According to a female doctor, three lies have been told to women about their bodies

By | March 16, 2024

Once, Dr. Elizabeth Comen visited a patient on her deathbed, and the woman apologized for sweating on her.

“I’ve had countless women apologize to me, feel embarrassed and ashamed for expressing normal body habits or … about their bodies themselves,” Comen tells TODAY.com. “These come from the stories we have been told, the culture we live in, and the only way to change that is to unravel what we have inherited.”

Courtesy of Harper Wave BooksCourtesy of Harper Wave Books

Courtesy of Harper Wave Books

This story—which begins with Comen’s book “All in Her Head: The Truth and Lies Early Medicine Taught us about Women’s Bodies and Why It Matters Today”—highlights a common theme she has seen in her career as a breast oncologist: that women feel discomfort with their body.

“A big part of what this book tries to do is unravel that legacy with blatant, horrific stories from the past that are stunning but true – but also show how these threads continue today, perhaps in more insidious, subtle, but equally bad manners,” Comen explains. “(There are) myths we need to break, especially that women’s bodies are somehow vulgar or dirtier (and) that we should be ashamed of our normal bodily functions.”

While researching and writing this book, Comen often felt surprised and “shocked” by what she learned, she recalls.

“We all identify with these women from the past and wonder, Oh my God, if I was anxious in my twenties, would I have had all my teeth removed?” she says. “If I went to my doctor and said I had a healthy libido, would I be sent to a shelter? Would I have had my uterus removed because I had loudly expressed my political views?”

Working on the book made her think about how women’s medical care could be delivered differently now and in the future.

“What also surprised me was how much of this legacy we have inherited today and how much we think we have moved beyond the past – but that is not enough,” she says.

Here are three decades-old (or older) myths about women’s bodies that still influence medical care today.

Myth: Women are small men

“One of the biggest myths is that you can study something in a man and assume that it will also apply, perhaps in a lower dose, to women,” says Comen. “Women’s health differs from men’s from head to toe. We are not small men. The way we present diseases can be very different.”

Take heart disease, for example. As recently as 2022, a study found that signs of heart disease look different in women, and that likely contributes to being diagnosed later than in men, NBC News reported.

“Heart disease is the number one killer of women,” says Comen. “(But) we don’t consider that a health issue for women.”

Viewing women as little men also means that conditions that only affect women often receive less attention and funding. “There are so many diseases we miss along the way,” Comen says.

The medical literature on women still lags behind what is known about men. It wasn’t until 1993 that the National Institutes of Health required that women and female animal models be included in clinical trials and earlier phases of research, Comen notes.

“Because women are seen as so hormonal and difficult to study, that also translated into mouse models and the types of cells we used in the lab,” says Comen. “It’s not just the drugs and the clinical trials. It’s even earlier.”

As a result, women today use medications or medical devices that have only been studied in men.

“That tells you how far behind we are in gender equality,” she says. “(There are) drugs, testing devices … that can be used in women that may never have been adequately studied in women.”

Myth: Women have estrogen and progesterone, and men have testosterone

Medicine has taken a “binary approach” to thinking about hormones, Comen says, driven by the idea that estrogen and progesterone occur in women, and testosterone in men. But the reality is that both sexes depend on all three hormones.

Yet stereotypes persist about men’s versus women’s hormones. Think about how women are often criticized for being emotional because of their hormones.

“Why do we vilify estrogen and progesterone so much, and is testosterone somehow this glorious hormone that is uniquely found in men and makes everyone virile and strong?” Komen explains. “The way we think about hormones has extremely limited our understanding of women’s hormonal health.”

Doctors are often less confident about giving women hormones as treatment, she says, adding that not enough is known about “hormones in women, especially as they get older.”

From Comen’s experience, many practitioners don’t know when to prescribe testosterone to women or hormone therapy during menopause.

“(How) we have counseled women about hormone replacement therapy has been a wildly swinging pendulum – from everyone should be on it, to no one should be on it,” she says. “(We are only now realizing) that there are individual circumstances unique to each woman (and) careful consideration of hormone replacement may be appropriate. We need to be able to have those kinds of conversations with our doctors.”

Myth 3: Women’s health is just reproductive health

Medicine has had a bit of an unhealthy obsession with the uterus. In fact, the ancient Greeks believed that the uterus moved around women’s bodies and caused their health problems.

“The uterus is (seen as) the source of all women’s ailments… wandering around the body and wreaking havoc along the way,” Comen jokes.

For thousands of years, women were often diagnosed with a mental disorder called hysteria, a term that comes from the Greek word for uterus, hystera. The diagnosis was not removed from the medical lexicon until the 1980s, decades after doctors discovered that the uterus was not the cause of hysteria symptoms.

“This looming specter of the hysterical woman reigns in our medical legacy,” Comen adds.

This focus on the uterus and other reproductive organs when treating women means that other health problems are often overlooked, especially what happens to women as they age.

Comen says that menopause, cognitive health and heart disease in older women are especially important topics for further research. “I didn’t even know that the risk of Alzheimer’s disease was twice as high in women than in men. So a lot of things were missed along the way,” she adds.

“We want to make sure that we keep women healthy in every way (and) that fertility is not the reductionist baseline of who we are as full and complete women.”

This article was originally published on TODAY.com

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