Sacrificing Our Selves for Love

Sacrificing Our Selves for Love (cover, 1996)by Jane Wegscheider Hyman and Esther Rome, in cooperation with The Boston Women’s Health Book Collective. © Crossing Press: 1996

This book is about the health hazards that can arise out of the need for love and acceptance, a theme that emerged as we researched and wrote about health issues of particular interest to women. To our surprise, in health problems as diverse as low-calorie dieting and other eating disorders; complications from cosmetic surgery; sexually transmissible diseases; and abuse and battering by partners, we found that women risk their health to appease, be liked, find approval, or feel loved.

As this theme became apparent, we realized how strongly the idea of pleasing others at any cost has been a part of our own lives. We both have memories, some of them uncomfortably recent, of giving in to a friend’s suggestion, a partner’s wish, or a physician’s recommendation when our health and well-being would have required standing firm.

As we researched our topics, we saw that women’s willingness to risk their health in order to be agreeable to others is a result of three intertwined forces: the caring attitude that characterizes many women; centuries of subordination; and cultural traditions about how we should look, behave, and be treated.

Traditionally, an important part of women’s roles has been to accommodate, mediate, adapt, and soothe.1 These are generally positive qualities, and they appear to be more common among women than men. The psychologist Carol Gilligan has shown that women define themselves in the context of relationships, and define morality in terms of their responsibilities to others.2 Care and concern for others are part of our moral strength and form the basis on which we make many of life’s decisions. For example, women tend to primarily value achievement that is not attained at someone else’s expense. We are responsive to others’ needs, listen to them, and include their points of view in our judgments. We recognize the importance of attachments in the cycle of life and perceive aggression as fracturing human connections. We want to prevent isolation and aggression, which oppose and jeopardize relationships.

These positive qualities can get us into trouble when combined with characteristics bred by women’s subordination. As Jean Baker Miller writes:

Subordinates are… encouraged to develop personal psychological characteristics that are pleasing to the dominant group. These characteristics form a certain familiar cluster: submissiveness, passivity, docility, dependency, lack of initiative, inability to act, to decide, to think, and the like… If subordinates adopt these characteristics they are considered well adjusted…. Moreover, subordinates who accept the dominants’ conception of them as passive and malleable do not openly engage in conflict. Conflict… is forced underground.3

While young girls tend to speak freely, show anger, and accept differences as part of daily life, by the time we reach womanhood, we often negate our own thoughts and emotions to avoid conflict.4 If we deny our own perceptions so that we no longer believe in our own experiences, we become easy prey to cultural traditions that tell us how we should look, behave, and be treated. When these traditions do not value women and their health — and they rarely do — our desire to please can endanger us. Also, if we do not believe in our own perceptions, we do not listen to our own voices or respond to our feelings and thoughts. The thought: “I’m afraid of having sex with this man” can be quickly censored to become: “If I refuse him or suggest condoms, his feelings will be hurt.” “I’m starving!” becomes “I can’t eat much, I’m already too fat.” “This man violated me” becomes “I guess I led him on.” Self-silencing leads to a sacrifice of our physical and emotional health as we deny our own inner voices and talk ourselves out of fear, hunger, and anger.

The need for money and security may make us dependent on a partner or employer, increasing our willingness to accommodate a person or adapt to a situation at the price of our health and emotional well-being. Yet, even those of us who feel independent and are financially secure often have difficulty standing up for ourselves and acting in our own interests.

This book examines a number of health problems that result from the pressures on women to conform to harmful cultural traditions. Side quotes throughout the book are excerpts from interviews by the authors or others with women who have experienced such pressures. Part 1, “Trying to Look Different,” discusses the health problems that arise from the belief that our bodies are ornaments (while men’s bodies are instruments). For women, a major part of being “agreeable” entails pleasing others by our appearance. We become used to being scrutinized, and instead of seeing our bodies as belonging to us, we tend to see our bodies as objects belonging to whoever is looking at us or making love to us. We think: “Is he repelled by my calves?” or “Does she admire my breasts?” We learn to look at our bodies with others’ eyes and to listen to what other people and the media say about women’s bodies. Many of us mold our faces and bodies at great cost to our bank accounts and health. Some eat as little as victims of famine or do not allow their bodies to digest food. Some seek surgery to reduce thighs, enlarge breasts, or make other physical changes. Though we are appalled when we read about foot binding or painful tattooing, we often do not see that with starvation diets and cosmetic surgery we also risk our health, and sometimes our lives, to look acceptable.

