Community highlights

The Conversation receives a lot of comments each day and you can’t read everything. That’s why we occasionally end the week with a selection of community highlights: comments we enjoyed or thought interesting. Read on for six comments or discussions I thought worth highlighting, including from our series on Women’s hidden health conditions and our coverage on gravitational waves.

Vulvas, periods and leaks: women need the right words to seek help for conditions ‘down there

Sara Harris discussed the reasons people can struggle to discuss female reproductive organs:

Great points raised in this article. Correct wording and education is important, I completely agree. What I feel is even more important, is to understand why women’s reproductive organs are challenging for people to say or talk about in the first place. As you touched on, there is a long held ideas and views of women that runs very deep in the veins of society, that says we are shameful, that periods are dirty and that vulvas and vaginas are not to be spoken about. This is not something that can change overnight and I believe requires quite a large shift in the way we as women understand and connect with ourselves and our bodies, so we begin to appreciate that we are so much more than mere function. I published a workbook for young girls called ‘My Period Diary’ for this very reason, to support and generate open conversation about the very parts of our body that make us women and the undeniable cycles that we move through in life. Great conversation to be having, thank you ladies.

Women aren’t responsible for endometriosis, nor should they be expected to cure themselves

Helen King and the article’s author Kate Seear discussed what endometriosis “is” and evidence for its diagnosis throughout time.

Helen King:

It’s always good to see endometriosis, a condition that’s still so poorly understood, in the spotlight. But I’d be cautious about taking the line that we can retrospectively diagnose it in ancient medical texts written with so many different assumptions about how the body worked (on which maybe see my article). One of the articles you’ve cited uses my own work to support the idea that hysteria was an Ancient Greek medical diagnosis. That’s not what I said at all. I was interested in how, once hysteria emerged as a label and a diagnosis, it was projected back on to the past. Yes, ‘hystera’ is a Greek word for womb, and yes, ‘hysterike pnix’ (suffocation from the womb) is an ancient diagnosis, but ancient medicine believed in actual physical movement of the womb around the body with different symptoms according to where it ended up - never one overarching disease of women, let alone one called ‘hysteria’. And the symptoms of ‘hysterike pnix’ were so wide ranging (like the womb itself was believed to be!) that you could fit pretty well any condition recognized today under the umbrella!

Kate Seear:

Hi Helen,

Thanks very much for your comments. We are on the same page here. I don’t agree with the analysis undertaken by Nezhat et al, nor do I think that we can retrospectively diagnose hysteria based on what we think we know about endo now, nor what we think we know about hysteria then (if that makes sense). It’s well and truly beyond the scope of a short article like this for me to go into the reasons for that, but let’s just say that I think that we have some similar thoughts on all of this.

Also, the authors of that paper (the one that you’ve pointed out inappropriately/inaccurately cites your work) make some very bold claims (including that maybe a billion women have gone undiagnosed in the past!). These claims are, as you say, problematic for many reasons.

My aim here is to present their claims without comment. I’m motivated simply to make the point that, there are a range of very diverse views about what endo “is”, how long it has existed and so on. As you might know, claims about the “age” of the disease play an important role in shaping theories about it. For example, those who say it is a relatively new disease (i.e. “discovered” by von Rokitansky only in 1860) often claim that by 1920 there were only about 20 “reports” in the literature and thus, only 20 known cases. Now that something like 100-200million women are believed to have endo (and you can add to or detract from that figure depending on your view!) some claim that this represents a “spike”, evidence of a “modern epidemic” and more. And so they are minded to consider whether there is anything about “the modern” that might explain these apparent developments.

This is an important factor in the development of certain theories, and is often used to underpin/bolster the claim that women’s changing childberaing practices are implicated. It’s also a factor in environmental theories that suggest “modernity itself” is toxic. I have written about these connections extensively elsewhere, including in my book on endometriosis, and would be happy to chat further if you are interested - just shoot me an email.

