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The Yellow Wallpaper and Female Illnesses

Photo by Jelle Boontje

During the Victorian Era, Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper” as a means of getting back at Weir Mitchell, the physician whose diagnosis of her illness almost drove her as insane as the protagonist in her short story. Having just had a baby, Gilman suffered from depression and her physician, Mitchell, prescribed a “rest cure,” during which she was not allowed to work (write), or have any contact with other people. Because she was a woman, and because men dominated the medical industry, women were commonly controlled in this way, as were their bodies and their illnesses.

Hysteria at this time was the prevailing female illness; it was known as a nervous condition that was attributed to women because the illness was associated with the uterus. Whenever a woman expressed doubts, fainting spells, headaches, or signs of depression, doctors were there to pat them on their shoulders and tell them that it was because of their hysterical uterus—they were nervous and anxious because they were women and they had to rest their bodies and their minds. They were not supposed to read or write or talk or do anything that would get their imaginations running out of control. They were to be pacified.

This kind of rest cure almost drove Gilman insane; outraged at the physician and his obviously mistaken diagnosis, Gilman disobeyed his professional orders and did the opposite. Feeling better, she wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper” not only to expose the physician, who in the end admitted his mistake and took better care in his examination of female illnesses, but also to expose the patriarchal and one-sided stance the medical industry assumed when dealing with women’s complaints and ailments. Not only did the industry function to alienate women and their concerns, but they also normalized an illness that could only be attributed to women since they were the sole possessors of the enigmatic uterus. Since they were believed to be fragile creatures by nature, women were placated to and told that there was something wrong with them; their gender was inherently hysterical. It couldn’t possibly be because these very same women were oppressed and confined to the private realms of their lives, without voice, self-possession, or power.

And this has not changed.

Photo by Constantin Jurcut

Although women are no longer placed in institutions by their husbands and fathers for being the victims of hysteria, today the medical industry continues to make money off the insecurities of women. Plastic surgery has found its niche in female imperfection, normalizing the notion that women need to have bigger breasts, wrinkle-free faces, flatter stomachs, and thin bodies in order to be loved and accepted. Through the onslaught of media and advertising, women are sent daily messages, brainwashed into seeing themselves as ugly and imperfect. Not only will the men in their lives not love them, but they cannot love themselves unless they look like they are in their twenties. When women go into a physician’s office with complaints of depression and insecurities about their looks, instead of encouragement, they are given drugs to pacify them, numb them, or they are told that with a tuck here and a pinch there, botox injections here and a size bigger breast there they will feel better about themselves. And today’s women buy into plastic surgery and the pursuit of body perfection in the same way women bought into rest cure treatments and hysteria in the Victorian era: with the same desire towards feeling better and more fulfilled.

There is an illness that prevails among women—in the past and in the present—but it has nothing to do with their uterus, their fragility, or their perfect or imperfect bodies: it has to do with their lack of power in a male-dominated world. Women seemingly have more power today than they did in the past—they obviously have more choices—but these choices are riddled with conflict, for they still live in a world that continues to function under patriarchal laws—written and unwritten. When the needs and voices of men overwhelm the needs and voices of women—when women are still perceived as inferior in the workforce, in politics, and in the family—women will continue to exist as secondary entities, subscribing to the laws of men prescribed upon their bodies with a sense of ownership and entitlement.

If she were still alive, what kind of short story would Gilman be writing in response to this?

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Marina DelVecchio
Marina DelVecchio is the author of The Prostitute's Daughter, a memoir in which she shows how she has used literature to combat a life of abuse and poverty. She blogs about female agency and the necessary empowerment of our daughters at http://marinagraphy.com. Her work can be found at the Huffington Post, The New Agenda, the WM Parenting Connection, and BlogHer. She teaches writing and literature on the college level.
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  • Kate Robinson

    Hi fellow blog coordinator, Marina and Steve: When you (Steve) talk about women demanding surgeries and feminists raising signs of protest against anyone who would deny them these surgeries, while seeing women on another street corner, protesting against the advertising industry that they claim makes women want these things, Marina’s chicken/egg scenario definitely applies.

