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Mental and Physical Connection in Women, Case Study Example

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Case Study

There are many stereotypical beliefs surrounding the female gender. Many are formulated from past beliefs from earlier centuries which have followed women throughout the decades. Some of these stereotypical concepts are rooted in the basis of women being held into certain roles without support or understanding. During the 19th century women had to hold certain roles, attitudes, and beliefs or they were deemed to be suffering from a nervous breakdown. Any nonconformity to the stereotypical roles for women would land them into being seen as nervous, panicky, and inappropriate.

Author Charlotte Perkins wrote Yellow Wallpaper, a short story describing a woman who is at a summer home with her husband. As the story progresses it details the feminist undertones of what it is really like to live in this century.  It parallels society’s trite labeling of gender appropriateness. The character has a creative sense but is forced to deny and hide this. Creating a void in her life and she becomes labeled as ‘nervous’ and is restricted from enjoying any activities.  She eventually finds herself in a situation of hallucinating things are in the wallpaper and that she, herself, is a part of that wallpaper.

She slowly goes insane due to lack of attention and support from her husband, by his refusal to listen and take her seriously. “He has no patience with faith, an intense sense of superstition, and he scoffs openly at any talk of things not to be felt and seen and put down in figures” (Perkins, 1997, p. 63). This story is a depiction of the perception of women in the 19th century.  She is held captive mentally and physically; beginning to see patterns in the wallpaper on the walls of the room she is restricted to remain. As she loses control of her mental capacities she sees herself as a part of the wallpaper, hopefully and forever lost within the patterns. This is descriptive of how women felt during this time period and being forbidden to do things they wish to engage in such as creativity and expressions.

Physical and mental health can be directly related to each other. The association between mental illness and poor physical health has been documented by research in several countries; confirming the connection (Phelan, Stradins, & Morrison, 2001). Women living in the era of being told how to behave, dress, talk, and basically live, produced many unhappy females. Women began to show mental instability from being out of touch with reality.  Depression became a common occurrence which overwhelmed a large portion of women.

The concept of the ‘wondering womb’ developed as a madness which was associated with menstruation, pregnancy, and menopause (Frick, 2002). The idea was conceived that this was the problem causing women to be unhappy and depressed. The concept followed that a woman’s womb would literally wonder around in her body and would rob her of all energy, thought and reasoning.  This was considered the cause behind the diagnosis of madness and instability. The very fact that a normal and natural process associated with a woman’s body being seen as abnormal and creating insanity was enough to derail women from understanding reality versus faulty thought processes.

The term ‘hysteria’ became the general association for women with mental illness.  Bed rest, seclusion, bland foods, and refraining from mental activities such as reading, was considered the remedies for this problem. They were to receive daily massages and were put into sensory deprivation to keep them quiet and hopefully ‘cure’ them of the madness. These treatments are comparable to solitary confinement and could drive a woman to further insanity (Frick, 2002).

In the opening of Yellow Wallpaper, the main character has been diagnosed with ‘hysteria’ and is on complete bed rest. Although she is sure something else is wrong, her husband, a doctor, will not allow her to express her own personal thoughts. This story validates the history of that era keeping women confined which destroys physical health and leads to an unstable mental condition. Losing contact with other human beings is proven to be detrimental to mental and physical health.

During this era men worked to earn a living while the women stayed home and took care of the house and the family as a unit. At times women were seen for their sole purpose of serving their husbands. They were considered by nature to be patience, obedient, loving and possess unlimited amounts of generosity. According to Elaine Fortin (2010) the characteristics of the female mind include tenderness and simplicity which was more conducive to the home life and more amiable than the males who dealt with the corrupt and complex world. This attitude further alienated women from social interaction and personal happiness.

Women were not allowed to speak freely and faced the challenges of dealing with repression of emotions and thoughts. They were made to feel thinking and having desires was forbidden or useless. The Yellow Wallpaper demonstrates this as the narrator states “you see, he does not believe I am sick? And what can one do? If a physician of high standing, and one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression-a slight hysterical tendency-what is one to do?” (Gilman, p. 64). A large population of women during this time period suffered from depression, anxiety, nervousness and eating disorders.

Emerging scholarships and research on the psychology of women have brought the lifespan of issues into a sharper focus with surveys of both clinical and community samples revealing a high proportion of individuals with signs of depression, anxiety, panic and eating disorders with disabling fears and phobias in women” (Worell, 2001). The female gender has the desire to succeed and to follow a purpose in life. Male domination and societal concepts of women as a fragile creature made this almost impossible until time progressed and changes began with women speaking out for their rights.