Best, Kate

Helen King

As i suspected, Kate, we are indeed on the same page - and I totally get your point about our assumptions re historical evidence affecting/being affected by our ideas as to whether endometriosis is the result of women delaying childbearing, or a toxic environment, etc. There’s a lot more in the history of medicine that could be brought in here - whether we want to present it as a connected narrative which stresses our shared humanity across time, or as a clear disjuncture between ‘the dodgy past’ and ‘the enlightened present’. Really interesting topic, thanks!

A shift in social attitudes can make menopause a positive experience

Sue Dunkerley posited that any social change around menopause needs to include the way some women view it.

Sue Dunkerley:

We also need to deal with the fact that women themselves use menopause as an insult - I used to be told by a woman co-worker that didn’t like me that I “must be going through menopause” when I was barely age 30, or told that “you are older than me so you’ll be menopausal first” by a younger woman.

I find it’s women who are usually horrible to other women about these matters, not men. We need to deal with our own attitudes towards menopause and ageing.

Carolyn Ee:

You’re right Sue, attitudes in both genders must change. Men particularly find the menopause baffling though and “don’t want to go there”. I think there should be a conversation to bring it out into the open - it should not be a mystery!

Gravitational waves discovered: top scientists respond

Chris Saitta and article authors Tara Murphy and David Parkinson discussed the implications of gravitational wave’s discovery on Einstein’s famous formula.

Chris Saitta:

So in other words Einstein’s formula: E=MC2 is incorrect or largely incomplete at best?

Tara Murphy:

What’s been observed by LIGO is two black holes spiralling in towards each other and eventually colliding. When they colliding, forming a single black hole, some fraction of their mass is converted to energy, following Einstein’s formula E=mc2. This energy is what is emitted as gravitational waves.

E=mc2 is one part of the special and general theories of relativity.

Chris Saitta:

Gravitational force isn’t factored into E=MC2. Therefore the presumption being that gravity doesn’t exist in space which would be incorrect. E=MC2 might be partially correct in a closed system where gravity isn’t present, however this certainly isn’t the case. I am not trying to discredit Einstein, if anything his formula is either largely incomplete to be applied to an open system or it is only partially correct in a closed system. Either way the formula is underdeveloped and incomplete as it stands.

David Parkinson:

I think it is a mistake to consider E=mc2 as incomplete. It is a consequence of Einstein’s theory that certain quantities (such as the speed of light) should remain invariant under a change of frame or coordinate system. In nuclear reactions, mass can be converted into electromagnetic radiation - the Sun for example converts about 4 million tonnes of mass into radiation every second through nuclear fusion. But this mass hasn’t vanished, it exists in the energy of photons that have been created. Similarly, as Tara explained, the mass deficit of the resulting Black Hole is down to the fact that some of that mass has been lost to the energy of the gravitational waves.

Gravitational waves discovered: the universe has spoken

Craig Savage pointed out that the discovery of gravitational waves was about more than waves.

Craig Savage:

Congratulations to you and to all those in Australia who have helped make this discovery. I really hope that the Nobel prize is awarded to the LIGO Collaboration so that you can all share in it.

Thanks also for emphasising that it is our first observation of a black hole event horizon. For a (former) black hole agnostic like me, this is the profoundly new thing. From my perspective, you guys were always going to detect gravitational waves from something. But to see a boundary to the universe vibrating - that’s mind blowing.

Explainer: Surrealism

Finally, Susan Hawthorne shared some oft-forgotten women surrealist artists (and noted the roots of the art form):

And the most interesting surrealist work is not mentioned here, the women: Tanning, Carrington, Fini, Varo, Kahlo just to name a few. A pity because they do not descend into violence in their work, but rather retain the idea of perceptual difference. Also, a great deal of early 20th century art drew on images from Africa, Asia and Latin America. These cultural artefacts affected their vision also, so it’s important to recognise this appropriative move. It’s not as original as it’s made out to be.

Read a comment you thought interesting? Let me know during the week. You can leave a comment below or send me an email.