Part II, “Living in Abusive Relationships,” discusses the great cost to women from the belief that men are supposed to “dish it out” (be strong and aggressive), and women are supposed to “take it” by enduring pain and maintaining relationships at any expense. Intimate abuse, both emotional and physical, partly arises from this splitting of roles. Since an abusive relationship is a caricature of the relationships we are encouraged to seek, women often do not recognize the beginning of abuse, mistaking coercive actions for the actions socially prescribed for men. Because we are encouraged to do the work of maintaining relationships, we may feel that a partner’s mistreatment of us is evidence that we are not doing our jobs well enough.

Part III, “Dying for Love,” discusses health problems that arise from the tradition that women should be receivers and men the initiators during heterosexual lovemaking. A “receiver” mentality can persist even when the partner is a woman. As subordinates in lovemaking, we are less likely to insist on protection against disease during sex, even though we are more likely than men to be infected from a single exposure to certain harmful organisms causing sexually transmissible diseases.

In all these areas — appearance, intimate relationships, and physical love — we are called upon to please by caring for others, putting their needs before our own, deferring to their wishes and opinions, and avoiding conflict, even when we are angry. Such consistent deference to others’ wishes reveals that we do not take our own needs as seriously as the needs of others. Some of us experience this by feeling guilty or anxious if we do insist on something or refuse to do something solely for our own health and benefit. Some fear conflict because we are afraid of others’ displeasure, disapproval, anger, and sometimes physical abuse.

However, with information and encouragement, we can counteract the social traditions that are detrimental to our health. We will be less likely to embark on a low-calorie diet when we know that starvation diets almost always leave us heavier, that body fat protects our fertility, and that the purges of bulimia can severely compromise our health. Fewer of us will choose cosmetic surgery and breast implants when we realize that an eyelid tuck might leave our eyes unable to close, that liposuction can leave puckers or kill skin, that our bodies never stop trying to reject implants, and that the silicone that leaks from implants may damage our immune system. We will be more likely to demand safer sex when we realize that we could suffer years of ill health, lose our fertility, or die from cancer, pelvic inflammatory disease, or AIDS as a result of unprotected sex. If we understand that abusive partners do not share our desire to achieve respectful intimacy, that they prefer to control us, we will not put energy into saving relationships that ruin our health and drain our spirit.

In our research, we identified a number of reasons why the information we need to save our health and lives is not always available. It suits some people to keep women ill informed about risks to their health. For example, drug companies that manufacture diet pills, dieting centers, and cosmetic surgeons profit from the risks women take, and they have actively challenged information that could help us make wise decisions. Better information for women would mean lower profits for them. Though significant progress has been made since the battered women’s movement became active in the 1970s, all parts of society have been slow to recognize the extent of the problem and to take responsibility for eliminating the abuse of women. Indeed, the prevalence of women’s abuse reflects the attitude that women exist for the convenience and pleasure of their partners, who are free to control them. And in the case of sexually transmissible diseases, women have traditionally been seen as reservoirs of disease, infecting men. More attention is given to how men are affected by some of these diseases, reflecting a subordination of women’s needs to those of men. Better information for women would require rethinking attitudes about sexual morality and the importance of women’s health. In all these areas, problems are frequently magnified for women of color and women who are poor. It is the authors’ hope that this book will show readers that some women’s health problems are embedded in unjust social arrangements.

Unfortunately, understanding health risks does not mean that we will safeguard our health. For this, we must learn to care for ourselves as well as for others, to take our own needs seriously, and to discourage our own self-sacrificial thoughts. Achieving a healthy self-assurance can be a difficult, lifelong process. Even women in the women’s health movement are still teaching themselves not to be the objects of sacrifice — for example, the authors know a woman who teaches teenage girls how to insist that their male partners wear condoms, yet does not always insist that her own lovers wear them. We also know a woman who publicly advocates women’s rights, then goes home to a partner who beats her. Nor have we achieved all the goals advocated here.

Yet, women can work toward better health, especially if we help each other. This book provides many of the tools. Each health problem is discussed along with the cultural traditions that encourage us to endanger ourselves and the larger context surrounding that choice. Other chapters tell what actions we can take to avoid or overcome these health problems. Self-esteem exercises are also included. The authors hope that this book will help empower you to protect your own physical and emotional health.

Jane Wegscheider Hyman
Esther R. Rome


Read additional excerpts from “Sacrificing Ourselves for Love”

Endnotes:

1. Jean Baker Miller, Toward a New Psychology of Women (Boston: Beacon Press, 1976), p.125.

2. Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982), pp.16-17.

3. Miller, Toward, pp.7, 127.

4. Lyn Mikel Brown and Carol Gilligan, Meeting at the Crossroads: Women’s Psychology and Girls’ Development (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), p.169.