Women were considered synonymous with descriptions as weak, pure, dependent and irrational; completely opposite from males. If a female were to show any other opinion or point of view on this matter, she would be considered foolish. “Really dear, you are better! Better in body perhaps-I began, and stopped short, for he sat up straight and looked at me with such a stern, reproachful look that I could not say another word” (Gilman, p. 71). This demonstrates the intense belief that the man is wiser, stronger and consistently correct in assessments and actions. “I beg you, for my sake and for our child’s sake, as well as for your own, that you will never for one instant let that idea enter your mind! It is a false and foolish fancy” (Gilman, p. 71).

It was common belief that women just simply did not know what was best for her; only a male could determine that.  Individual transformation and social justice on the behalf of women and their rights to a high quality life is the change that came about through feminism to revolutionize the way society approach women and gender roles (Yoder, 1999). To go from the mindset of not being about to convey thoughts and beliefs due to being labeled as ‘crazy’ to being freed to express themselves is a radical difference. Women were born and raised to be inside workers, married to be inside workers, only to die being an inside worker. The female population felt trapped, alone, thoughtless with the worst feeling of having no purpose. They did as they were told because they had no grounds to stand up for themselves even if they wanted to speak out loud.

The trend in the belief of feminine inferiority was halted as women effectively managed organizations not directly related to the family such as church meetings (Fortin, 2010). Since piety was a strong part of the 19th century female, this was one of the first stepping stones to getting out of the house and forming friendships. Since women were felt to be more suited to both piety and charity, this allowed at least one avenue for using their minds and talents. Although this was still thought to be of lesser importance and the males still ruled the household and dictated what was to be done.

This basic attitude can be seen in the way adults treat children; in any century. People are more likely to comment on a little girl as ‘cute’ or ‘sweet’ whereas a little boy will be told how ‘strong’ or ‘smart’ he is.  Parents typically treat them differently; encouraging boys to be rough and girls to be care giving. Children monitor their parent’s actions, beliefs and act as a role model for children. In the 19th century this was also the case and so women naturally fell into the submissive role while men learned to dominate.

In Yellow Wallpaper the narrator comments

“Sometimes I fancy that in my condition if I had less opposition and more society and stimulus-but John says that worst thing I can do is talk about my condition, and I confess it always makes me feel bad-so I will let it alone and talk about the house” (Gilman, 1892, p. 10).

The character has given up on having her own thoughts and emotions and begins to believe her husband and focuses on the house instead trying to understand why she feels the way she does, or even acknowledge she feels at all. She has lived her life being forced by society and the gender differences to ignore her individuality and do what is expected of her.  She has been told she has a mental instability so this becomes her reality. The author clearly demonstrates this dominance and submission by the characters by giving the husband, John, a name but the main character/narrator is never given a name.

Feminism is literally the belief that all humans, men and women, have the same rights to include political and social; with men and women having the same opportunities and abilities to make personal choices. While the 19th century attitudes may have been created by men thinking they were helping women, protecting them and giving them what they wanted, the opposite has proven to be the case with the 20th century ushering in the feminist movement and radical changes in gender role standards and protocols.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman lived during the late 19th century and was herself opposed by rejections of her writings for both her gender and subject matters. There are many metaphors and allegories which are representative of the concept she is trying to portray. The wallpaper is the main fascination of the narrator she sees it as ugly and as she is restricted to the room it becomes her only pastime and slowly is her demise. Gilman is challenging concepts regarding women and their role in society. Her work during this time period is an early attempt to change the predetermined male and female roles. She is demonstrating the link between mental and physical illness and how the delicate balance between the two can create the destruction of the mind.

Works Cited

Fortin, Elaine. Early Nineteenth Center Attitudes Toward Women and Their Roles.” Teach US History.org. Web. Retrieved March 29, 2010 from

Frick, Katie L. “Women’s Mental Illness: A Response to Oppression.” 2002.  Web. Retrieved March 29, 2010 from http://www.cwrl.utexas.edu/~ulrich/femhist/madness.shtml#hysteria

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. Yellow Wallpaper. 1892, The New England Magazine. Reprinted 1997, Dover Publications, United States.

Phelan, Michael, Stradins, Linda, and Morrison, Sue. Physical Health of People with Severe Mental Illness. BMJ February 24, 2001; 322: 443-444.  Retrieved April 14, 2010 from http://www.bmj.com/cgi/content/full/322/7284/443

Worell, Judith. Encyclopedia of Women and Gender: Sex Similarities and Differences and the Impact of Society and Gender. Academic Press, Volume 1, 27 ed., September 2001. Web. Retrieved March 29, 2010 from http://books.google.com/books?id=O4JIakol5RwC&printsec=frontcover&dq=judith+worell+encyclopedia+of+women&source=bl&ots=5s98-XvF7e&sig=yRyOALRk4lL6oEjzTp4wxWKI8co&hl=en&ei=TWDHS4bMCpC09gTJ5bSPCw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CAkQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q&f=false

Yoder, Janice D. “Women and Gender: Transforming Psychology.” Upper Saddle River, N.J., Prentice Hall, 1999.  Print.

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