Stop Telling Women They’re Crazy

CrazyWomen_slide02Illustrated by Sydney Hass.
We’ve been calling women crazy for a long time, and for a long time it’s been political. This summer, a YouTube video about women’s “hot-crazy matrix” went viral; now, it has its own Facebook page and T-shirt. The video aims to tell men what types of women they should date/marry, given that good-looking, non-crazy women are supposedly such a rarity. And, while the host measures "hotness" on a typical 1-10 scale, he begins the "crazy" rating at four — because “there is no such thing as a woman who’s not at least a ‘four’ crazy.”
Of course, I don’t have to point to a viral video to prove we live in a culture that believes women are at least moderately bat-shit. If you’re a woman, I bet that at least once you were upset and someone asked you, “Are you on your period? What’s your problem?” And, I bet that at some point someone dismissed your reaction to a situation as "irrational."
The problem with the assumption that women are nuts isn’t just that it’s annoying; it’s that if we hear it enough, we start to doubt ourselves. We start to assume that the problem is our reaction, rather than the upsetting event. We question our own feelings or events we know to have happened, saying, “Am I being crazy?” And, we wonder if something admissibly disturbing has happened, or if we’re “just being hormonal.” People who make women feel this way are participating in a specific form of mental abuse — also known as gaslighting.
Being seen as “crazy” undermines our judgement and our relationships by completely discrediting our point of view. As Matthew Zawadzki, PhD, (a professor at UC Merced who studies perceptions of one’s own and other’s emotions) explains, “‘Emotional’ is a term used to label women whom you don’t want to have a voice in a situation. When a couple is having an argument, even if a woman has a well-thought-out reason for being upset, a guy might say, ‘You’re just being emotional.’ It’s a way to discredit her instead of having to listen; the words ‘you’re acting crazy’ really mean ‘I don’t have to pay attention to you.’”
CrazyWomen_slide03Illustrated by Sydney Hass.
Back in the day, when people didn’t want to pay attention to a woman — or were generally disturbed by her behavior — she was taken to a doctor and diagnosed with hysteria. Hysteria was a catchall diagnosis for women who were feeling nervous, irritable, too horny, not horny enough, “causing trouble,” or were suffering from a wide variety of other ailments thought to be caused by female biology. The word actually came from the Greek “hystera,” which literally means uterus. So, in short, the problem of having hysteria really meant the problem of being a woman.
“Hysteria” became popular in the mid 19th century, suspiciously around the same time that women’s rights began gaining momentum. The first national women’s rights convention took place in 1850. By 1859, physicians were claiming that a quarter of all women suffered from hysteria — as defined by a 75-page list of possible manifestations. Women demanding equality was a pesky problem, and hysteria was a brilliant answer. Hysteria asked, "Don’t those high-maintenance females see they’re too irrational to do things like own property, control finances, get a college degree, or cast a vote?" It framed female emotional instability as biological “fact.”
Today, we’re not so quick to hand out medical diagnoses, and our scientific research is tightly controlled to avoid such blatant gender stereotyping — though there is still quite a bit that slips through the cracks. Still, this idea that all women are nuts (or at least have a high risk of going nuts) is very much alive and well.
CrazyWomen_slide01Illustrated by Sydney Hass.
Stephanie Shields, PhD, has been studying the intersection of gender and emotion for over 30 years. “[There's] a stereotype that women are less in-control of their stronger emotions,” she says. “His emotions are believed to be a response to situations; her emotions are believed to be a reflection of her weaker character.”
The million-dollar question: Is this stereotype actually true? Do women have more emotions? And, are they less in control of them? Turns out, it depends when you ask — and I don’t mean at what time of the month. Studies that put men and women in a lab and measure their emotional response to a situation find no difference between the sexes. When researchers ask in the moment what men and women are feeling, their responses look the same. And, when you ask people to keep diaries about their feelings over the course of a week or a month, again men and women show no significant differences.
But, says Dr. Shields, “If you ask general questions, removed from specific examples, or ask about an event in the past or in the future, then the results look like the stereotypes.” People report their assumptions about their reactions, rather than their actual reactions. The further a woman gets from an event, the more likely she will assume she was more emotional than she actually was — and the more likely a man will assume he was less emotional. So, when you ask men and women about their emotions in general, we all just regurgitate stereotypes. “There is no science that shows women have stronger or more out-of-control feelings than men,” says Dr. Shields. “In fact, lab research on emotion regulation shows that women tend to be better at it.”
CrazyWomen_slide04Illustrated by Sydney Hass.
It's time to bust this “crazy” stereotype, and stop buying into it ourselves — despite so-called scientific “evidence.” We’ve all heard the theory that because women have more estrogen we’re “naturally” more unstable — that if we're upset about something AND on our period, our feelings are simply a result of our hormones. Of course, men are pumped full of testosterone — also a hormone. We just don't assume it has an impact on them. Since estrogen is the “girly” hormone, however, we imagine it must be correlated with being overly sensitive. But, according to Leslie Brody, PhD, who has made a career out of studying gender and emotion, "There are very inconsistent findings in the literature on relationships between women's menstrual cycles and mood. What we do know is that biological and social factors are continually interacting. So, just like hormones have an impact on mood, social turn affect hormonal levels. In other words, hormones and moods have bi-directional effects on each other for both men and women."
Abraham Morgentaler, MD, the Director of Men's Health Boston and author of Testosterone For Life, says, “Men, and their moods, are clearly hormonal; their hormones just don't cycle as regularly as women’s do.” Just look at sports: “Men express a wide range of very intense emotions during sporting events, and the whole sports section of the newspaper is nothing but feelings,” says Dr. Shields. “But, those feelings are not labeled or even recognized as emotion.” Dudes get to scream at each other, start fights at stadiums, and somehow still avoid the label of ‘being crazy.’” Says Dr. Zawadzki, “Everyone shows emotions, but not everyone is labeled as ‘emotional.’”
CrazyWomen_slide05Illustrated by Sydney Hass.
This label could quite literally be killing us. The research Dr. Zawadzki conducted for his dissertation attempted to uncover why it is that men are diagnosed with heart disease so much more frequently than women, even though the prevalence of heart disease in men and women is virtually identical. He asked male and female actors to visit physicians and complain of (imaginary) heart disease symptoms.
They were coached to either show no emotions at all or to show visible signs of anxiety while relaying their symptoms. In both conditions, the physicians rated it very likely that the men had heart disease. The women who acted anxious, on the other hand, were rated as significantly less likely to have heart disease. Doctors were less able to take women’s symptoms seriously when they were acting anxious, but anxious men still received the "correct" diagnosis.
The danger with calling women “crazy” is that it completely delegitimizes us — when we’re physically ill, in an argument, or when we're going for a promotion. It causes us to explain away our feelings rather than pay attention to them. In legitimately upsetting situations, it makes the blame fall back on us rather than on someone else’s problematic behavior. So, we have two choices: We can notice things that are upsetting and say nothing. Or, we can speak up and get called irrational. It’s really a catch-22. And, it’s enough to drive you, well, crazy.

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