No, She Really Didn’t: Persistent Myths About Women Debunked

As human beings, we can all be flawed, fragile, and stupid. Sometimes we make terrible decisions. But it’s necessary to be critical of any widely held beliefs that are specific to our gender, or that develop into urban legends that will proliferate sexist ideas.

Here are some examples of irrational lifestyle choices, trends and routines that are still commonly believed to demonstrate a woman’s inferior nature or character. These legends about women’s frailties and faults continue to appear in many online listicles, despite being debunked again and again.

Tapeworms were not a fad diet in the 19th and early 20th centuries

Sure, you can get a tapeworm by eating infected meat. But tales of idiotic women who purposefully infected themselves with parasites in order to eat as much as they wish and stay thin aren’t actually true. The famous “Eat! Eat! Eat!” advertisement so often shared online is a clear fabrication, possibly vintage-inspired art.

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Stories reported in 19th and early 20th century newspapers follow a consistent formula. A vain woman with little common sense buys a mysterious pill from a “friend” who has had success with this rare diet. The “friend” in these stories tells her that she can eat all she wants and still lose weight. The husband is the intelligent, discerning hero, who submits the pills to a lab to verify the contents, and shares the horrifying news with his wife that the pills contain a small segment of live tapeworm. All the major themes in urban legends – horrific, shocking, a lesson learned the hard way, the dangers of foolish or vain behavior, a knight in shining armor to the rescue of a damsel in distress – are present.

Tapeworm pills are suspiciously absent from official medical publications about obesity cures and patenting information of medicines in the 1920’s. Research into tapeworms as a diet fad turns up only sensational tales that were a popular form of entertainment and helped sell newspapers.

During the suffrage movement, these yarns about dangerous fad diets served as propaganda about the silly minds of women, who could not, of course, be trusted with the responsibility to make their own medical decisions, much less be trusted to vote wisely.

However, urban legends tend to influence human behavior. People have swallowed tape worms to attempt this diet, but such cases are rare and were not medically advised. Further, it’s not been demonstrated that anyone who tried this lost weight and improved her figure. The real physical effects of tapeworm infection include a distended stomach and the appearance of being gravely ill.

Your Grandmother Did Not Douche With Coca Cola

Coca Cola advertisement from 1965
Coca Cola advertisement from 1965

There are many stories to be found about women in the 50’s and 60’s douching with Coca Cola after sex – the idea was that the bottle can be shaken before it’s inserted into the vagina, creating a pressurized explosion of sugary spermicide. However, you’ll notice that there are few, if any, documented stories of women who actually practiced this for health reasons, and no evidence it was advocated in any serious medical context.

Even in 1969, when the Fugs wrote their tongue-in-cheek song “Coca-Cola Douche,” it was widely considered a cultural joke during the peak of a sexual liberation movement.

The Coke myth was so popular, scientists in the 1980’s actually tested whether or not soft drinks could kill sperm. In controlled tests, they discovered that Coke Classic was the best formula for birth control, due to viscosity, sugar and acid content. Of course, the study notes that it also isn’t effective or safe, and most medical literature recommends against douching after sex in general. This study is often used as “proof” that women douched with Coke, but it really only proves that the tale was so widespread that it resulted in scientific research into the beverage itself.

It’s an entertaining concept, and it appeals to our cultural values and the idea that women in the 60’s knew very little about sexual health, or had fewer contraceptive options. It also validates our beliefs about crazy, vapid hippie chicks and their high sex drives.

Yes, in the past fifty years, there have been great advancements in birth control and sex education, but in the 1960s, the most popular forms of birth control were not very different than what women use today – barrier methods such as condoms and diaphragms, pills and injections, IUDs, and the rhythm method.

Corsets Were Not The Cause of Life-Threatening Health Problems

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The common tropes about the corset and tight-lacing in the Victorian and Edwardian eras continue to be passed along today. Tales of women who achieved 13 inch waists, misshapen livers or succumbed to “hysteria” as a result of wearing tight corsets are mostly exaggerated if not entirely fabricated.

Women who used tight-lacing, in which a boned corset was tightened as much as possible (picture Scarlet O’Hara crying out as she clings to a bedpost), are indeed seeking a smaller waist-to-hip ratio and a more prominent bust. But the average woman in the Victorian era only reduced her waist size by about 2-4 inches. The popular method involved leaving the back of the corset open slightly, which was more accommodating. Corsets were used for temporary shaping and structure, not for a permanently unrealistic wasp waist no thicker than a bicep.

While corsets did affect women’s health, the symptoms were mild and not fatal. Indigestion, shortness of breath, lack of appetite and some organ movement did occur, but misshapen livers and broken ribs did not. Medicine in the Victorian age was in its infancy, and doctors were more likely to jump to certain conclusions about women’s anatomy. We all have differently shaped livers, and upon postmortem dissection, when a doctor came across a woman’s liver that appeared abnormal, it was erroneously blamed on corseting.

