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Gender Discrimination Is Literally Making You Ill

Ariana Shives |
September 27, 2014 | 9:22 a.m. PDT


The average woman spends thousands of dollars every year on cosmetic products alone. (Anaka Morris, Creative Commons)
The average woman spends thousands of dollars every year on cosmetic products alone. (Anaka Morris, Creative Commons)

Emma Watson's speech at the United Nations on Sunday brought to an even more prominent light the inequality facing men and women around the world today. Despite a slight increase in the prominence of feminism of late, the massive inequality facing women is an issue that, has yet to be solved.

One of the largest—and least discussed—inequalities is the fact that women, simply for being born without a Y chromosome in this day and age, are at a higher risk than ever of mental disorder. Women, because of the continuing disparity in their victimization, in the United States are at a 60 percent higher risk than men of developing anxiety and a 70 percent higher risk of suffering from depression in their lifetime.

We've heard about the unequal and derogatory treatment of our mothers, sisters and daughters and many of us have even been enraged by it. But what we don't always think to do is examine the consequences of this treatment. Women face stigma, unrealistic expectations, sexualization, disparagement and inequality at every turn, which makes this a very difficult world to thrive in as a female. Being born female means a much greater susceptibility to stressors that, all too often, lead to mental health problems that women are forced to combat throughout their lives.

Women, for example, have to carefully choose their clothes and walk warily wherever they go—because 1 in 5 women will be victims of rape or attempted rape at least once in their lifetime. Fifteen percent of these will be girls under the age of 12. One in four women will become victims of some form of domestic violence; an estimated four fifths of these instances will go entirely unreported to the police. In nine states and the District of Columbia, these women can be denied health care because domestic violence is considered a "preexisting condition."

Exposure to this kind of violence is a huge contributing factor to the excessive number of women who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder— a number twice as high as that of men. Any traumatic event is considered a predisposition for PTSD, but traumatic events involving other human beings—such as rape—and especially involving other human beings whom the victim knows and trusts—such as domestic violence or assault by an acquaintance—dramatically increase the chances of the victim developing PTSD.

No one should ever fear walking down the street, regardless of what she is wearing or whether she is alone. Girls not even old enough to wear a training bra shouldn't have to fear for the safety of their bodies. And yet, our society tells women to cover up. Our society tells women to carry pepper spray instead of telling men not to rape. Our judicial system allows hundreds of thousands of rape cases to go unreported and solves only a fraction of those that are reported. Women are forced to live in constant fear of half of the population. Women, for being women, are forced to adapt to living with round-the-clock guilt, anxiety and fear.

READ MORE: The War At Home: Untested Rape Kits A National Disgrace

Women are taught shame—close your legs, cover yourself. We make them feel as though being born female they're already guilty of something... They grow up to be women who silence themselves. They grow up to be women who cannot say what they truly think. And they grow up—and this is the worst thing we do to girls—they grow up to be women who have turned pretense into an art form.

— Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi

The criminality associated with the way we are born, the constant angst and unease, and the tremendous anxiety all pile up throughout a woman's life. These are tremendous burdens to carry—and it shows. In any given year in the United States, approximately 12 million women over the age of 18 are diagnosed with some kind of anxiety disorder. Women spend their lives pretending to have it all—the average U.S. woman spends $12-15,000 per year on beauty products and salon services alone, and Spanx, a slimming shapewear company, is worth billions. The number of girls under the age of 19 who had cosmetic surgery more than tripled from 1997 to 2007.

By the time they are 10 years old, 81 percent of girls say they are afraid of getting fat and 80 percent of girls say they have been on a diet. This not only opens women up to the anxiety that comes along with feeling pressure to keep up with immense societal expectations, but to disorders such as bulimia, anorexia or body dysmorphic disorder.

Of the 8 million people in the United States who currently suffer from eating disorders, 7 million are women. Forty-two percent of girls in grades 1-3 say that they wish they were thinner. This means that, even by the tender age of six, girls feel societal pressure to look a certain way. Unsurprisingly, the number 1 "magic wish" among girls 11-17 is to be thinner.

READ MORE: Eating Disorders: A Growing Problem On College Campuses

The APA estimates that teens will be exposed to upwards of 14,000 sexual innuendos or references on TV in any given year. The intense and constant sexualization of women in every aspect of life—especially the media—causes women to feel pressure to have long, thin legs, a perfectly flat stomach, a bubble butt and big boobs from the first day they see a screen. We are taught from a young age that, in order to be the perfect woman, we must be thin—but with C-cup breasts, and wispy—but able to last all night in bed, passive—unless a man is telling us to do something, and demure—unless we are asked otherwise.

When you grow up as a girl, the world tells you the things that you are supposed to be: emotional, loving, beautiful, wanted. And then when you are those things, the world tells you they are inferior: illogical, weak, vain, empty.

— Stevie Nicks

A woman faces inequality from the moment she gets out of bed in the morning and feels forced to put on a pushup bra and makeup to the time she picks up the paycheck that, on the "amount" line, reads 23 cents less than that of her male counterpart, to the dozen times she looks over her shoulder on her way home—because she has been told that the pushup bra she felt compelled to wear also gives any man the right to take advantage of her. Facing inequality, unrealistic expectations, unequal treatment and lack of respect all day every day is an incredibly taxing consequence for being born one gender instead of the other—and its negative effects continue to spread, including and especially to the mind.

Mental illness, in all its forms, is debilitating and harmful to every aspect of one's life. But in a society with so much stigma surrounding it, not only do women face a horrifically disproportional amount of it, but they are discouraged from talking about it and seeking help (see: the expectation to be demure), constantly worsening its effects. Even for the women lucky enough not to suffer from severe mental health problems as a result of being female, our world is a difficult one to live in.

I am scared of having a daughter because of all the ways that it’s been hard to be me.

— Kate Fridkis

Incessant disrespect toward our bodies, our minds and our opinions, perpetual anxiety and the unending pressure to look and act a certain way are enough to significantly weigh anyone down but have sadly become just another part of our culture. The unequal treatment of women has its obvious effects—smaller paychecks and larger pepper spray sales and the lack of women in positions of power—but its obscure, psychological effects can be even more devitalizing. And when we devitalize women, an entire half of our population, we devitalize our world.

"The State Of Minds" is a column that runs every other Saturday on Neon Tommy, on mental health issues affecting our nation and world, and the challenges we face in overcoming stigma around mental illness.

Read more here. Contact Columnist Ariana Shives here.



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