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Personal Essay/Reported: The Societal Conditioning of "Crazy Girls"

“Oh yeah, she’s crazy.” I’ve said it before—many times in fact. I’ve even referred to myself this way, using the word crazy to encompass this generally indescribable and irrational behavior that would more accurately be categorized as a symptom of neurosis. Personally, I want to know why we associate the notion of craziness with women more often than men.

First, let’s look at the origin of the word crazy which, in the late 16th century was used to describe something as “full of cracks.” It only became connected to the mental health of a living person in the past century, perhaps because it was identifying our culture’s absence of understanding the complexities and subtleties of the human mind. But where did this link to gender come from?

When did having “cracks” in one’s mind become a feminine quality?

It goes back to the fourth century BC when Hippocrates formalized the concept of hysteria. Described as “exaggerated or uncontrollable emotion or excitement,” hysteria was a disorder converting psychological stress into physical symptoms. This is otherwise called the process of somatization which has long been addressed by indigenous cultures and ancient modes of healing. Yet hysteria, or female craziness, has been recorded as “the most diagnosed disease in the United States and Great Britain as recently as the early 20th century” (Ryan & Jetha, Sex at Dawn). It was explicitly prescribed as a female condition, often related as the result of having a womb. In fact, the name of the so-called disorder comes from the Greek word hystera, meaning uterus, which points to the age-old belief that a wandering uterus directly caused a woman’s excessive emotions. It appears the pre-existing condition of being born a biological woman is no modern conundrum.

There is a part of me that laughs with a sense of dismissal at the notion of a womb being the cause of a person’s mental instability. How ridiculous, right? That’s absurdly chauvinistic nonsense that has no grounding in reality, scientific or otherwise. So, let’s take a closer look at the methods that modern medical doctors used to treat the pandemic disease that was plaguing crazy girls.

You guessed it: masturbation. Female patients diagnosed with hysteria were running down to the local doctor’s office for clinical masturbation therapy, where doctors and nurses performed the difficult task of bringing the ailing women to orgasm. Throughout history, it has been resoundingly evident that hysterical women were experiencing symptoms identical to those of sexual frustration and chronic arousal. Rather than identifying the source of this problem in the context of the women’s daily lives, embedded with social and sexual repression while also lacking physical exertion and personal autonomy, medical professionals resorted to the most superficial treatment for immediate results.

Low and behold, the lucrative nature of this therapeutic service not only perpetuated a society that replaces sexual repression with emotion-less orgasms, it also launched an entirely new industry. The first vibrator was patented in 1902, which not only became a clinical instrument to aid the wrists of flailing physicians, but it also turned out to be an extremely popular household item. This kind of market response alone proves it’s quite obvious that women have sexual desire just as strong and prevalent as men. Yet, this idea is still commonly debated today amongst a variety of institutions despite the bounty of supporting evidence.

But let’s return to our original question: When did having cracks in one’s mind become a feminine quality? Could the long-standing history of women’s sexual repression be contributing to the current stigmas surrounding their mental health?

When we call a woman (or any person) crazy, we are only partially referring to the neurotic tendencies that she is exhibiting. In order to define something or someone as “cracked,” one must presume that something else did the cracking, either internally or externally. An egg does not crack itself, we have to hit it on the counter to expel the yolk. Likewise, an egg does not hatch on its own, the baby chicken has to peck its way through from the inside. Today, young women are conditioned to strive for physical perfection. The idea of being cracked or flawed is nearly unfathomable, particularly in our most vulnerable places and in ways that carry heavy social stigmas, such as sexuality or mental health.

Yet, when we carelessly call someone “crazy,” we are actually referring to the compilation of social and cultural conditioning that did the cracking. We are attempting to describe something that is far more complex than one word can possibly encapsulate. We’re basically saying, “I cannot articulate what’s wrong with them and I don’t really care to try.” In this type of glossing-over, we are exerting a fair amount of ignorance that continues to perpetuate the notion that women (or anyone) do not deserve the time or energy to be fully seen and understood.

According to the World Health Organization, the “overall rates of psychiatric disorders are almost identical for men and women,” but when it comes to the types of mental illness, there are significant gender differences. For example, “depression is not only the most common women's mental health problem but may be more persistent in women than men” (WHO). While we still have a long way to go in terms of our mental health care system, an emerging field of body-centered therapy called ‘somatic psychology’ is gaining traction in modern medicine. Somatic Psychology is an integrative approach to healing psychological and physical disorders with methods inspired by ancient traditions that explore the intersection of the body and mind, such as yoga and meditation. The theory is that deep emotional healing can occur when a person connects to their bodily sensations. Maybe those early doctors prescribing clinical masturbation therapy were actually onto something.

Instead of labeling someone as “crazy,” what would happen if we approached them with the same care and tolerance as an egg that was hatching? What if our healthcare practitioners paid closer attention to their patients? Perhaps women would be healthier if we stopped trying to fill in the “cracks,” and we acted with a real sense of compassion and the understanding that our body, mind, and emotions are intricately woven together.


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Maria Borghoff is an artist, tantra yoga teacher, and curator at GROOVE Studio. She shares the secrets of sexual energy and the practice of harmonious living by helping students connect to their body’s innate wisdom through movement, nutrition and art-making. Learn more at mariaborghoff.com.

Photo Credit: PAFE VIA GETTY IMAGES

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