Men were more likely to attribute the unscientific diagnosis of “hysteria” to women for all kinds of unsupported reasons, one of those being corseting. This idea helped to support the general perception that women were weak, vain, and terrible at making decisions. Blaming corseting for a variety of health problems was also dismissive – men waved away a woman’s emotional reactions as a result of her tiny brain and equally tiny, corseted waist.

Another common myth is that women went so far as to have ribs removed to achieve a slimmer waist. But surgery in the 1800’s was pretty horrific, and it’s unlikely such a procedure was ever performed for vanity. Currently there’s some debate as to whether modern celebrities have had rib surgery performed, but probably not. Amanda Lepore and “living doll” Pixee Fox claim to have traveled to other countries to have their ribs removed, but there are many reasons to doubt their truthfulness. Due to persistent rumors, Cher even had to hire a doctor to prove that all her ribs are intact.

Some women have gone to incredible lengths to achieve tiny waists, such as Cathie Jung who holds the U.S. record for the smallest waist at a mere 15 inches when corseted (and 21 inches without a corset). But she’s a rare exception, and her unusual appearance by no means reflects the normal figures of women in the Victorian and Edwardian eras.

Victorian Women Did Not Really Use Specific Couches for Fainting

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The style of “fainting couch” is merely that – a style of couch, or “daybed,” which has a long history stretching back to the ancient Egyptians. The daybed is long and flat, without arm rests, with a small raised section that serves as a back rest, designed for lounging. It was not invented in the Victorian era nor used exclusively for fainting. Rather, this specific style was brought back into fashion during that time for aesthetic reasons, as were many older decorative items and styles.

There is plenty of speculation about why women may have fainted more often in past centuries, but no solid evidence that props up any of the various theories. Corsets could restrict lung capacity, so it was thought that they caused fainting during physical activity such as dancing. But one only needs to look at paintings and illustrations of women doing all kinds of physical activities while wearing corsets – riding horses, playing sports – to realize that the restrictive garment doesn’t really live up to its unhealthy reputation.

Another common explanation for fainting was “hysteria,” a catch-all diagnosis that could be applied to any number of symptoms that are now much better explained by known medical disorders. Anxiety attacks, epilepsy, sexual arousal and even a heated temper were considered signs of hysteria in women. The ancient Greeks believed that the uterus became detached and roamed freely throughout the woman’s body, which accounts for the origin of the word.

It’s most likely, absent any other evidence, that the image of a woman using a specific couch to faint, and fainting in general, was a cultural norm, or a trend of sorts. Women were depicted as fragile, fainting on couches over the slightest disturbance, resulting in normalization and societal expectations. The behavior became less common as women earned more rights and were respected as equal to men in mental competence. Essentially, not only is the fainting couch a myth, but fainting itself was possibly a result of mass hysteria (which is a real psychological phenomenon).

Medieval Women Were Not Universally Less Educated, and Even Owned and Operated their Own Businesses

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It’s not intellectually honest to generalize the experience of all women in any era, as circumstances of birth, class, religion, location and decision making (yes, some women in history did make certain limited choices) account for huge differences in lifestyle. But for the most part, we often still think that women in Medieval times were all living quite similar lives. Either we view them as entirely enslaved or entirely sheltered, spending most of their time weaving and cooking and caring for children. And while that may have been the occupation of many women – they were considered second class citizens with fewer rights than men — they were not necessarily doomed to be treated as powerless idiots.

When brewers guilds developed in the Middle Ages, they were primarily controlled by men. But women were allowed among the ranks because they had, for most of ancient history, operated their own taverns and had experience with fermentation. Beer making had traditionally been a woman’s job, much like cooking, up until the 15th century. Controlling the production of alcohol gave women a great deal of local power and respect.

If a woman was unfortunate enough to be born as a peasant, she worked just as many hours of backbreaking labor in the fields alongside her husband. They carried equal amounts of weight and walked as many miles back and forth every day. Poverty was a great equalizer for working families.

Illiteracy in the medieval period was more common in the general populace, but not necessarily more so among women. In fact, many women who went to convents and became nuns were more literate and well-read than kings and noblemen. If you didn’t want to get married and have children, joining the nunnery was sort of like going to college. And within the convents, women could achieve powerful positions. Some abbesses were more highly respected than their male counterparts at monasteries.

Women Did Bathe Regularly Before Indoor Plumbing

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While there are some huge exceptions, and certain lifestyles did not lend themselves to frequent bathing, long before modern plumbing was available in households, many women bathed regularly.

The tradition of going to the bathhouse was something ancient people were somewhat obsessed with. Public bathing was considered an enjoyable past-time in the Roman period. Both men and women would soak for long periods of time in hot pools, using that time to converse with friends and even greet new guests. Having a guest or visitor naked beside you in a large bath was considered completely normal. After the 1rst century, co-ed bathing facilities were common. By the Middle Ages, private rooms specifically designed for bathing were in many households.

