Grace Wright shares her thoughts on the relationship between women’s mental health and the flaws of our patriarchal society. CW: Mental health issues, eating disorders and sexual harassment.
(I am going to talk about my experience as a woman in this article. However, I do not intend to disregard or marginalize men’s experiences by not focusing on them here. Men’s mental health issues need more attention than ever as their suicide rates grow ever higher. It is the highest cause of death in young men at a horrifying and tragic 28.4%.)
The first introduction to mental illness for a lot of young girls was something like Skins or Tumblr, or perhaps Girl Interrupted (1999) if you were more inclined to the indie film scene. What’s the common denominator here? Representing mentally ill women as skinny white girls with lots of black eyeliner and a ‘fucked-up back story’. In other words, ‘heroin chic’ (see Kate Moss ‘90s era). Romantic ideals of mental illness are poisoning young women today and we see poetry, films and TV shows popping up everywhere that reinforce these ideas – ‘13 Reasons Why’ and ‘To The Bone’ being two recent, particularly offensive, examples. Hadley Freeman critiqued ‘To The Bone’ perfectly in the Guardian when she spoke of how men and women in our society get ‘turned on’ by anorexia, and the way this feeling subtly pervades the culture industry. Girls are taught that it’s cool, mysterious and attractive to be mentally ill and then when girls finally admit they have depression, bulimia, or any other mental illness, society sends them to therapy instead of finding a mirror and taking a long, hard look at itself.
When you combine this glamorization of mental illness with the sexual harassment, sexual abuse and beauty pressure that women face, as a standard package for growing up, it is more than understandable that you might begin to show symptoms of depression or an eating disorder.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper (1892) encapsulates the frustration of being told you are unwell, hysterical even, when in fact you are having a very reasonable response to the restrictions and expectations being placed upon you by society. Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth (1991) explains how women were still internalising society’s sexism at the time of the book’s publication. It is now 2019 and this virus continues to infect us. I urge Women not to fall prey to the individualistic nature of our society. When you have been cat-called on the street since you were 12, pressured into doing ‘stuff’ with boys since you were 13, and groped in the streets and in bars since you were 14, feeling sad is an inevitable consequence. When your body is more praised when you’re 12 than when you’re 20 it makes complete sense that you would be upset about how your body changes. When you’re told we’re in the post-feminism era, you can be free and independent, and then get called a ‘slut’ for having casual sex or ‘aggressive’ for doing your job as a boss, it is more than understandable that you end up feeling confused and lost.
I think that when considering women’s mental health, it is important to look at the social norms in place that perpetuate unhealthy and problematic behaviours. I am advocating for activism and structural, radical change alongside personal development, self-care and psychoanalysis when treating our current epidemic of women’s mental health problems. I have high hopes that, by taking this many-branched perspective, we might be able to create a happier world for our younger sisters and daughters.
Artwork by Ruby Mellish (You can contact Ruby for commissions at firstname.lastname@example.org).