Why Specifically Women's Health? - Nenah Sylver

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Taking our health into our own hands:
A Radical Feminist Guide
to Holistic Health

© 2007 by Nenah Sylver, PhD


Introduction: With a background as as a feminist, a body-mind psychotherapist and a holistic health educator, I have been struck by an enormous schism in the lives of some of my feminist friends. Strong, intelligent women—who eschew authority and like to make up their own mind about what they want and how they will get it—suddenly become mush concerning their responsibility for their own health. Whatever their Western-trained (allopathic) doctors tell them, they do. In addition, they usually believe that their doctors are right. To them, feminism and holistic health are totally unrelated.

Recently, when I tried explaining about holistic health to a feminist acquaintance, she responded, "Surely you don’t think I should listen to you. You are too prejudiced toward alternative methods." I was flabbergasted. Like her, I had grown up socialized under a Western medical tradition. I knew both modalities. So might it not be worth exploring why I made the switch? Before I could reply, she added, "I’ll have to ask my doctor about it."

Why? I wondered. Who was better equipped to teach her—I, with considerable experience and study in the field, or an allopathically-trained doctor whose mainstream medical training has a built-in bias against holistic health even before reaching the starting gate? Saying she couldn’t learn about holistic healing from me because I was too "biased" and "immersed in the topic" is like refusing to learn about women’s oppression from women because they are likewise too "immersed in their situation" to fairly represent the male point of view. Would she at least read about the subject? I asked. No. Holistic health publications were too "slanted" as well. She refused to see that Western medicine routinely gets exposure in all but a few non-mainstream publications because it is so deeply, culturally entrenched and is now regarded as the norm. Like patriarchy, the allopathic medical model is so much a part of everyday reality that it has become invisible. People do not realize that it merely represents another belief structure and is not the definitive way of taking care of people.

Feminists cannot afford to dismiss the holistic health field without exploring it in depth with an open mind. As a group, women are becoming sicker. Except for fewer deaths from childbirth, our health has not substantially improved from that of our grandmothers. Some of the apparent gains we have made in fewer deaths from childbirth are offset by an increase in disability and death from new illnesses (such as Multiple Chemical Sensitivities). Western medicine has provided pitifully few solutions to what ails us.

Women have unique health care needs: we are not simply like men, only with different genitalia. The allopathic medical profession consists of mostly men who are either overtly misogynist or at least androcentric, and do not include women’s special needs in their world view. If your health care provider is a woman, she has still been schooled by the same medical system that purposely arose within the last two centuries to seize control of healing from female midwives and herbalists. Even if women received thorough and compassionate medical care for our special needs related to pregnancy, childbirth, and cancer of the breast and reproductive organs, the mainstream medical system as it currently exists is still woefully inadequate to meet our needs. Finally, most pharmaceuticals are tested on males, so the test results are skewed against people who often weigh less, have a different ratio of fat to muscle tissue, and have a vastly more complex reproductive system. It is time for women to explore other options.

The holistic healing arts treat the person rather than the disease. Practitioners regard symptoms as an indication that the entire system is unbalanced. Rather than use invasive techniques such as the removal of tissue, or prescribe poisons to kill microbes in the body—the word "antibiotic" means "against life"—holistic health providers seek to reestablish the body’s strength and innate healing abilities so it can fight off disease and degenerative conditions itself. Allopathic medicine is based on what author Riane Eisler calls the "dominator model of relating." It teaches its representatives behave like men under patriarchy: The intention is to invade the body, conquer the enemy, be it germs or degeneration of tissue, and fix whatever is wrong. The body is regarded as a machine, with various parts that are isolated from each other and also break down in isolation Holistic healing is based on what Eisler calls the "partnership model of relating." It teaches its representatives to behave like woman in an egalitarian society. The intention is to respect the body, support it with the nutrients that it is missing, and follow its processes, adjusting the support as needed so the body can then heal itself. The body is regarded as a complex, interconnected organism, where the balance or imbalance of each system affects the health of every other system.

If we truly want to create a paradigm shift in how women are treated, we must include health care as part of that change. The kind of health care we receive cannot be separated from the psychological, social and political forces that shape our lives as women.

Below I list several situations that uniquely contribute to poor health in women. Under each situation, I name some health problems that concern women. Then I offer suggestions on how we can take better charge of our health. Since information about difficulties with pregnancy and childbirth (such as excessive C-sections and difficulties with breast feeding)is readily found elsewhere, I focus on lesser known systemic dysfunctions, degenerative diseases, and "new" illnesses of the 20th Century. Except for the widespread problem of depression, I do not address emotional and psychological problems as a separate category. (For a more in-depth discussion of emotional repression and the brilliant therapy of the pioneer Wilhelm Reich, go to the Body-Mind Therapy section on this website.


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