We often hear about how filthy and disgusting people were in past eras, and that women wore and carried flowers exclusively for the purpose of covering up their body odor (which is only partially true). While personal hygiene was far more complex and sometimes difficult, especially after the 13th century when fear of the plague caused many to avoid bathhouses, women were just as obsessed with bathing and hygiene practices, as well as grooming, as they are today – long before hygiene and health were understood, women and men cleaned and groomed for religious and traditional reasons.

Of course, we cannot generalize all women in history as being diligent about personal hygiene, but we can’t generalize and say that all women of past eras were filthy.

As early as the medieval period, the washbowl, sometimes scented with flower petals or herbs, was a central part of a woman’s daily routine. Women often washed their faces before and after every meal. A pitcher was used to wash and rinse hair. Soap (which was called glycerine) has been a regular household item since the medieval period and was mass produced long before the invention of indoor plumbing.

Women Do Not Use Vodka Soaked Tampons To Get Secretly Drunk

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Although this rumor was thoroughly debunked by Snopes in 2009, it continues to make the rounds on the Internet for at least the past 15 years, and has even been reported by major news outlets as a new method teenagers are using to stealthily get drunk without their parents finding out. It was even given its own slang term, “slimming.”

The vodka tampon story has been repeated so often in popular culture, depicted on TV shows like The Colbert Report and CSI, that some women actually ended up trying it, with unfortunate results.

It seems believable because it confirms the idea that those dumb teen girls will do crazy things. And while that’s true, partial truth is a vital ingredient in the most enduring and prolific myths. The kinkiness also makes the story appealing to a certain brand of frat-house humor.

A reasonable person could easily deduce that this was never an organic trend among teenage girls. First of all, tampons are all but impossible to insert while soaking wet. Vodka also causes extreme pain and burning when it comes into contact with vaginal tissue, and the pain continues until the liquor is completely flushed out. And unless you’ve never had a single drink in your life, a tampon containing about 1 oz of vodka is not going to get you wasted. At least, no more so than a single screwdriver. The difficulties and discomfort far outweigh any benefits.

Alcohol is absorbed via rectal and vaginal administration quite well, and it would bypass the stomach, which may reduce vomiting or gastric distress. But it seems a bit extreme for that purpose, since it’s unlikely that a single shot of vodka is going to leave you clutching the toilet.

Nor would using vodka tampons be very useful for hiding drinking habits from parents – signs of inebriation would be the same as oral administration. Breathalyzer tests would still function normally.

Stories about men who have used the vodka tampon method rectally are also unfounded, and if one digs a bit deeper into any rumor about this odd route of administration for alcohol, stories tend to arise from “something someone heard about someone else” and not on an actual documented case.

Women Didn’t Frequently Burn to Death Due to Flammable Petticoats and Make-Up in Colonial Times

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Smithsonian Libraries

This myth often arises when someone insists that the second leading cause of death in women during Colonial times was burning to death from long skirts catching fire. It’s often paired with the belief that the primary cause of death in Colonial women was childbirth.

Neither of those two statements is true. The leading cause of death among Colonial women was disease, as it was for the general population. While there may have been some cases in which women’s dresses caught fire, it was not a common event.

The idea is popular enough that historical actors claim they are often asked whether they keep the hems of their skirts wet, as it’s rumored to have been a preventative practice. But women’s skirts were not always dragging on the floor. When women did hard labor or household work, they wore their skirts above the ground, tucked them into their waistbands or otherwise held them out of the way. Women were around fires their entire lives, as well as petticoats and skirts, and knew well enough to figure out how to avoid bursting into flames.

Similarly, wax make-up was thought to contribute to women burning to death or catching fire during the Colonial period. Colonial women really didn’t wear much make-up at all, if any, unless there was a special event to attend. Even then, wax wasn’t a common ingredient used in beauty regimens.

Iterations of the “women setting abruptly on fire” myth have claimed that the invention of the fire screen was a solution to keeping women safe from the open flames of an indoor fireplace. When purchase records from the Colonial period were checked by historians, it turns out that very few fire screens were in use at the time.

Feminists Did Not Burn Their Bras

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Actually, they threw their bras into a trash can (labeled the “Freedom Trash Can”), along with high heels, false lashes, mops and girdles during a protest of the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City in 1968.

In 1992, a young female reporter came forward and admitted that she had compared the Miss America protest to men burning their draft cards, and the “bra burning” trope ended up in the headlines.

It’s worth noting that bras, especially those made in the 1970s, are typically made of synthetic fabrics that do not burn well. Perhaps only if they’re soaked in gasoline.

The feminist idea of “banning the bra” was largely symbolic. It wasn’t the undergarment itself that women had a problem with, but the restrictive nature of social behavior that was expected of them.

These days, the idea of burning a $60 garment of clothing just to make a point about oppression seems extreme. While refusing to wear a bra may be a feminist concept, one is certainly not excluded from feminism if she chooses to wear one.

Featured main photo by Dina Peone

Rebecca Chance
Rebecca Chance is a writer and editor living in New York, often referred to as the "dour voice of gloom." Email rebecca@theflounce.com (for a good time) or for more appropriate reasons, like pitching an article, whether it's about irreverent pop culture or a damn serious social issue.