Now That's Depressing | On Culture | Chicago Reader

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Now That's Depressing

A women;s health exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry is dumbed down and dated, but it works for its corporate sponsor.


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It sounds quaint now, but the first time I saw the Journal of the American Medical Association I was shocked to find slick full-page ads from pharmaceutical companies hawking prescription drugs the way Revlon sells lipstick in the pages of Cosmo. I had assumed doctors made decisions about drugs by keeping up with the research, poring over heavy-duty papers in their spare time to find the best medicines for their patients. Now that television and print ads for Celebrex and Lipitor are in our faces every day, no one's surprised that drug companies are spending billions on advertising for prescription drugs, much of it aimed directly at the end user. Less obvious are the other routes they're taking to influence us. Take, for example, "The Changing Face of Women's Health," a traveling exhibit in residence in a corner of the Museum of Science and Industry this fall. Its sponsors are the Centers for Disease Control, the National Institutes of Health, the Metropolitan Life Foundation, and Pfizer, the world's largest pharmaceutical company.

The exhibit was developed between 1995 and '98 by the National Health Sciences Consortium, a group of nine science museums, and it began traveling in '99, making its way to each of them. Promoted as "cutting-edge science" that arms women with enough information to make informed health-care decisions, it's in fact a hodgepodge of 15 or so kiosks and cubicles occupied by droning video screens and gimmicky interactive games. You can pump a lever to force red liquid through clear plastic tubes, illustrating that blood moves faster in unclogged arteries, or push a button next to the word "brain" to see a head light up in a display of body parts sapped by estrogen depletion. Eating disorders are illustrated with plates of fake food, unsafe living conditions by a dollhouse with hazards like wayward miniature electric cords. It looks like the designers were suffering from a loss of vital hormones themselves, or were thinking every visitor would be accompanied by a pack of preschoolers. They should have titled it "Women's Health for Dummies."

There are exceptions: scary curiosities like a 19th-century glass pessary that, inserted, would be like a lightbulb carried around inside you, and little black squish-ball breasts intended to demonstrate how lumps are detected (but proving only that you'll never recognize one). Pregnancy and childbirth are absent, but short videos of real women recounting their own health-crisis stories are moving and sometimes instructive--though you can probably find something similar on the Oxygen network. A small menstruation display, housed behind a sign warning of "anatomy, puberty, and sex," offers video interviews about the first time women went "on the rag" or had a visit from their "friend." And a 50-year-old menstruation manual, advising women to avoid swimming pools, drafts, and jitterbugging, is a reminder that nothing ages faster than medical advice. So is the hormone replacement therapy display, where you can balance weights representing risks and benefits like the possibility that HRT will improve memory--in spite of research linking it to Alzheimer's. You'll learn that 60 million hormone-therapy prescriptions are written in the U.S. annually, but you won't see anything about the industry-rattling drop in them since a major study linked HRT to heightened risk of heart disease, stroke, blood clots, and breast cancer two years ago.

Maybe the next attempt at a women's health exhibit will assess the massive experiment that hormone replacement therapy has been; that would be interesting. Museum vice president Valerie Waller says this one, which cost the Museum of Science and Industry nothing, was updated before it came to Chicago. Still, the text accompanying a Hollis Sigler painting identifies the Chicago artist as a breast-cancer survivor though she died in 2001. And what you get here mostly are platitudes about having a realistic body image, reminders to get annual pap smears and mammograms (never mind that the suggested schedules for those have changed), and--in spite of nods to cultures that take life in stride--a sense that you'll need drugs to help you keep your cholesterol low, bones dense, and spirits elevated. Antidepressants like Pfizer's market-leading Zoloft have become the new HRT, prescribed for everything from PMS and social anxiety to full-blown depression, which by the way is said to strike one in four women, twice as many as men. Pfizer brochures, free for the taking in the exhibit's "resource center," include a self-diagnostic depression quiz that wants to know how often you've felt tired or down or have overeaten in the past two weeks.

Last month the museum was the venue for a loosely exhibit-related event, a visit by Vicki Iovine, author of the popular "Girlfriends' Guide" books on subjects like childbirth and parenting. Pfizer cut a deal with Iovine that created "Girlfriends for Life," a public-service campaign that includes a brochure and Web site on depression and appearances like this one. Now Iovine and Susan Wysocki, head of the National Association of Nurse Practitioners in Women's Health (and a member of Pfizer's advisory board and speaker's bureau) are traveling the country, talking about what to do if you or a friend shows signs of depression. With a third of 34 million affected people failing to get help, Iovine said, "Don't be afraid you're going to your doctor too early. You have to take the bull by the horns." Neither speaker mentioned Zoloft by name, but Iovine opened by advising the audience that "everything you need to know to save yourself from depression is on our Web site," Including a link to Zoloft.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Scott Brownell.

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