    I’m familiar with the “world of birth” so I’ll use that venue for an example of what happens within circles of natural birth advocates. Oftentimes, advocates of no epidurals, no-meds, etc. believe that if women knew all the risks associated with these things that they would, undeniably, choose not to use them in labor. The real truth is that plenty of women are well aware and choose to risk…much in the same way those who propose hospital-only labor as the “safe” choice, would like to ban women from choosing to “risk” having their babies at home with midwives. The argument comes down to what is “acceptable” risk to the individual, and what suits the individual’s life. I believe, yes, in the natural birth argument that if women were educated about birth and labor, if hospitals were more like birthing centers and midwifery were the norm, then far fewer women might “end up” with unnecessary c-sections, etc. Yet, what else would have to change that we haven’t yet addressed? Lawsuits! Thus, again, we have the chicken/egg idea over what came first and what needs to change first.

    The other dirty secret in all of this is that feminists are the LAST people who want to come forth and say that women would not choose surgeries for breast enhancement or reduction of various other body parts if they were not pushed toward these things by a silent but strong undercurrent that claims some kind of ideal as the only way to be. We don’t want to belittle women’s choices saying they wouldn’t want these things if they weren’t internalized to such a degree. It’s a slippery slope, and yet, unless we talk about it, what can change?

    I appreciate both comments and thank Steve for kind of “calling out” women on wanting it all ways at all times. I also hear Marina loud and clear as raising a daughter myself, I see the influence of advertising in her desire to never move from a size “0” even as she grows to 5’7″ tall. I see it in her consideration of never having children because she’s concerned about her size. Is it “her” who wants to be so thin? As her feminist mother, who am I to question her desire for a certain clothing size? Should I tell her all of her desire to be a certain size is merely advertising speaking in her voice, that she’s been possessed? It is quite the conundrum as we attempt to honor choice and yet advocate for a kinder, more accepting world wherein certain choices might not be chosen. That’s the conundrum, for sure.

  • Marina DelVecchio

    Sadly, L. George Alexander, you’re right. I wish she were around. I would love to see what spin she would put on it. And I feel the same way — as I raise my little girl into maturity — I fell helpless and powerless — and I wonder how I am going to navigate her life so that she doesn’t fall into these pitfalls of femininity that continue to tell her she is worthless unless she’s physically fit and perfect on the outside and a jumbled mess on the inside. Thank you for commenting.

  • Marina DelVecchio

    Steve, it’s the question of which came first: the chicken or the egg. The answer: not sure. Female self-image is poor, but that is the case because women have always been placed second to men — in all venues of society. Women have, for decades, been conditioned to associate their power with their looks — it was the only way for them to attain a husband when being a spinster was the worst thing in the world to be. Women are weak in purchasing beauty — but the medical industry is manipulative and motivated by greed — Doctors are supposed to care for their patients — not help them delude themselves. Instead, they contribute to the low self-esteem of women by telling them it’s OK to put themselves through surgical procedures for the attainment of happiness.

  • Steve

    The question is whether the demand for unnecessary medical procedures has provoked supply, or if it’s the other way around. Blaming the medical industry for “mak[ing] money off the insecurities of women. Plastic surgery has found its niche in female imperfection, normalizing the notion that women need to have bigger breasts, wrinkle-free faces, flatter stomachs, and thin bodies in order to be loved and accepted. ” is easy to do, but perhaps it’s actually the case that (some) women have naturally low body image and have demanded access to this sort of surgery. In fact were society to actually discourage these sorts of procedure, feminists would equally be shouting that preventing them is in violation of their human rights.

    When asked to draw their partners, men are usually more flattering with their depictions of their significant others than the women are of themselves. Far from the medical industry taking advantage, I’d say this industry is being driven by a *female* persuit of a *female* idea of perfection.

    As is usually the case with femininsts, they want to have their cake and eat it.

  • L.George Alexander

    I wish this writer was wrong in her assumptions, but she is not. Every time I read an essay with the same ideas I can feel the same fears,anger and helplessness. Maybe the law has changed in this country (USA) since “The Yellow Wallpaper”, but the issues have not. I don’t think Gilman would write a different story today but just update it.

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