Last week I started reading a book suggested by my therapist called Eating In the Light of the Moon. She told me that it “might get past your rational side and speak to you from an emotional place”. Well it certainly didn’t speak to me from any rational place, but it also was a book that perpetuated some horrible gendered stereotypes, offended logic and reason, and ignored some basic facts. I’d like to use some of the things that came up in this book to illustrate ways that therapists can pull from the same sorts of places as alternative medicine and do just as much damage to our psyches as alternative medicine can do to our bodies.
The first problem that I saw in this book, which was about eating disorders, was that it addressed itself exclusively to women. It suggested that because of their femininity, women had a particular relationship to food and their bodies that was different from that of men. It also suggested that femininity has been societally oppressed, and that women internalize this, causing eating disorders. This is a problematic place to start. First, it erases the fact that body issues and struggles happen to all people. Second, it reinforces a gender binary, and the idea that certain traits are inherent to one side of the binary or the other (it repeatedly suggested that intuition is feminine and rationality is masculine). Finally, it makes it sound as if all women have a similar experience, if not the exact same experience that leads to an eating disorder: they have repressed their inner feminine, they are out of balance, and they have bought into the societal emphasis on rationality. This positing of a universal female experience is problematic, because it reifies the differences between genders, ignores and silences any women whose experiences are outside of this norm, and because it does not allow for identifications other than male and female.
An additional problem with this book is that it suggested intuition and emotion as important sources of information and guidance, and said that society today gives too much importance to the rational. As a skeptic I find this hard to swallow. Rarely is it wrong to think rationally. The book suggests that we need to allow ourselves to feel things in order to come to a healthy understanding of our emotions and to deal with them in a healthy manner. However even this suggestion is rational and promotes a rational approach to emotions: thinking rationally is not inherently contrary to feeling emotions or allowing our emotions to run their course. It simply means that we do not have to act out those emotions and that we allow our reason to guide us when we are acting. The suggestion that we should begin to ignore our reason because society has quashed our feminine natures is dangerous, and can lead to behaviors that have no reasonable motivation. There are problems with the fact that emotions are generally dismissed in our society today, however this is not a strictly female problem, and it should not be combatted by suggesting that rationality should also be dismissed. Rationality tells us that our emotions are often telling us something, that they communicate something about a situation to us, and that if we try to understand them (rationally), we can come to a healthier, stronger place.
Another area that this book is problematic is one that often comes up when it comes to women’s health and emotions. This is menstrual cycles. The book suggests that because women have menstrual cycles, they are particularly attuned to nature, intuition, emotions, and the moon (or the hidden). Most problematic is that none of these claims have any factual basis, and that promoting a misguided understanding of periods will not help anyone. However in addition, the author promotes the idea that in order to be a whole and healthy woman, we have to embrace our periods and the special knowledge they give us. I have heard this argument from other feminists, and it rings problematic to me. Just as not all women have to enjoy having breasts, or love that they hit menopause, not all women have to enjoy their menstrual cycles. No woman should feel ashamed of what her body does, or feel that she is dirty or wrong due to a societal understanding of menstruation, however no woman should feel obligated to love an aspect of her body that is difficult, painful, and often annoying simply because it symbolizes her femininity. This once again tells women that there is one way of being female, or that they have to whole-heartedly embrace all “feminine” things and fit into a particular gender role in order to be acceptable. It creates a new kind of shame towards those who don’t enjoy their periods. Finally, it could ask women to find benefits in their menstrual cycles that may not be there. While periods do result in different hormone levels that can change how emotional a person is, there is no evidence that women are more intuitive while on their periods, and telling a women that she should be gives her the expectation of a superpower that may never arise.
Finally, there is the matter of goddess heritage. This is something that many therapists and others who work with emotional health have latched on to recently because it allows women to embrace their femininity and power. However there are problems with the concept of embracing a mother goddess. First, the idea that all societies began with goddess worship is factually false. Most early religions involved both female and male gods, and there are no known civilizations that were truly matriarchal. Second, this promotes a brand of woo that tells women they cannot really understand their role as women, but that it is special, sacred, and inherently different from that of men. It tells women that there are certain things they should identify with (like the yang in yin/yang), and that they have a knowledge different from men’s. It ignores the fact that the majority of male and female brains are the same, that we can respect ourselves in similar ways, and that both men and women can come to respect the emotional, intuitive sides of themselves while also nurturing their rational sides.
In many women’s groups and programs for women’s mental health, I have seen a trend towards promoting Goddess religions,femininity, intuition and emotionality. While emotions are an important piece of our lives, and one that we must understand, accept and listen to, that does not mean that women’s mental lives are inherently different from those of men, or that women can only be healthy beings by ignoring facts and rationality. In a previous post, I suggested that skeptics can be a strong voice for understanding mental illness, and promoting research towards solutions. Here is one of the first places we can take up our cause. Women’s mental health deserves the same amount of rigor and respect as men’s, and should not be dominated by voices of woo and superstition. Crystal healing will not solve problems of depression, abuse, eating disorders, or bipolar disorder. A healthy balance between emotions and rationality can be promoted by skeptics as something good for both men and women. It is also something that is supported by scientific studies on mental health, and has the backing of facts.