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Paper Title: Good Medicine? The Impact of Gender on Women

Written by Jessica Albon
Submitted to Dr. Lueker
GS 410: Gender Identity in a Global Context



Pull Quote: What it means to be male or female in any given society is socially constructed.

Differences in gender roles arise from the social values placed on the physical differences between female and male bodies. This results in the cultural construction of what it means to be a woman or a man in a given society. Unfortunately, many of these social constructions have directly disadvantaged women. As a result women suffer from increased malnutrition, they have less of a voice when it comes to their health and lose status simply because they are women and not men. This paper will examine the differences between men and women with regard to nutrition, health and status and then attempt to determine which of these presents the most serious disadvantage to women.

Nutritionally, women suffer, particularly in times of food shortage. Many cultures also subscribe to rules which dictate that men eat first and women eat the leftovers (Bonvillain, 253). This seems counterintuitive as women require adequate nutrition in order to reproduce (which, generally speaking, is a role women in all cultures play), while men do not have the same concerns. Ellen Rosenberg found in societies where women are allowed only leftovers while men eat whatever amount they desire, women "'may be weaker, smaller, more lethargic, more disease prone, and shorter-lived than their husbands'" (as quoted by Bonvillain, 253). In such societies, women's compromised health is then used against them to justify a subordinated position. Women are sometimes also barred from consuming or limited in their consumption of meat (Bonvillain, 253). Bonvillain writes that this may be "symbolic of women's exclusion from these [herding and hunting] economic roles" (253). According to the Novartis Foundation for Sustainable Development, "neglect of women's health and nutrition is so serious in some countries, particularly in Asia, that it even outweighs women's natural biological tendency to live longer than men" (Novartis Foundation for Sustainable Development). This is quite a serious statement and it stresses the importance of considering women's nutritional needs around the world.



Pull Quote: Though food is plentiful in the United States, women may still starve themselves to prove they have "self-control"

Here in the United States, food takes on a similar importance for different reasons. Bonvillain mentions the stereotypical masculine meal of meat and potatoes and also mentions that American women are expected to favor salads (254). Such beliefs seem to have a malevolent intent as Bonvillain points out: "These presumed differences cohere as well with prevailing standards of beauty that have the effect of encouraging women to eat salads and other foods low in calories to avoid gaining weight" (Ibid.). Indeed, with the shocking numbers relating to eating disorders in the United States and with as many as 90% of all victims being female, food and nutrition must be examined in terms of gender in the United States. Certainly, there is more pressure on women to conform to certain physical types than on men. Women see unattainable (and unreal) pictures of the "ideal" female form on the covers of women's magazines, men's magazines and general interest magazines. Even magazines supposedly dedicated to women's health boast these air-brushed, extremely thin models (see the latest issues of SHAPE or Women's Sports and Fitness). Thus, though food is plentiful in the United States, women may feel the need to not eat in order to look like the women they see on magazine covers and on television. When women do not eat, their "self-control" is lauded (see Unit 2's Threaded Newsgroup for evidence), while when men do not eat, they are often told they will get sick. It seems strange that a society that does not withhold food from women finds their women withholding foods from themselves by setting up a structure that encourages such behavior.




Pull Quote: "We need to insist that we be recognized as different from, but equal to, men in our physiology. And we need to again become our own healers."

In looking at the socially constructed role of women in the west, one must also look at women's health. Women's health issues have gained attention in recent years. However, the media's propensity for breast cancer covers up the fact that heart disease is actually the number one killer of women. Women often feel they cannot have a heart attack because heart attacks are something men have. According to Jan Richard, "information about medical treatments is often contradictory or sparse, and women are made to feel that they should trust their doctors rather than make their own decisions" (The Medicalization of Women's Lives). Women are taught to doubt what they are feeling and what they know to be true. According to Dr. Tracy Gaudet, 90% of women feel "disconnected" from their bodies. This often results in their ignoring what their body needs. Women are generally told that doctors know best, so when they visit the doctor with a complaint that is ignored, women may believe their complaint is inconsequential. According to Bonvillain, birthing practices also often burden women. Midwives have been persecuted throughout time despite the fact that they seem to lower infant mortality and maternal mortality considerably (Bonvillain, 247). Healers were accused of witchcraft in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries by both doctors and the Catholic Church (Bonvillain, 246), however, midwives continued to practice. Doctors often label midwives incompetent, as revealed in a passage quoted by Ehrenreich and English (as quoted by Bonvillain, 247) that states: "She [a midwife] is the most virulent bacteria of them all, and she is truly a micrococcus of the most poisonous kind." Richard sees a solution, however, to past male control of female bodies. She writes, "We need to insist that we be recognized as different from, but equal to, men in our physiology. And we need to again become our own healers" (The Medicalization of Women's Lives). It's not as simple as women reclaiming control for their bodies, however. Unfortunately, misconceptions, such as that women do not have heart attacks, abound and are often propagated by the media. Women must demand that their health concerns be given both equal weight to men's and also that those concerns be selected based on probability, not newsworthiness. This will help women to understand that they have concerns beyond breast cancer and it will also empower them to take action (because they cannot take action if they do not know a potential problem exists).





