There’s nothing new about the age-old propaganda that aims to scare women out of our bodies. Everywhere, we are bombarded with messages insisting that our bodies are too frail, too unreliable, and too prone to too many illnesses for us to indulge in the risk of actually enjoying being in them.

Historically, we have been discouraged from seeking an education, or from being athletic, for risk of doing damage to our delicate “female systems.” We have long been forced into clothing that restricted our ability to move, to sit, to breathe.

Here in the health-obsessed 21st century, with ever more sophisticated science, and ever more manipulated statistics, the campaign to convince us to be paranoid about our health appears more and more like these tired campaigns of old. We’re inundated with negative statistics about all the diseases that are out there, just waiting for their chance to jump in and invade our every cell. Heart disease, breast cancer, osteoporosis and hormonal imbalances seem to be unavoidable. Nearly every “health report” featured on the nightly news is about some nasty affliction women especially need to beware of.

Men, on the other hand, never have any health problems. Or so we are supposed to think. Prostate cancer is becoming more and more common, but men are often told, “Something else will kill you before this does.” If a woman should get even a hint of any kind of “female” cancer, the whole organ is ripped out, usually with any related organs. The surgeon will often counsel female patients that he (it’s so often a man) will just take a look around once he’s in there, and he’ll leave as much as he can, but he might as well take it all out now to avoid trouble later on. The double standard is not limited to cancers of reproductive organs. Men, like women, also get liver cancer, lung cancer, pancreatic cancer, etc. Yet the popular media creates the impression that women have a virtual monopoly on the c-word.

Women also apparently have a monopoly on hormone imbalances which, we are told, must be controlled lest our “imbalances” control us. Let’s be clear: men suffer, too, from a wide range of hormone-related problems, but you’d almost have to conduct your own investigation to find that out. The media rarely mentions them, and then only to explain how lowered testosterone levels compromise men’s sexual or athletic performance. Yet women are virtually defined by our “hormone imbalances.” After all, what comes to mind when you hear the h-word? And the problems attributed to female hormones are not merely athletic and sexual. Some would have us believe that our “hormone imbalances” put our very lives and characters at stake–from menstruation on.

Women’s special claim on disease doesn’t stop there: it also extends to heart disease. A giant billboard on Seattle’s Rainier Avenue trumpets in 5-foot high letters, “Heart disease: #1 killer of women,” and gives a website address. Don’t men die of heart disease too? Why has no one put up a billboard on Rainier Avenue reminding them of that? Why are we constantly force-fed images of women on the verge of death, while men are shown driving around in pick-ups, drinking beer, playing football, and making masses of money by trading stock over their cell phones? If it’s already common knowledge that men die younger than women do, why the idea of women as the sicker sex? Why do the media focus exclusively on how sick women are, or soon will be?

Not only are women apparently much more likely to get sick and die, but we also endure an endless barrage of messages that assure us we can’t possibly survive the natural changes our bodies go through without medicating ourselves. I recently saw a TV ad for Sarafem, a drug (a disguised Prozac, to be exact) which promises to relieve the symptoms, not of PMS (bloating, mood swings, irritability), but of an all-new illness: Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder, of which the symptoms are–surprise!–bloating, mood swings and irritability. Same symptoms, now upgraded from a “syndrome” (“a group of disease symptoms,” per Webster’s) to a “disorder” (“a disease, ailment,” c.f.). You don’t just feel bad anymore: now you’re really sick. You have a disease. And you thought menstruation was a natural occurrence! Better take Sarafem–for the whole week, the ad urges, before your period actually begins.

Perhaps you’re not yet persuaded that the patriarchy is far more interested in convincing women that female chemical fluctuations are a) bad, and b) must be drugged, while male blood chemistry is left to its own sinister devices. Please consider this: Clinical Pearls News (“A Health Letter on Current Research in NUTRITION and INTEGRATIVE MEDICINE”), in its November 2000 issue, cites a study that “showed, especially in men, that hostility and anger were related to homocysteine levels, and that stress may elevate homocysteine levels.” N-acetylcysteine given intravenously” resulted in a significant reduction in homocysteine levels.” So why aren’t products containing n-acetylcysteine being aggressively marketed to men to control their hostility and anger? Especially since male hostility and anger cause far more damage to society than do female bloating, mood swings and irritability.

Even more shocking than the promotion of Sarafem–or another new ad for Prozac (“Welcome back,” says the voice-over in this commercial, as various women emerge from their darkened rooms onto sunlit balconies)–is the new March of Dimes TV ad, which shows a handful of young women, in tight clothes, midsections revealed, gyrating

to a hip hop beat. Around one side of their waists, a clock is wrapped, and they stop their hip-grinding periodically to wag a finger at the camera and say, “Not yet!”

At first I thought it was an ad for birth control. But then the female voice-over explains that since “you” (any woman, presumably) don’t know exactly when you might want to get pregnant, you need to start taking folic acid NOW, EVERY DAY just in case! Men, last time I checked, play their own significant role in making babies, but the March of Dimes isn’t urging them to prepare their bodies to make stronger, healthier sperm, starting now, just in case. Where are the ads beseeching men to quit smoking, to eat a healthier diet, to switch from briefs to boxers to get their sperm count up, since they don’t know when they might want to get a woman pregnant? Better change NOW, and wear those boxers EVERY DAY, just in case!

The “alternative” health world is no better than the mainstream. The supplements aisle of my local food co-op has separate sections for “Men’s Products” and “Women’s Products.” Offered for men: one for “peak performance;” one for “vigor and stamina;” nine prostate formulas; and two Yohimbe products (benefits not specified on labels). That’s a total of thirteen products. Nine of these products are specifically targeted to a veritable illness that strikes men — prostate problems that may lead to cancer. And in the “Women’s Products” section? No fewer than sixty-two products–almost five times the number offered to men. There are ten products related to yeast imbalance; three products trumpeting DHEA content; seven for urinary problems; eleven for PMS and menstrual problems; twenty for menopause; five providing isoflavones; and six different prenatal vitamins.

These numbers don’t include products specified “For Women” in other sections of the supplements aisle. For example, there is “Women’s Heart System” in the “Heart/Blood/Cholesterol Products” section. At what point do these products cross the line from offering support when we could use some, to cultivating fear and distrust of our bodies’ natural processes?

And why, oh why, is it always women who are targeted? Men also suffer from insomnia, aging, urinary problems, hormonal and chemical imbalances, undernutrition and vitamin deficiency and cholesterol problems. So why are there no products and attendant media campaigns convincing them to fear and distrust their bodies? We know why. One: the patriarchy is not interested in controlling men’s minds, bodies, emotions and self-images. Two: there’s no money in it, since men notoriously ignore threats to their physical, emotional and psychological health throughout their lives. So what would be the point?

The patriarchy firmly believes that it’s much easier to convince women we are weak than it would be to convince men that they are. We must not let them. Women are strong, vital, vibrant and complex, and our bodies are made to withstand tremendous changes. The fact of our strength is a huge threat to men: beware their attempts to undermine it. Menstruation, pregnancy, breastfeeding, and menopause are not states of illness. They are further proof of our bodies’ tremendous creative potential.

Life will absolutely kill you: no one gets out alive. The question is, how do we choose to move through it? Do we really need to drug ourselves every day of our lives from the moment we start bleeding until the day we die? Who stands most to gain if we do? Methinks it is not we women.

Sue’s sidebar: PMS Is Dead; Long Live MVD!

For more on the Sarafem drug and the new “Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder,” read this article in the Village Voice