This appeared in Health magazine’s September 2008 issue.
From epidurals (ahh!) to vagina lifts (boo!), here’s Health magazine’s list of the famous highs and lows in the last 20 years of female wellness.
1. The (modern) tampon is invented
Look, we’re not trying to knock the ancient Egyptians, who used softened papyrus to stem the monthly menstrual flood. (That definitely beats the lint wrapped around a piece of wood that the ancient Greeks favored.) But if Earle Haas, who devised the modern tampon in 1929, were alive today, we’d all wear white pants in his honor. Haas adapted a cotton surgical plug (“plug” translates to “tampon” in French) with two concentric cardboard tubes for easy insertion; he filed for the first patent for his “catamenial [menstrual] device” in 1931. Haas, a Denver osteopath, dubbed his new invention Tampax.
2. The Pap smear makes its debut
The next time your gynecologist tells you to “just relax” as she pokes at your cervix with a cotton swab, lie back and think of George Papanicolaou, the guy behind the roughly 75 percent drop in mortality rates from cervical cancer in the United States since 1941. Papanicolaou invented the Pap smear in 1941; the screening susses out iffy-looking cervical cells before they have a chance to become full-blown cancer.
3. Shirley Temple Black takes mastectomy out of the closet
Back when cancer was the whispered “C word,” before Betty Ford and Happy Rockefeller spoke out about their breast-cancer diagnoses, former child star Shirley Temple Black revealed that she’d had a mastectomy in 1972. Her action helped lift the disease’s stigma. Since then, the Pink Ribbon campaign has raised awareness and research dollars to find a cure, and women worldwide know to get screened.
4. The epidural is born
After his wife almost died from complications with anesthesia during the birth of their first child, John Bonica, MD, invented the epidural in the 1940s and used it on his wife the second time around. Nice, right? Tell your husband that the least he could do is take out the recycling.
5. Birth control pills are declared safe
On May 9, 1960, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the Pill as a safe form of birth control. Forty-eight years later, it’s the most popular form of reversible birth control.
6. Tubal ligation becomes an option for all women
Get this: Until 1969, a woman couldn’t elect to have her tubes tied unless she fit a formula—her age multiplied by the number of children she’d delivered had to equal 120 or more. (What that means: If you were 30 years old, you would have to have had four kids before a doctor would have agreed that you’d done your share of “women’s work” and sterilized you, unless another pregnancy would have posed a health risk.) But in 1970, tubal ligation got the green light for all and is now the leading method of birth control.
7. Women finally get straight talk about their bodies
If you need to know something about your body, what do you do? Look it up, of course. But before 1970 there weren’t any good resources. That year a group of Boston women published a stapled-together booklet—the precursor to Our Bodies, Ourselves—and fueled the burgeoning idea that women should be full participants in their medical care. Three years later, the radical publication (which discussed such issues as sexuality and birth control) was beefed up and released by Simon & Schuster. It’s now in its eighth edition.
8. Girls get straight talk, too (thanks to Judy Blume!)
Periods, flat chestedness, masturbation, sex. No topic stressing the teen girl was off limits for revolutionary writer Judy Blume. In 1970s classics like Deenie, Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret, and Forever, Blume gave readers fictional alter egos that reassured us—you are so normal.
9. Edith Bunker goes through the change
All in the Family’s put-upon Edith Bunker goes through menopause in front of a live studio audience in a landmark 1972 episode. When she couldn’t contain her mood swings and other sympÂtoms, her small-minded husband, Archie, nearly blew a gasket and hilarity ensued. More important, women could now point at the TV and say, “See, it’s not just me.”
10. Billie Jean King whips chauvinist butt
In a 1973 match billed as The Battle of the Sexes, tennis pioneer Billie Jean King fries self-proclaimed male-chauvinist pig and ex–tennis champ Bobby Riggs. Coming on the heels of Title IX—which mandated that female athletes be given the same resources on a college level as male athletes—her win encouraged more women to go out for sports. “She has prominently affected the way 50 percent of society thinks and feels about itself in the vast area of physical exercise,” Frank Deford wrote in Sports Illustrated.
11. The sports bra is developed
Lisa Lindahl, a female grad student, (with the help of two classmates) sews together two jock straps in 1977 and harnesses the power of the very first Jogbra. Bounce is effectively banished.
12. Betty Ford admits she has a problem
These days, addiction is seen as a treatable, if tenacious, illness. But back in 1978, it was viewed as a character flaw. First Lady Betty Ford’s openness about her addiction to painkillers and alcohol after a family intervention in 1978 sent her to rehab was nothing short of revolutionary. She later founded the Betty Ford Center, a facility that that’s helped tens-of-thousands of women recover from drug
or alcohol dependency.
