When you hear the words “Women’s Health”, what do you think about?

Chances are, you think about what you are conditioned to think of as women’s health issues: diseases affecting women only (or women disproportionately) and life changes affecting women only (or women disproportionately).

Thus, women’s health means stuff to do with menstruation, fertility, pregnancy and childbirth, and menopause. It means cancers and other diseases affecting the breasts, uterus, ovaries and other girly bits. It means migraines and headaches, and it means eating disorders and weight problems, and it might even mean STDs.

(Whatever “Women’s Health” may mean to you, it does not seem to mean a lot to the NHS. On the NHS Direct website, the section on Women’s Health is almost laughable. There are a few “commonly asked questions” relating to sex and fertility, menstruation and motherhood, one on herceptin, the breast cancer drug, and then – bear in mind that there are only 19 questions listed altogether – three questions on “beauty”! How do I go about getting a breast enlargement? How can I sizzle with style on a budget? How can I get my legs looking lovely? I may have some scathing things to say about all this in future posts, and about the fact that I could not find almost no other NHS information online specifically aimed at women.)

I do wonder whether this conception of women’s health issues as being more or less exclusively about “women-only” issues is itself harmful. Heart disease, for example, is a major killer of women in this country, but it does not affect the girly bits so it is not generally the first thing that springs to mind when thinking of women’s health problems.

Does this focus on women-only health issues prevent us from thinking hard enough about wider health issues that affect both women and men Does it lead to women being marginalised, or left out of consideration entirely, in relation to those wider health problems? Maybe we are better off thinking of Health issues for women rather than Women’s health issues so that we remember that women amount to more than just their sex-specific organs and conditions.

Unlike the NHS websites, the BBC does at least have a significant amount of space devoted to Women’s Health, albeit that the content is largely restricted I think by the same limited view of what counts as a health issue for women.

So in the BBC’s section on women’s health, we find a selection of the “Health Issues” (i.e. “The most common illnesses and conditions affecting women”) in which women are expected to be most interested: Anaemia; Breast cancer; Cervical cancer; Ovarian cancer; Vulval cancer; Womb cancer; Endometriosis; Fibroids; Heart disease; Osteoporosis; PCOS; Alcohol; Smoking; Cervical smear test. The only Health Issues mentioned by the BBC which are not exclusively or disproportionately “female problems” are heart disease, alcohol and smoking. (Note – there are other sections in the Women’s Health area dealing exclusively with reproductive and sexual health!)

What in fact are the most common causes of female deaths in this country? What are the most common cancers suffered by women? What are the most common illnesses suffered by women? Does this picture really reflect the BBC’s selection of women’s 14 top “health issues”? Are we really restricted even in illness to specifically “female” problems?

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