June 18, 2001 -- In 1875, Mrs. Lydia E. Pinkham of Lynn, Mass.,
began selling her famous Vegetable Compound, which she advertised as "a
positive cure for all these Painful Complaints and Weaknesses so common to our
best female population. It will cure entirely all Ovarian troubles,
Inflammation and Ulceration, Falling and Displacements, and any consequent
Spinal Weakness, and is particularly adapted to the Change of Life."
In 2001, drugmaker Eli Lilly and Co. began selling a product
called Sarafem, also intended to treat a condition specific to women. According
to the manufacturer's package insert, Sarafem is indicated for the treatment of
premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), a newly proposed mental disorder not
yet officially accepted by the American Psychiatric Association but listed in
the appendix of that group's diagnostic manual.
By Jessie Knadler
You didn't see it coming. You didn't even feel it land — until a split second
later when you suddenly realize you've had the wind knocked out of you. What
just hit you? Someone's nasty comment, and it's cut you to the core.
Sometimes a faultfinder disguises her disapproval as a quasi-compliment:
"I would have never had the courage to talk to my boss the way you
did." Other times, a jab takes the form of a cautionary tale: "You're
going on a cruise? I still get nightmares...
No doubt part of what made Lydia Pinkham's miracle cure so
successful was that it consisted of a blend of herbs in a 20% mixture of
alcohol, a common 19th-century approach to taking care of a variety of ills.
Lilly's Sarafem, on the other hand, is completely new millennium in approach.
For women struggling with PMDD, this repackaged, relabeled version of the
antidepressantfluoxetine hydrochloride -- better known to millions by the
brand name Prozac -- "helps you be more like the woman you are, every day
of the month, even during your most difficult days," according to the
company's web site.
Although separated by more than a century, the tonics promoted
by both Mrs. Pinkham and by Eli Lilly are emblematic of what is to many people
an ancient but troubling tradition in medicine: The tendency to categorize the
normal bodily functions of women as "diseases" or "disorders"
that need to be treated.
"From the time you're a preteen, from your very first
inklings of hormonal rhythms all the way to the end of life, you're given the
message that your body doesn't work or that it's not OK," says Madeline
Behrendt, DC, in an interview with WebMD.
Behrendt, a chiropractor in private practice in Boise, Idaho,
is also vice chairwoman of the Council on Women's Health of the World
Chiropractic Alliance. In that capacity, she recently spoke on the issue at the
United Nations Women's Conference, where, she says, she found that people all
over the world appear to share her concerns.
"Over the past year there have been so many shifts: Now
girls are being given hormonal drugs because so many of them are starting
puberty early. Another big topic is menstrual suppression, where they're saying
that menstruation is not normal -- it's a nuisance, it's unnatural, it's
unhealthy. When I was growing up, if you didn't have your cycle that was called
amenorrhea and that was a problem. Then it goes into the reproductive
years where there are birth control pills, or PMDD, or a new specialty created
last year called female sexual dysfunction," she says.