8 Of The Craziest Myths About Women's Bodies You Never Heard

Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
If you were able to go back in time by 200 years or so, there’s one thing about being a woman you'd almost certainly experience: Women’s bodies were a mystery.

That was mostly because medicine was dominated by men, who had very little interest in learning about women’s sexual health.

For example, in the 1800s, physicians didn’t think it was possible for women to experience pleasure during sex. They also thought that higher education would ruin a woman’s reproductive organs. And that your womb could just get up and wander around your body.

No, really. These are actual theories that members of the medical community came up with, and in many cases, even wrote full books about. They were taken as fact. And what the general public believed — even if doctors didn't support it — was often even more bananas. In the 1700s, 1800s, and even the early 1900s, all this led to a culture that saw women as frail, toxic creatures that could be both dangerous and unnaturally vulnerable.

Some of the medical theories about women’s bodies from the era are so utterly ridiculous, it’s hard not to laugh out loud while reading them. So we rounded up eight of the craziest, most unscientific, highly sexist myths about women’s health from the 1700s, 1800s, and even a dash of the early 1900s. Enjoy — and maybe feel some relief to be alive now.
1 of 8
Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
Myth: Vaginas Have Teeth

The myth of vagina dentata
, or vaginas with teeth, dates back to ancient times, appearing in folklore everywhere from Russia to India to Japan. It was believed that men couldn’t have sex with their wives because of the risk for castration. So extremely brave men were needed to remove the teeth to tame women and make them sexually viable. (Yes, an eye roll would be appropriate.)

Seriously though, people thought that women had teeth in their vaginas.

What physicians were actually finding in women's vaginas were dermoid cysts, which when fully developed can sometimes resemble teeth.

But here’s the thing: The medical community didn’t believe vaginas with teeth were real, but lots of normal people did. To this day, you can do a Google search of “vaginas with teeth” and you'll find chat rooms with both men and women asking, “Are there really teeth inside vaginas?”

People are so hung up on the claim that there’s even a 2007 horror movie about it. Once and for all: Your vagina doesn’t have teeth. It will not rip off limbs. It does not bite people.
Advertisement
2 of 8
Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
Myth: Higher Education Will Ruin Your Lady Parts

“Hysteria” may have been the most persistent — and extremely vague — diagnosis of the Victorian era (click ahead to learn more about that). And every man had a (far-fetched) theory for its cause and cure.

Harvard Medical School physician Dr. Edward H. Clarke published a book in 1876 called Sex in Education: Or, A Fair Chance for Girls. One of his biggest theories in the book was that the sum of energy in a body is constant. In the case of a woman, this meant that “excessive” studying in college would transfer all of her energy from her reproductive organs to her brain! Gasp!

Clarke wrote about “numerous pale, weak, neuralgic, dyspeptic...girls and women that are living illustrations of this monograph.” And Dr. Clarke wasn’t the only man trying to keep women from getting an education. Other scientists from the era also supported the theory. Basically, they thought that vapors would rise from the womb, and that would cause women to be unfit for higher education.

The good news? It’s not true! You can go to college and still have working lady parts. But thanks, Victorian-era men, for worrying about them.
3 of 8
Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
Myth: Your Womb Can Wander

Don’t you just hate it when your womb starts moving around and you’re just trying to live? It’s the worst, right?

Okay, that never happens, but people really believed it could. In ancient Greece, people believed that a woman’s womb could wander spontaneously around her abdominal cavity — left, right, up, down, colliding with the spleen and doing as it pleased. Plato even described it in great detail. The physician Aretaeus of Cappadocia once said that the womb was an organ that “moved of itself hither and thither in the flanks.” But luckily, the Greeks could cure it with nice scents — because vaginas and wombs apparently respond to that kind of thing.

Fast-forward to the 1700s, when doctors start to believe that the cause of hysteria had to be wandering wombs. Specifically, when the womb moved all the way up towards the brain.

Guess what, you guys? Your womb stays exactly where it is, ALL THE TIME. It doesn’t move towards your brain. And if it did, there would probably be far worse and more traumatic effects than a bout of “hysteria.”
4 of 8
Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
Myth: Hysteria Could Be Cured With Vibrators

If you thought vibrators were made strictly for pleasure, think again. Just a quick recap: Hysteria is the extremely vague illness that was seen as pandemic in the late 19th century. The symptoms include chronic arousal, anxiety, erotic fantasy, and vaginal lubrication. Today, we would simply say these are symptoms of functioning female sexuality, but in an era when most people didn’t believe women could enjoy sexual pleasure (and made no effort to do so), these were seen as problematic and horrifying.

So how could you help alleviate the terrors of hysteria? With orgasm, of course.

Creating a "paroxysm," or massaging female patients to orgasm, was a major medical practice until the 1920s. If you’re wondering why it was performed by physicians, it was because masturbation was seen as unhealthy and unladylike.