Pull Quote: "women are more conscious of prestige norms"

Along with health concerns that may not be taken seriously and nutritional discrepancies, women generally have less status than men. This is illustrated most plainly in language. In English, women are more likely to speak standard or prestige English, while men speak in the nonstandard form (Bonvillain, 298). This seems odd upon first analysis as lower-class speakers use non-standard English while upper-class speakers use prestige or standard (and if the argument is that women have lower status, it seems they would follow the lower-class pattern). It makes more sense, however, when one considers that women likely use standard or prestige English in order to accomplish what men can accomplish using non-standard English. This means that men can still upgrade their speaking by two levels while women don't have that flexibility. Women are also more quick to "upgrade" their speaking and Bonvillain suggests this may be because "women are more conscious of prestige norms and strive to use them because they are critically judged by their social self-presentation" (300). Additionally, according to Muenier, men are more likely to interrupt women, while women do not interrupt men. This indicates that men do not believe what women say is important, or that, at least, they believe what they have to say is more important than that which women may have to say. Additionally, according to Muenier, men often consider the topics discussed by women to be "trivial." Therefore, they excuse themselves from participating and may either change the subject or merely stop listening. In one way, the way that men react to women lessens the status of women, however, one must also ask whether it is reasonable to determine a woman's status based on whether or not a man will listen to her. Does it not seem just as reasonable to disregard the opinions of men and instead allow women to build their status among other women? Women also are less likely to hold prestigious jobs. They are more likely to be nurses than doctors, more likely to be secretaries than lawyers (Bonvillain, 179, 260). In this way, also, women seem to be denied status.

Of these ways that women are disadvantaged, in nutrition, health, and status, it seems the most important is nutrition. While health is nearly as serious, nutrition seems slightly more serious because it has a direct effect on the health of women, while health does not have an effect on nutrition. Indeed, nutrition affects status as well, for a malnourished woman would find her life far more challenging. Nutrition has a further impact on status by way of appearance. Women who are deemed overweight (whether they are or not) are less likely to be hired and less likely to be taken seriously. Therefore, nutrition seems most serious because it directly impacts both of the other disadvantages. In addition, nutrition and the way women feel about it results in many deaths (by way of eating disorders). Women who are malnourished may feed the idea that women are weaker and more prone to disease. Therefore this also gives rise to ideas of women as the "weaker sex"; as individuals who need to be protected and given plenty of time to rest. Nutrition is also most important because it has the most serious consequences. While having a poor doctor may result in prolonged sickness or even death, malnutrition will almost certainly result in prolonged sickness or death. Its consequences are also more important than the consequences of lower status because they speak to the lowest of our human needs according to Maslow's pyramid while status is a higher need.

Pull Quote: While the physical differences between men and women are generally quite clear, it is the meanings we attach to those differences that really count.
In conclusion, while the physical differences between men and women are generally quite clear, it is the meanings we attach to those differences that really count. Such meanings are socially constructed and often give rise to significant disadvantages to women. These disadvantages include poor nutrition, poor health, and lower status. Women may find themselves disadvantaged in any (or all) of these areas, however, it is the opinion of this paper that nutrition is the most serious disadvantage because it has a much more direct correlation to serious health risk or death than does the practice of midwifery or the practice of language. Therefore, while all three are quite serious, and while poor health care may result in the debilitation or death of a woman, because poor nutrition always results in poor health, while poor health care does not always, it is deemed more serious than the other two.

Works Cited