Women who identify and resist sexism are challenged and silenced in a number of ways. One of the most insidious is the casual dismissal of ‘it’s all in your head.’ ‘I don’t really see what the big deal is.’ ‘I think you’re reading something that isn’t really there.’ ‘You’re just making it up.’ It’s a sneaky, clever, nasty way of reminding women that their words carry less weight, are less valuable, are less useful, and that when they are allowed to speak, the listener can casually revoke any and all right to take those words seriously.
It also ties very directly into narratives about mental health, and the long history of dismissing uppity women as ‘crazy.’ Because the implication, there, in ‘it’s all in your head,’ is that obviously something is wrong with your head, or you wouldn’t be thinking things like that. It’s also bound up in criticism of women for being ‘too sensitive’ for discussing topics that concern them, for perhaps being emotional in these discussions when they are being attacked. It smacks of ‘neurasthenia,’ or for that matter ‘hysteria,’ the diagnoses once used to write women off and illustrate that they were too fragile for the real world.
There is, of course, a pathologisation of normal human behaviour that occurs, where women are saddled with mental health diagnoses that may not necessarily apply to them. Where women are literally told that resisting sexism is crazy, in the form of serious terminology from doctors who assure them that they will feel much better after treatment. That’s reflected in the way that society in general deals with women it does not like; it thinks that calling someone crazy is the most effective way to silence that person, because everyone knows you can’t take crazy people seriously. It believes that this is also the most cutting insult, the most effective way to make women see the error of their ways, because, of course, no one wants to be seen as crazy.
Some women with legitimate mental illness, rather than a diagnosis slapped on them to shut them up, have difficulty balancing their emotions and lives, have trouble distinguishing between which emotions are expressions of mental illness and which are actually entirely rational responses to situations. There’s a constant doublechecking and questioning that occurs; ‘am I reacting this way because I’m mentally ill? Am I being unreasonable? Other people seem to think this is out of line. Is this response in line with how a ‘normal’ person would act?’
And that phrase, oh so causally thrown out there, can be devastating. ‘It’s all in your head,’ they say, a reminder that yes, you’re too crazy for the real world. You are being irrational and unreasonable. You are making up incidences of sexism. Those people at school, in your workplace, in your social circle, they’re not really being sexist and inappropriate. You’re just too sensitive.
People internalise this, over time. When you’re told over and over again that you’re only reacting the way you are because you are crazy, you tend to start believing that your reactions to everything are crazy, so you should keep them to yourself. Boundaries start to erode in the face of this pernicious messaging, because obviously any concerns about safety and comfort are rooted in your mental illness, not in a legitimate response to society or given situations. It becomes harder and harder to be assertive, or to point at situations and identify a problem with them. Because you constantly have to stop and reevaluate, every time, before you dare to speak; are people going to say this is all in your head too, like they did last time?
Women with mental illness are often ignored when they report abuse and sexual assault. It’s all in their heads, you see. After the first couple of times, the first few attempts to tell someone what is going on, many of these women stop speaking. Because they’ve learned there’s no point. They aren’t going to be listened to and no one is going to take action, they’re going to be told that they are crazy and making things up, that they should go back to their abusers. What happens next is sometimes very ugly. Mentally ill women are severely beaten and murdered by their partners at higher rates than the general population. A lot of that abuse could be prevented by not insisting that ‘it’s all in your head’ when those women report and call for help.
Women with mental illness are excluded from political and social discussions. Their views are all in their heads, you know. It’s assumed that women participating in discussion who are ‘reasonable’ are not mentally ill, thus adding ammunition; women with mental illness are all around you, are in all the places they’re not ‘supposed’ to be, like academia, like politics, but they’re careful to remain controlled at all times. To never betray a hint of their reality. To never, ever, give off the slightest whiff of being crazy, because this, they know, will mean that everything they have to say will be rejected.
‘It’s all in your head’ is such a great way to ensure that women stay silent. Speak up, and you’ll be labeled crazy, unless you can do so nicely, courteously, politely. Once labeled crazy, you can be ignored, because everyone knows that people with mental illness are not human, do not deserve equal roles in society, shouldn’t be respected, and certainly shouldn’t be listened to.