But here’s the thing — doctors hated doing it. They were left with tired, cramped fingers. It was so exhausting! And there were so many women who needed massage therapy! And for some reason, they kept coming back again and again, with no improvement in their health and a need for more therapy. (It's pretty impressive that they could all get off in a cold, clinical doctor's office though.)

So in the 1880s, British doctors developed an electromechanical instrument for massage therapies to treat hysteria. And just like that, vibrators, a.k.a. “personal massagers,” were born.
5 of 8
Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
Myth: Women’s Periods Are Poison

Have you ever heard of menotoxin?

Believe it or not, there was a serious debate in the 1920s about “menotoxin,” a toxin that was believed to exist inside menstrual blood. How dangerous was menotoxin? So dangerous, it could kill flowers, or stop bread from rising.

The theory was developed by Dr. Bela Schick. Long story short: His assistant was on her period when she put his flowers into a vase — and they died. Dr. Schick figured this was enough scientific evidence to prove that menstrual blood is poisonous, and he went on to develop a full theory on menotoxin.

Technically, the theory wasn’t 100% new; it originally popped up in the 13th-century book De Secretis Mulierum (The Secrets of Women), which boasts such amazing nuggets of information as, “Woman is not human, but a monster.” Also, it’s noted that menstruating women give off harmful fumes that “poison the eyes of children lying in their cradles by a glance.”

The debate about whether or not period blood is dangerous persisted into the 1970s, when The Lancet apparently felt the need to bring up Dr. Schick and challenge ancient cultural beliefs that menstruating women can’t bake, preserve meat, sow seeds, etc.

The truth is really simple: Your period blood is just blood and tissue you’re not using. It’s not toxic. Women aren’t dirty. They can bake, and farm, and even hold vases of flowers without them wilting.
6 of 8
Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
Myth: Women With Neurasthenia Need REST

One of the most popular diagnoses from the 1800s was neurasthenia (which is actually Greek for “nerve weakness”). The condition was described as a nervous illness or nervous breakdown, and symptoms included depression, insomnia, anxiety, and migraines.

The prescribed treatment for women suffering from neurasthenia was the “Rest Cure.” Developed by physician Silas Weir Mitchell, the rest cure included strategies like avoiding physical work, receiving massages, and being force-fed.

If you’re interested in hearing more about how unpleasant the rest cure was, just read Charlotte Perkin Gilman’s haunting semi-autobiographical short story The Yellow Wallpaper. (Gilman was a former patient of Dr. Mitchell’s; she went to him for treatment for depression following the birth of her child in the spring of 1887.)

The "Rest Cure" is in stark contrast to Dr. Mitchell’s treatment for nervous men, who were advised to go out West and engage in cattle-roping, hunting, and male bonding.

Today, historians view Dr. Mitchell’s “cure" as the peak of 19th-century medical misogyny.
7 of 8
Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
Myth: Tampons Can Take Away Your Virginity

The earliest tampons (at least, devices similar to the tampons we use today) made their debut in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. In 1879, as menstrual pads were arriving to western markets, the British Medical Journal wrote about a “vaginal tampon-tube” as a recent innovation. It’s unclear if the tampon was ever intended for at-home use. Instead, doctors seemed to use tampons for administering vaginal medication and for non-menstrual absorption in the vagina.

It wasn’t until the 1930s that Tampax arrived on shelves. And when it did, people had a lot of feelings. Namely, they were horrified that women might be touching themselves in order to insert the devices (heaven forbid)! Or that tampons might block their periods! Or, worst of all, that women might "accidentally" lose their virginities!

Doctors actually had to work hard to convince people that their daughters weren’t going to lose their virginities because of tampons. Consumer Reports even came out with an article saying that “yes, tampons are safe for virgins to use,” in the 1940s.

Believe or not, people still seem to be confused about whether or not using a tampon renders a woman virginity-less. Short answer: No.
8 of 8
Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
Myth: Masturbation Leads To Flat Breasts

In 1848, a physician named Francois Lallemand published a book called Practical Treatise on the Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment of Spermatorrhea. In case you’re wondering, it’s all about the dangers of self-pleasure. And doctors were totally on board with the “science” here.

According to Dr. Lallemand, men who masturbated would be left with “the nerves wasted and depleted… The entire nervous system will eventually become shattered and ruined beyond all hope of complete recovery.”

If that sounds awful, what happened to women who masturbated was downright odd. According to an advice manual called The Science of a New Life, girls who masturbated, “show usually strong indications of it in the failure of their glandular development.” What did this stunted development mean? “Such persons are apt to be flat-breasted, or, as we term it, flat-chested," the manual said.

What a nightmare?

But guess what? It’s not true. Masturbating is great for you! And it won’t affect the size of your breasts or your development as a human at all.

Now, go treat yourself.
Advertisement