‘It Can’t Be That Bad’: a Culture of Disbelief Towards Women’s Pain

Lily Barker discusses the inherant misogyny within the medical industry, and the sad reality that women’s health issues are dismissed far more quickly than those of men.

‘It can’t be that bad’ is a phrase women are too often met with.  Women are trivialised, gaslit, told that our experiences are part of life, that there’s nothing wrong. This is not a new experience but has a far-reaching patriarchal legacy. Rooted in a gender bias in medical research, it is time society and medical practitioners stopped denying us of our own experience. Medical misogyny is real, and its implications devastating. 

Recently, I have been hoping for an updated diagnosis for my debilitating periods. Having suffered from fainting, vomiting, nose bleeds and intense pelvic pain for almost five years, I am always met with the same response from the GP: have you tried the Pill? Despite a family history of gynaecological problems – ranging from endometriosis, cystic fibroids and polycystic ovaries –  doctors seem to believe that my symptoms can be  cured by this magic catch-all treatment. My symptoms don’t need to be properly investigated, the Pill will sort them out.

And I’m not alone in this. When speaking with my friends, I have come to realise that there is a seeming disregard for our health. Our healthcare system is not listening enough to our calls for help, rather passing our concerns off as the natural experience of womanhood. When seeking help, we are almost made to feel guilty: an underfunded healthcare system does not need the further burden of a woman’s pain. The NHS is struggling enough and doesn’t have the resources to investigate every ‘hysterical’ woman. 

Hysteria, then, was first diagnosed in the Victorian era, and was imposed on women with varying ‘symptoms’, from emotional irregularities to fainting. For centuries, women appearing to suffer with gynaecological problems and infertility were categorised with mental health disorders and diagnosed with hysteria.

Many women were unnecessarily pathologized, labelled a ‘hysteric’ for simply transgressing patriarchal society. This ‘condition’ legitimated serious mistreatment of women, leading to incarceration and often death. Furthermore, the concept of ‘hysteria’ moulded medical attitudes towards women.   

This has led to the failure in researching female anatomy and finding medical treatment for women’s pain. In light of this medical neglect, women’s suffering is too often conceptualised as their own responsibility. Suffering is the responsibility of the patient because she is a woman. And this Victorian hangover persists today. 

Artwork by Nancy Taylor

For many years now women have been excluded from clinical trials. Our anatomy and female hormones are not considered relevant, and we thus go unrepresented. A report made by Irving Zucker a Professor Emeritus of Psychology and interactive biology stated that cell and animal study subjects are predominantly male. This exclusion means that researchers are not able to identify the sex differences in diseases and medicine dosage levels. A 2016 report found that women with dementia receive worse medical treatment than men with that condition. The report found that women experienced less health monitoring and fewer visits to the GP. This injustice in women’s healthcare is particularly prevalent in the UK, which has the largest female health gap out of all the G20 Countries.

In my particular case, my symptoms have been brushed off by being offered the Pill. The Pill is the most popular form of contraception prescribed in the UK.  However, it is also prescribed by GPs for hormone-based illnesses. The Pill for Heavy Periods, The Pill for PMDD, The Pill for Anxiety, The Pill for Acne and the Pill for the Unexplained! The plaster method for so many inconveniences of being a woman.  Yet rather than being an all encompassing treatment, often the Pill leaves women with more side-effects, and misses the root cause of women’s illnesses.  

Across the world The Pill has revolutionised the lives of women, enabling them to take control of their body and cycle. However, its use to suppress independent medical questions is disappointing. The Pill cannot be the only answer.

Women need to be taken seriously. Far too many feel as though their calls for help are being dismissed. And this can’t continue any longer. It’s time for change.

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