The New Hysteria: A Brief History of Fake Women's Health Scares
Last October, a brand new drug hit the market. It’s called Addyi, and while there was quite a bit of hype surrounding its release, it’s not been nearly as popular as expected; earlier this month, it was announced that only 1,000 prescriptions have been issued since October. Which begs the question: why?
Addyi is probably more commonly known as the “female viagra.” That name, however, is a little misleading. The drug was developed to treat a condition known as hypoactive sexual desire disorder (HSDD), otherwise known as a “chronically low sex drive.” Basically, it’s a drug that adjusts your hormones to make you want to have sex when you don’t. So, whereas Viagra treats an actual physical condition (the inability to get a hard-on), Addyi works on women’s hormones to change their mental state and increase their sex drive.
It seems that we never get tired of medicating women’s moods, and HSDD is only one in a worryingly long line of dubious health concerns that have apparently plagued women throughout human history. Here are some of the most absurd.
Hysteria and the “Wandering Womb”
A true classic, the Odyssey of spurious maladies. Hippocrates was the first to coin the term hysteria in the 5th century BC. For centuries, the term was used for a wide range of afflictions like schizophrenia and panic disorders, and was widely thought to be caused by sexual frustration—which would at least explain some of the remedies. Cures for hysteria over the years have included shouting at female patients, making them sneeze, and hypnosis. There was also the cute method of inducing orgasms by means of pelvic massages, vibrating machines, or intense jets of water—most frequently used in the 19th century.
The ancient Greeks, on the other hand, attributed vertigo, faintness, and other “hysterical” symptoms to a woman’s womb moving about in her body. The worst thing that could come from a wandering womb, said physician Antaeus of Cappadocia, is a “very sudden incredible death.” Yikes.
The 19th century saw a spike in ailments in women. It’s not that more women were becoming ill, just that people started making more things up. Multiple articles from the 1890s, aimed at getting women to stop biking, warned against the cultivation of “bicycle face,”—an “anxious, irritable” expression forever engrained on a woman’s face, brought upon by the stresses of biking. Naturally.
Another, more serious diagnosis that was gaining ground during the 19th century was lunacy, or “a monthly periodic insanity, believed to be triggered by the moon’s cycle.” A once-a-month surge in emotional behavior? Sounds familiar. It should come as no surprise, then, that the large majority of diagnosed and institutionalized lunatics in 19th century England were women.
Resting Bitch Face, Ugly Armpits
Back to the present. Okay, so these are not really diseases, but they’re definitely worth freaking out about. Resting bitch face, or a permanent look of disgust, is particularly worth noting for its striking similarity to Bicycle face. Perhaps the Victorians were onto something.
And in 2008, a Vogue article fanned the flames of armpit insecurity by calling attention to their inherent nastiness and advocating underarm plastic surgery (pit-lifts, if you will). Similarly, in 2011, Dove launched a campaign selling women a deodorant that would supposedly make their unattractive armpits prettier, targeting a deep-seated insecurity many of us never knew we had.
Thankfully, we’re no longer trying to cure women by yelling at them, making them sneeze, or hooking them up to an old-timey sex robot. But, with the introduction of HSDD and Addyi, we’re still selling women the idea that their desires (or lack thereof) are wrong. It shouldn’t be a huge surprise that women aren’t lining up to get “cured.”
Stay tuned to Milk for more health scares.
Main image by Kathryn Chadason. Additional images via Wired, Vox, and Untitled.