, but there's usually a little drama, too. And this time, a member of the Kardashian-Jenner family is involved. People are buzzing about how Kendall Jenner shoved someone at the Met Gala, but after…
By Nicole Pomarico

Feel Like You've Seen Everything On Netflix? Add These Movies To Your Watch List

The weekend may feel too far away, but if you're lacking formal plans, a Netflix marathon session is always a good idea. If you're an avid viewer, however, you probably feel like you've seen everything the streaming platform has to offer already. In …
By Ashley Rey

These 4 Zodiac Signs Are Going To Have The Best Luck In Love This May

Spring fever is here, but not all signs in the zodiac are dealt the same dose of lovin'. Some signs are going to have a better love lives than the rest of us in May, because that's just the way the cookie crumbles. According to astrologer Linda Furia…
By Kaitlyn Wylde

9 Hacks For Fighting Jet Lag That Actually Work

Jet lag is the worst. There's no doubt about it. And it's only natural to want to find a way to prevent it. Searching for jet lag cures online often means encountering expensive products and sketchy supplements. Luckily, there are ways to train your …
By Eva Taylor Grant

Hillary Clinton Says She's Ready To Fight Like A Republican — EXCLUSIVE

Hillary Clinton Is Not Going Away Quietly. Can Hillary Clinton Please Go Quietly Into The Night? Unlike Losers Before Her, Clinton Is Not Going Gently Into the Night. These headlines, which appeared in various news outlets over the course of the last…
By Catherine Thompson and Jenny Hollander

Here's The Very Best Time To Book Your Summer Vacation If You're Trying To Save Money

Summer is a great time to travel, for obvious reasons. The weather is better. Many offices are more lax about time off. If you have kids, they’re out of school. But there’s one very important element that makes summer not a great time to travel: Cost…
By Emma McGowan
)}