women's pain

“Calm down dear”: the age-old phrase used to put us women back in our boxes, back in our kitchens, back on our backs, has become a somewhat symbolic remnant of a time long since passed. Or so we like to think. And whilst any attempt by public figures to shame women into silence by (hysterically) crying “hysterical! she’s hysterical!” is often met with outrage, the phrase still finds a home in 21st century society.

Recent research has indicated that “period pain is officially as bad as a heart attack”. Why then, is the pain that women experience and seek help for, not taken as seriously as it should be? The simple answer seems to be because men don’t experience it. Men also don’t experience endometriosis, an incredibly painful condition that over time becomes harder to treat. Yet, according to the All Parliamentary Group on Women’s Health, 40% of more than 2600 women who gave evidence, had to see a doctor 10 times before they were diagnosed. On average the condition remains undiagnosed for seven and a half years. That’s seven and a half years living and coping with pain akin to a heart attack. That doesn’t sound like something to remain calm about.

I am not an expert; the only expertise I have to offer is a lifetime lived as a woman in a world that’s history and present are imbued with a normalised bias against women; and whilst there are many different structural inequalities and differences that traverse those who identify as women, the lived realities of my life are unavoidably tinged by identifying as a woman. Every woman is an expert in her own experience. Women are in general better placed to look objectively at issues to do with gender inequality, because we feel it every day. The notion that women’s pain is not taken seriously may seem aggressive or radical to some: it’s not. For most women, it probably sounds all too familiar. We are used to not being believed.

It should not be outrageous to suggest that a culture littered with systemic injustices against women does not take the pain of women as seriously as men’s. That perhaps if certain conditions, like period pain, endometriosis, ovarian cysts, childbirth and Urinary Tract Infections (men can get UTIs, but rarely), affected men then there would be a wealth of research, studies, trials, tests and readily available cures or methods of relief, in order to combat such painful, often debilitating experiences.

And yet, women – myself and many I know, are too often turned away from the GP’s office. Our pain, often put down to emotional rather than physical causes, is ignored or treated as a figment of an overactive imagination. Case in point: the contraceptive pill. Originally designed for men, and shafted onto women when they complained of depression and other serious side effects. Women have been mentioning these same side effects since the birth of the pill, and have had the burden of preventing pregnancy laid solely on their shoulders for decades. The importance of the pill in women’s reproductive rights is undeniable – but the conversation has stagnated. The side effects have never changed, no one stopped bringing them up, but it’s only very recently that medical companies have begun to explore male contraceptives with any real determination– only for the majority to cease preliminary trials because they seemed inconvenient, or uncomfortable. Is it any wonder that this leaves a particularly sour taste in our mouths when you consider the decades of pill induced depression and deaths, and the lack of investigation into male alternatives?

We are taught not to make a fuss, to take up as little space as possible – but what about when this rhetoric starts to impact on our physical health?

This issue is a spectrum. At one end it is a niggle. A thorn in our collective female side. A reminder that we do not yet have it all. True and realised equality is indeed a way off. At the other end is tragedy. Women living for years in agonising pain being told to sit down and shut up by the very people that are supposed to help us when we are in need. In some cases, women dying, after not being diagnosed soon enough, despite reaching out for medical advice several times. Just a few months ago 21-year-old Tessa Harka died from a perforated stomach ulcer, despite being sent home from the hospital twice during the last week of her life; the family asked for tests to be completed but hospital staff accused them of overreacting.

So how do we begin to make sense of a problem that’s far reaching effects can be seen sometimes to go as far as death? In 2001, a study called “The Girl Who Cried Pain” tried to understand why men are more likely than women to be given medication when they report painful symptoms to doctors, and why women, conversely, are more likely to be given sedatives. The study, which attempts to dissect the “bias against women in the treatment of pain”, found that “women who seek help are less likely than men to be taken seriously when they report pain and are less likely to have their pain adequately treated”; concluding that “medicine’s focus on objective factors and its cultural stereotypes of women combine insidiously, leaving women at greater risk for inadequate pain relief and continued suffering”.

In a world that still fails to recognise woman as fully equal to her male counterparts, is it any wonder then that her pain is any less subjugated? Women’s bodies and reproductive rights are still used as political bargaining chips, as though there is no real implication to denying a woman an abortion when giving birth may kill her, or simply because she does not want a responsibility such as motherhood forced upon her.

Part of the reason this issue persists is because we fail to recognise it as a systemic institutional problem. Like many of our experiences as women we have been conditioned not to understand them as collective experiences. Only when we begin to share our stories with each other do we begin to connect the dots.

This is the strongest tool we have. To share. Share your stories of missed diagnoses, of patronising professionals, of dismissive doctors, of excruciating pain – it is the only way the women of today can fight against the conditioning we have long endured ‘not to make a fuss’. Not to rock the boat. Not to cry for attention.

But as the 2001 study says, “a cry for attention is positioned as a crime, as if attention were inherently a selfish thing to want. But isn’t wanting attention one of the most fundamental traits of being human— and isn’t granting it one of the most important gifts we can ever give?”

When it comes to healthcare, this seems especially pertinent.

Read Eleanor’s blog here.

Illustration: Eri Kai