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Holtzman: When women say they’re in pain, believe them

Rachel Holtzman, Columnist

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Even within our modern healthcare system, women still face remarkable stereotypes about pain and suffering in doctor’s offices. It starts with the everyday workings of female bodies — the classification of PMS and PMDD, for example, is often trivialized as a joke. In 2018, male doctors are finally starting to understand that periods can be as painful as heart attacks to some women. What seems like common sense to me and many women in this generation took centuries to work its way into the medical community.

And that’s just when it comes to ordinary bodily functions. When life events like childbirth or the onset of chronic illness happen, the implicit misogyny present in doctor’s offices becomes even worse. Women are more likely to have their pain trivialized, and they often have to prove their suffering is equal to that of a man’s to get attention. Still, others are considered hysterical. And with so little understanding of women’s bodies, childbirth can be an ordeal. This holds especially true for women of color and poorer women in the United States. Thanks in part to an inability to recognize mothers in crisis, the U.S. maternal mortality rate is the highest in the developed world. No, not all women have uteruses and not all people with uteruses are women, but the trivialization of maternal health is a product of generalizations about biology, gender and whose pain gets to count.

Meanwhile, up to 10 percent of women in the U.S. continue to suffer from endometriosis, a disease in which uterine lining grows outside the uterus, causing severe pain and, potentially, infertility. Yet few treatment options have been developed, and a conversation has only recently begun to form on social media about understanding and destigmatizing it.

All these statistics of suffering can’t be collectively explained by technology or educational gaps; rather, bias against women makes it difficult to get needed treatment or sympathy. It’s an uncomfortable truth, but some of the clearest flaws in American health care (besides a lack of universal access) come from ignorance. Women’s pain is less seen, less understood and less believed than men’s pain. Ignoring the pain of women can waste productivity, but it also costs lives and ultimately reinforces the idea that women’s pain and, ultimately, women’s voices matter less.

Part of the problem comes from the lack of funding and research devoted to promoting an understanding of women’s pain. Even the most up-to-date medical findings use the body of a white male as the basis for understanding symptoms of a variety of health crises, from heart attacks to kidney stones. As a 2016 Quartz article notes, without an advertiser or lobby willing to use language like “vagina,” “menstrual bleeding” or “uterine lining,” it’s difficult to explain the challenges women face to a wider audience. Deeply ingrained sexism makes these words dirty, unimportant and less-than; when healthcare providers don’t take women’s health seriously, less money goes toward understanding these critical health problems, leaving women in the lurch.

From chronic pain, to maternal challenges, to mental illness, millions of women run the risk of not being believed by their doctors. At Northwestern and beyond, we must take the time to understand women’s pain, instead of brushing it under the rug, and give it the study and examination it deserves. Otherwise, many women on this campus, in this city and in this country will continue to suffer when they simply don’t have to.

Rachel Holtzman is a Medill senior. She can be contacted at rachelholtzman2018@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

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