13. Demi Moore poses seven-months pregnant—and naked
These days we practically expect a woman to show off her gorgeous pregnant shape, but in 1991 a very expectant Demi Moore made news when she sat sans clothes for a Vanity Fair cover shoot. “You’re either sexy or you’re a mother,” Moore said in a 1996 Interview magazine profile. “I didn’t want to have to choose, so I challenged that.”
14. Marge Simpson escapes to Rancho Relaxo
After Ã¼berselfless Marge loses it from stress in this classic 1992 episode of The Simpsons, she runs away to a spa for rejuvenating treatments and Thelma & Louise on demand. She returns home less wiggy, and Homer and the kids survive (just barely) without her. Score one for Me Time!
15. Women are included in clinical trials
After years of conducting clinical and drug trials on white men and crossing their fingers hoping that the results would apply to women and everyone else, the National Institutes of Health in 1993 finally adopted the official policy to include more women and minorities in their testing. This paved the way for breakthroughs like discovering differences in men’s and women’s heart attack symptoms.
16. U.S. women win the World Cup
Brandi Chastain fell to her knees and whipped off her jersey after her penalty kick scored the winning goal against China in the Women’s World Cup soccer final in 1999. She later called the exposure “momentary insanity,” but the win inspired little American girls to not cut gym class.
17. Kathleen Turner bares all—at 45
The ever-sexy actress shows what 45 looks like by going au naturel onstage in the London tour of The Graduate in 2000. Here’s to you Mrs. Robinson!
18. Katie Couric gets a colonoscopy—on camera
Sure, colon cancer affects men, too. But you didn’t see any of them undergoing a colonoscopy on live television like Katie Couric did in 2000 to raise awareness after her husband died of the disease. Colonoscopy rates jumped 20 percent following the show, showing that the journalist’s gutsy move made a difference.
19. Sarah Jessica Parker gets honest about what it takes to “bounce back” after baby
Everyone’s obsessed with how quickly celebrities rebound back into their prebaby premium jeans. But flat-bellied actress Sarah Jessica Parker made us mere mortals feel better by pointing out that she has a private in-home yoga instructor and child care that enables her to have long workout sessions. “Not only is the standard too high for most normal women, it’s too high even for us,” she said six months after delivering her son, James, in 2002.
20. A shot to fight female cancer emerges
Gardasil, the first vaccine to prevent cervical cancer—or any cancer—was approved by the FDA in 2006. The vaccine wards off certain types of human papillomavirus, including two that cause roughly 70 percent of cases of cervical cancer, which kills nearly 4,000 women a year.
You’ve read the best advances in women’s health over the last 20 years. Here, our list of the top seven bad things in women’s health.
“You’ve come a long way …” not so much
In 1968, Virginia Slims co-opted the feminist movement by portraying smoking as an empowered act. The “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby” campaign ran through the 1980s, well after tobacco companies knew that smoking can cause lung cancer.
In rural Alabama, two African-American girls Mary Alice and Minnie Relf, 12 and 14 in 1973, were deemed mentally incompetent and then sterilized without their consent. The case brought attention to the practice of using federal funds to sterilize mostly poor minorities in the name of public health.
The hysteria diagnosis
From ancient times until 1980, sexually frustrated and otherwise emotional women were diagnosed with hysteria, a constellation of multiple symptoms that added up to one hell of a bad mood. Treatment for the problem was often doctor-administered “pelvic massage.” Gee, wonder why it was diagnosed so often?
The need for a Plan C
In 2004, at an Eckerd pharmacy in Texas, a pharmacist refused to fill a sexual-assault-victim’s prescription for Plan B emergency contraception because it “violated his morals.” (To prevent pregnancy, the drug must be taken within 72 hours of intercourse; the woman was able to fill her prescription at a Walgreens later that evening.) All three of the Eckerd pharmacists were later fired for violating the patient’s rights. But this was just one of a spate of cases involving pharmacists who refused to dispense the legal drug because they view the Plan B pill as an abortifacient.
In 2005, a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon performs a labioplasty (the first of many) on his reality show Dr. 90210—and the procedure has been gaining popularity ever since. Is no part too private to need to be perfected?
Tom Cruise slamming the baby blues
In July 2005, on the Today show, actor Tom Cruise slammed Brooke Shields—and by extension, every woman who has suffered from postpartum depression—saying she should have simply exercised and taken vitamins and not used antidepressants.
A plastic-surgery picture book
A 2008 book, My Beautiful Mommy, gives some pat explanations for why mom looks like she was run over by a semi after getting a breast augmentation or tummy tuck. A question it doesn’t answer: “Do I need to get operated on so I can be prettier, too?”
By Stephanie Dolgoff
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