Much like the wider society in which we live, the health world is biased. In the past, this was an overt bias, but today, it’s much more insidious. It’s hidden, and it’s sneaky. But it’s there. Researchers are mostly men. Doctors are mostly men. Pharmaceutical CEOs are mostly men. Legislators in charge of delineating acceptable health care and health practices are mostly men. And fight their biases as they might– while some try harder than others– they inevitably fail to account equally for feminine health. It’s understandable, and most of them I do not begrudge because of it.
This bias is also true in the paleo community for a number of reasons. For example, paleo has a reputation for being a cave man’s diet: it’s full of macho foods that are appropriate for men, but on the other hand are way too substantial, heavy, and masculine for a woman. Most people in the movement acknowledge that this is a silly notion, but the fact of the matter remains: when those of us who research and believe strongly about the paleo template are reaching out to the wider world, we want women to hear the message. Sexism in the paleo image makes it harder to convince women to take these ideas seriously.
Moreover, most of the paleo thinkers and writers are men. Of the “big shot” types, I’d say, and with a fair bit of accuracy I think, that perhaps 15 percent are women. Of the rest, the number goes up, but not by too much. Women are not at the forefront of this movement, for one reason or another I don’t quite understand.
Much as these men with voices might care about women, they still speak to a general audience. It’s very unlikely for them to intuitively and completely empathetically grasp women’s issues, or at least be all that fired up about them. They can care, certainly, and I’d point you to Chris Kresser’s work on pregnancy and the thyroid as a prime example. I know that they care. Yet he has shared publicly that the reason he is so well-read in those topics is his relationship to his wife. I say this not at all to decry his work, but to exalt it. And to demonstrate that inevitably our passions for certain things are conditioned by the context of our lives.
Meanwhile, the sad fact remains that while men and women both have specific physiological needs, it’s a fair bit easier for things to go wrong in a female body. Being equipped for pregnancy is no laughing matter, and the female body works very hard to protect the nutrients, organs, and hormones necessary to carry children. This is not something that men have to do. Which also explains partly why so much of the medical research on gender-neutral diseases such as cancer and heart disease has been performed on men. Studying women introduces too many new variables into the analysis because we have constantly fluctuating hormones. This makes the intricacies of the female body’s response less predictable. Men’s bodies are simpler than women’s, no questions asked.
So when people ask: Why women? Why is a woman’s body special? And why do you enjoy writing about it so much? I have three answers I really love: it’s complex, it’s sexy, and it’s strong.
The female body is complex. As I mentioned, the female body has tons of needs and specific intricacies that the male body lacks. Women vary first between each other, and they also vary secondly within their own selves, depending on the timing of their cycles, and also on the time of their lives. A woman’s body is vastly different between 20 and 30, and 30 and 40, and even greater up at 50, which is not something that can be easily said of men. Additionally, it varies greatly by whether or not the woman is menstruating, in the follicular phase, ovulating, in the luteal phase, or experiencing irregular menstrual cycles. The female body is very much constantly in flux.
Because the female body is in a constant state of flux, it is delicate. The pituitary gland produces a large number of hormones, and they must be present in the blood in proper balance in order for the body to function properly. Estrogen (in its several forms), testosterone (in its several forms), DHEA and DHEA-S, luteneizing hormone, follicle stimulating hormone, thyroid stimulating hormone, pregnenolone, progesterone, prolactin… these each work on each other. Their relative amounts are related, and dependent upon the activity of all of the others. Some of the means by which this happens are by trading off spots in Sex Hormone Binding Globulins, acting directly on the ovaries with different instructions, and acting as negative feedback signals with the hypothalamus.
Secondly, the female body is sexy. The endocrine system may have more parts than Europe has crises, but the end result of it all is hotness. When natural, it’s even more amazing. I’m not talking about some slim, sticky thing on the cover of Shape magazine. Instead, I am talking about a woman ripe with estrogen, so that her breasts are as big as her genetics will allow. I’m talking about a woman swimming in testosterone, so that she has a voracious sex drive. And I’m talking about a woman with the proper pituitary signalling, such that she ovulates and menstruates and is capable of carrying live organisms that will eventually be real human beings in her abdomen. This is a woman who is in tune with her body. She gives it what it needs. She isn’t a size zero– she’s a size hotness, with fat on her hips, and really I couldn’t be more proud of or more vociferous about natural health precisely for this reason. Women don’t need society. We don’t need norms. What we need is to love ourselves. What we need is empowerment. What we need is natural beauty and unashamed sexuality.
The female body is strong. The complex system of hormones can go off track. Relatively easily. For example, women experience higher rates of depression than men. We are threatened by higher rates of acne. And it is easier for us to become overweight. This is because hormones, in today’s environment, are easily disrupted. This makes women more susceptible to a whole host of problems. This is unfortunate. It’s why I feel so passionately about the issue, and it’s why there is such a vibrant need for women’s health advocacy.
However, once homeostasis is restored from being off-kilter, a woman’s body is liberated to direct its energy towards maintenance instead of repair. Maintenance really is pretty powerful. Think of the loads of women out there plugging away on diets of peanut butter and Ho-Hos without a care in the world. They may end up being derailed themselves some day (I do not wish this upon them), but the point remains that their bodies have been working properly so far, and are continuing to work properly, such that whatever damage they’re currently doing with the Ho-Ho’s is repaired quickly and easily enough to maintain relative health. If a woman’s endocrine function can be restored, she’ll end up in a pretty badass, stable state. Especially if she has restored her system with a natural, sustainable, healthful lifestyle. She might start out restoring her system with medications, which can help. But that isn’t a good a guarantee for the long run. What’s the most powerful assurance of long-term health is restoring a body’s balance with natural methods.
And then what’s going to stop her?