• Elizabeth Taylor in an on-screen fainting spell. (Supplied )
In the golden age of Hollywood, women collapsed into men’s arms in melodramas. Later, in 1980s adventure romps, women were cast as the ditzy handicap, making way for the leading men’s heroics by losing consciousness.
By
Jenny Valentish

22 Mar 2018 - 11:41 AM  UPDATED 23 Mar 2018 - 12:14 PM

 

There were certain eras in which fainting – or ‘syncope’, as it’s medically known – seemed almost to be in vogue. In Victorian times, if a lady was to swoon, she might first be offered smelling salts (ammonium carbonate mixed with perfume), then be escorted to the nearest fainting room – a private area with a fainting couch or two, rather like a chaise lounge.

With today’s emphasis on wellness and fitspiration, it’s hard to imagine an industry centred around fainting, and it’s unusual to see someone swoon outside the confines of a stadium concert (where, as every teenage girl knows, it’s often a ploy to be carried backstage).

So what causes fainting, exactly, and why were Victorian women so prone to it?

According to Dr Sue Corcoran, a cardiologist at The Alfred’s Syncope Clinic, fainting usually occurs because the brain does not get enough blood supply.

She estimates that up to 90 per cent of cases are due to a failure of regulation of blood pressure. Sometimes that might be down to hereditary hypertension – low blood pressure – or after exercise, when the warm muscles continue to call for blood, but the legs are not pumping it as energetically as they were when we were moving.

“Sometimes it will be due to severe dehydration, such as with diarrhoea and vomiting,” she says.

Certainly the restrictive corsets that Victorian women wore would have necessitated drinking as few fluids as possible.

Low blood sugar is also popularly blamed for fainting – such as through having missed a meal – and in Victorian times, fasting was seen not just as a necessity to lace a corset tightly, but as a moral accomplishment, since enjoyment of food was associated with indulgence.

“Because it affects young women, I think it’s often seen as being hysterical rather than biological,” says Dr Worsley.

However, Melbourne-based endocrinologist Dr Trina Gilbert would like to nip this theory in the bud. She says, “True pathologic hypoglycemia is rare.  When you hear people say they need to eat because they have low blood sugar, that’s usually not the case. Our body has a number of mechanisms to ensure that doesn’t happen. They may feel weak and light-headed, but when properly tested they have a normal blood sugar.”

Perhaps there are other dietary culprits, such as lack of iron.

Jean Hailes endocrinologist Dr Roisin Worsley says, “Some women might be predisposed because of having heavy periods, which might give them iron deficiency.” She adds that period pain itself could be a contributing factor.

We do know that fainting peaks at a few different points in life. In women it tends to be at around 15 to 30 years and then again in older age.

In men, it’s from around the age of 60. Dr Corcoran says we don’t know why fainting peaks at different times in men and women, but we do know the complications that ageing can bring.

“People can develop diseases that damage the blood pressure regulation system,” she explains. “This occurs in 30 per cent of Parkinson’s disease patients and in Lewy body dementia.”

Other serious culprits include diabetes, which can damage the nerves that regulate blood pressure; cardiac arrhythmia; or something obstructing the blood flow from the heart. Certain medications may also result in low blood pressure.

But back to the swooning young woman: can feeling overcome with emotion precipitate a faint?

Dr Corcoran thinks that stress can have a role to play. “Adrenaline sends blood to our legs to run away,” she says, which means less blood is pumped to the brain.

As she notes, the stresses in modern life tend to be over exams or anxiety rather than running from predators, but we still have the same physiological response. Hyperventilating can also cause light-headedness.

There is an argument that the gender expectations of our times inform women’s feelings of faintness.

“Because it affects young women, I think it’s often seen as being hysterical rather than biological,” says Dr Worsley.

Then there’s the idea that the fainting woman is a trope, exaggerated by male artists and directors. In the 19th century, the fading female was fetishised through art, such as Ophelia, and opera, such as La Traviata.

The psychoanalysts of the Victorian era thought that such hysteria could be treated through sexual release, and in fact, midwives and doctors would often apply ‘pelvic massages’ to women in the aforementioned fainting rooms.

Then there’s the idea that the fainting woman is a trope, exaggerated by male artists and directors. In the 19th century, the fading female was fetishised through art, such as Ophelia, and opera, such as La Traviata.

In the golden age of Hollywood, women collapsed into men’s arms in melodramas. Later, in 1980s adventure romps, women were cast as the ditzy handicap, making way for the leading men’s heroics by losing consciousness (Goldie Hawn keels over in Overboard, Foul Play and Bird on a Wire).

Bollywood films love a melodramatic swoon, too. 

For those of us today who do faint – and Dr Corcoran says that’s about 40 per cent of young women – what precautions can be taken? “In the lead up to fainting, people can feel nauseated, hot and become sweaty,” she says. At this point, it’s important to lie down and elevate the legs.

Tensing the leg muscles might also stave off the feeling. As for those women wearing Kardashian-endorsed ‘waist trainers’, they could take some advice from Kanye’s 2004 song and: “Breathe in, breathe out.” Slowly.

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