Reversing stigma will come with more in-depth research, a willingness to learn and understand and most notably listening and responding without judgment. Photograph: iStock
Women's Health Gap: A five-part seriesWomen spend their lives adjusting to and understanding their bodies. Not only does a woman’s body change and fluctuate monthly, but during pregnancy, breastfeeding and menopause.The changes are vast and the learning curve just as immense. All the while, women recognise risks, feel pain, and often suffer in silence. And while we battle varying conditions we are obstructed by myths, a diatribe of stigma and the frustration of misdiagnosis. All because the female body has long been misunderstood, maligned, and under researched.
ocial stigma in women’s health results in the downplaying of our symptoms, a reluctance to seek treatment or delaying treatment, shame or self-doubt, and isolation and harassment. The consequences are devastating. Reversing the stigma will come with more in-depth research, a willingness to learn and understand and most notably listening and responding without judgment when a woman says, “it hurts.”
Lisa de Jong has experienced the struggle with debilitating menstrual pain which had a big impact on her quality of life. She changed her approach to her menstrual cycle by educating herself on the endocrine system to balance hormones, ease pain and relieve premenstrual symptoms. In her role as a Menstruality Coach she knows periods can be managed when they are understood.
The barriers in Ireland to information, products and healthcare continues to shock me
“The menstrual cycle is linked to our nervous system and our endocrine system,” says De Jong, “so when we tune into it, we start to understand our make up at different times of the month. This can help us identify strengths, vulnerabilities, and specific needs in terms of energy management as we ebb and flow with hormones over the month. Supporting women in that journey of leaning into their menstrual cycle means our cycle can ultimately become something supportive rather than a burden.”
By changing the education patterns of how we view our periods we change the narrative surrounding them. Most importantly this conversation is beginning to change for young girls who are becoming empowered by their female bodies. Rather than seeing periods as a limitation or a curse or as something “dirty” or “shameful,” it becomes reassuring to know we can take control of our female bodies by tuning in. But the conversation goes further than enlightening ourselves on period power. The conditions women experience, the evolving pain, and the under researched disorders can be heavily dismissed by the health system.
“The barriers in Ireland to information, products and healthcare continues to shock me,” says De Jong. “I have had many women share stories of how they have been dismissed by doctors for years with regards to pain and suffering, only to find out they have endometriosis, adenomyosis, PMDD or another reproductive condition. The medical system in Ireland is still patriarchal and misogynistic in its very nature by how it operates, what it prioritises, the training of medical professionals and how women are spoken to, treated, and interacted with in relation to their reproductive health.
“Take endometriosis for example. 1 in 10 women have this condition and it takes an average of nine years to reach diagnosis largely due to many doctors not fully understanding this condition and the diversity of how it can present. The woman is put on medication which masks the underlying issue, diagnosed with something else or referred on. There are no endometriosis specialists in Ireland which leaves women in the hands of general gynaecology. Some are treated well but the majority are not, and the complex condition can go missed and untreated.”
In addition, a large proportion of women will develop uterine fibroids at some stage in their lives but despite the condition being so common, many will find themselves struggling alone with a potentially painful condition because of an abundance of misinformation, misdiagnosis, and the stigma which comes with struggling with a condition in silence.
Keri Denney, a massage therapist, has suffered with a large uterine fibroid for a number of years having been actively dismissed by her doctors. She has vigorously voiced her concerns repeatedly as the pain has increased leaving her at times unable to move.
“I initially went to see the doctor because I had no energy,” Keri says, “and I was in a tremendous amount of pain every once in a while. This increased to every few months and then to monthly over the course of the last few years. I just figured it was because I am an older mother, running my own business and generally being run down. Turns out I was very low in iron and had grown a 14cm uterine fibroid.”
Keri feels she has done her best to communicate with her doctors but there has been no solution, treatment, or management to support her condition. “I feel the doctors were not understanding the amount of pain I have been in and the toll it is taking,” she says. “An episode would have me unable to move for three days. Tests were run over the course of about a year heading to a solution in April of 2020, which understandably did not happen however it is now 2021. I am still waiting.”
Open the conversation and not be afraid to say we bleed every month, and it sucks, but we will not hide the fact
We spend a portion of every month balancing the pain and various symptoms of our periods that we become accustomed to waiting out pain, waiting for it to pass. Our own silence and dismissing of our own pain adds to the misconceptions surrounding the discomfort and pain felt by women. Demystifying the myths and shattering the social and self-stigma surrounding the misunderstood uterus is essential to women’s health.
“What we need are more conversations on medical gaslighting,” says De Jong. “And educating those affected on how to navigate their care or find better care. Education for those in positions of leadership and power on the menstrual cycle, hormones, things to look out for and an understanding of the role of hormones in mental health.”
The stigma associated with women’s health impacts not only our physical health but also our emotional wellbeing. Breaking the sustained silence surrounding women’s health means listening to women, giving them a voice, and for women to be at the centre of policy change and decision making. It also means talking openly about periods, about the conditions affecting us, and educating the next generation.
“Open the conversation,” says De Jong, “and not be afraid to say we bleed every month, and it sucks, but we will not hide the fact.”