We all know the statistic: on average, a women makes 79 cents for every dollar a man earns. However, did you know that women are 40% more likely than men to develop a mental illness (The Guardian)? In fact, women are 75% more likely to be depressed and 60% more likely to suffer from an anxiety disorder. Not to mention, they are twice as likely to experience an eating disorder. These disparities are ultimately influenced by cultural pressures and are not solely the result of any biological differences in the genders. Mental health activism, largely an amalgamation of feminist concerns, should be a feminist cause just like the wage gap.
From a young age, girls are taught that their value is dependent on the way they portray themselves. With an introduction to makeup at the ages of ten or eleven, young girls learn to conceal their blemishes. This secrecy of imperfection propagates the idea that girls must deal with their flaws on their own, hiding what makes them unworthy of others’ attention. Young girls are surrounded by ads depicting unattainably airbrushed, emaciated women: billboards, magazines, websites, social media, etc. As they compare themselves to these unrealistic images, children begin resenting their bodies, building an antagonistic relationship that leads to counting calories, diet curbing, and ultimately eating disorders.
In the classroom and workplace, women are taught that docility is more attractive than zeal. As a result, girls learn to listen rather than to lead. This pliancy causes women to suppress their own unique thoughts and thereby deprecate themselves. This self-disparaging behavior that allows women to censor themselves leads to unhealthy relationships with themselves as individuals. They come to resent their own thoughts and ideas since women view them as inadequate. Moreover, this kind of self-control in the classroom and workplace mimics the self-control seen in eating disorders; women feel the need to police themselves and their bodies as a result of societal pressures. The stress of self-control and inadequacy leads to heightened anxiety and thereby greater rates of mental illness among women.
In the workplace, women are usually forced to compete against men in an environment that is largely dominated by men. As a result, women are forced to conform to patriarchic ways of communication in order to succeed. For example, women must forgo their commonly used phrases such as “I believe” or “I think” before stating their opinion. Whereas women communicate face-to-face, men in the workplace usually speak shoulder-to-shoulder. The stress of imitating male cultural norms and rejecting outright feminine behaviors, this unfamiliarity, can also lead to heightened anxiety. Concurrently, working mothers, who are largely the primary caregivers of their children, are forced to balance children and work while also competing with men who do not have the same balance of priorities. These greater responsibilities have a significant impact on a mother’s quality of life and thereby her mental health. In fact, women are 150% more likely than men to experience workplace stress.
These inequalities, which are highlighted by the feminist movement, are also major components of mental health activism. Advocating for more school psychologists, increasing access to mental health care among low-income women, providing babysitting services for working mothers who wish to seek therapy when they are not working: these are all concepts that would benefit both feminism and mental health activism. With the recognition of the crossroads between feminism and mental health, both movements can be more effective.