09 Nov WHERE MEDICINE AND MISOGYNY INTERSECT
The daily struggles of achieving biased-free and helpful healthcare
The healthcare system is one founded on the ideals of safety and protection. In an institution meant to heal, the one thing that people should feel is, at the very least; safe.
So how come the medical field is, by nature, the very manifestation of misogyny? The sort of modern-day, microaggressive ideas of sexism we hear about every so often but never really think about, plague women’s health care today.
If you have been able to stride through life without experiencing this form of sexism, you are either a) incredibly lucky or b) blissfully ignorant of how your healthcare experiences have been tainted by the belittling and disregard for women’s health.
Women battling harmful healthcare practices is a tale as old as time. Historically, there are countless examples of medical experiences being shaped by sexist ideas, either a result of a lack of care to truly understand the female experience, or a purposeful sexist tactic used to subject women to patriarchal standards.
As the Mcgill Tribune highlighted, women have been poorly diagnosed in the healthcare system for centuries and have suffered disturbing consequences. In the 1930s, women were overwhelmingly subjected to lobotomies. Women have a vast history of being prescribed valium, causing severe addictions in the 1950s and 70’s.
This historical narrative of women’s healthcare can be connected to the underlying and blatant sexist norms that exist in society. Doctors have underlying biases against women that prevent them from giving honest and productive healthcare advice. Instead of listening to women with an open mind, they retreat to the obvious and easiest response—it’s caused by stress, neurosis, or fear. It’s not a real issue. Or it’s hormonal; doctors’ favourite bandage solution.
And of course, as most feminist issues go, the concurrent aspects are often overlooked. For example, women of colour experience an even more abrasive healthcare system. Studies show that Black individuals are 35% less likely to get certain prescriptions such as opioids, due to racial stereotypes about drug use. Moreover, similarly to how women’s health issues are shielded with the false narratives that hormones are unsolvable and unexplainable, Black people are often considered to be biologically different and too complex to treat in the same way as white patients. Historically, prejudiced assumptions about women and people of colour have resulted in generations of minority women suffering in pain, or in worse scenarios; losing their lives at the hands of the system meant to heal and protect them.
The blatant belittling of women’s health issues occurs to young girls every day — and it causes years of confusion and physical pain. This was something that just occurred to me recently, as a conversation was struck up between a friend about the completely polar opposite experience we both had when we switched over to female practitioners. While the experience of having a female doctor does not ensure more suitable healthcare, it often means that there will be less belittlement over patient concerns.
Another friend shared a story that shows just how drastic the consequences of this belittlement can be. At age 11, she started experiencing extreme stomach pain — the kind of discomfort that makes life much more difficult. And to no women’s surprise, she heard one straightforward response from her doctor every time the issue was raised:
“It’s just in her head”
Afterwards, she finally got a pediatrician, and the assistant focused on her home life, thinking stressors were causing her anxiety and this was translating to the pain she was feeling. For years her pain, which got increasingly worse, was treated as a symptom of neurosis or the overreaction of a dramatic teenage girl.
At age 18, she finally received a diagnosis that could be treated with easily accessible medicine and lifestyle changes. So all in all, she experienced 7 years of discomfort and pain that could have been easily avoided if the concerns of a young girl were taken seriously.
It takes very little effort to find similar stories. Unfortunately, this is a universal experience for all women everywhere – getting brushed off by your doctor, a person that is literally designated to make your life easier and free of discomfort. But keep trying! Maybe after years of complaining, bandage solutions, and pestering your doctor, you may be lucky enough to get a referral and hear some genuine concern over your issues.
The snarky tone is unintentional—while it may sound like it’s a one-off issue, the medical field pays less attention to women’s bodies than they do males. As a result, women’s bodies have not been studied as extensively and thus, the research at hand does not serve to explain the vast majority of female-specific issues. Coupled with the fact that misogyny makes it difficult to be taken seriously as a woman, each young girl going into her doctor’s appointment at age 16 is facing barriers upon barriers to achieving fair and useful healthcare.
All in all, it aligns with the basic sexist norms we are all used to by now; making women feel “crazy” or painting them as dramatic. But health issues can result in years of distress, pain, and lead to serious consequences. So how do make sure that young girls are taken seriously by the institution most integral to our basic survival?
Fund more women’s health research projects. Enact more intersectional education in med school programs. Have harsher punishments for doctors who act out of blatant sexism.
And most importantly, teach young girls that their medical concerns are valid and not just symptoms of their dramatics. In a world where being assertive is deemed a negative trait for young women, health issues should most certainly be where we draw the line and push ourselves out of our comfort zone to speak loudly — and hopefully, be heard.
HEADER IMAGE: ILLUSTRATION BY EILEEN RAISBECK