Listen When We Talk About Our Bodies
What's up, menstruators & company! This week, we're investigating the medical legacy that has contributed to the invalidation of menstrual pain and dearth of realistic remedies for menstrual health. Hold on to your tampons, it's gonna be a wild ride.
Image: Menstruagram Artist
Elise: Dear Sass Cass,
In my research for Chica, I have come across many apps that are being created for women's health and I am very excited to witness their creation and growing potential. These apps provide important health resources for us that are available at all times - especially important for any one who is too scattered to make an appointment for non-life threatening situations, such as myself. However, I cringe in the face of our patriarchy society when I read the mission statements of most of these companies.
Women are building these apps because there is an overwhelming amount of questions that women and nonbinary people feel are too scary or awkward to ask their OBGYN or primary care giver. One women's healthcare app Tia, creates the opportunity for someone to discuss questions virtually with a health advisor. The CEO of Tia, Carolyn Witte created this customizable virtual space because as she describes, "...taboos around these topics make them really hard to talk about and make you feel really alone” (Bustle interview). This isolation is only intensified when including the intersection of race, class, sexuality, education level of a community, gender identity, body dysmorphia, and more.
Chica follows the tradition of the phrase, "believe a uterus' pain," by providing a natural remedy for our health experiences that are too often deemed as trivial because they arrive with our periods. We're conditioned to believe that discomfort is normal, and our pain has held little interest in the male dominated medical research field. In her book Ask About My Uterus, Abby Norman recounts her experience of the years it took for doctors to recognize her pain and treat her for endometriosis. Rachel Vorona Cote offers a fantastic summary if you don't have a chance to pick up the book, and one paragraph in particular caught my eye because I can't pass up a middle finger to Freud.
The story she tells is strikingly and distressingly Victorian ... Like Freud’s so-called hysterics, who were diminished as “nervous” or excessively emotional, Norman found that her attempts at seeking medical care were frequently derailed by accusations that whatever she felt—thumping abdominal pain, limb numbness—was imagined, perhaps the result of her precocity or “over-active” mind. “You’re clearly very intelligent. Very clever,” sneered one particularly condescending (male) doctor whom Norman confronted. (Cote, The New Republic).
After learning about stories such as this, of course menstruators often feel chained to a negative period. And the scary part is that when severe pain around menstruation is ignored, we are vulnerable to leaving serious conditions such as endometriosis and ovarian cancer untreated. Supporting our menstrual health is important for supporting our overall daily health, but understanding our menstrual health and redefining 'normal' is essential for revolutionizing the doctor's office to actually take care of our bodies. Believe Uterus Pain.
Cass: Dear Cramp Vamp,
How can I even begin to tackle this? Believe Uterus Pain. A simple ask, but it carries with it an intense historical, social, and political weight. I’ve rewritten the beginning of this letter multiple times in an effort to approach the politicized landscape of reproductive health in a relatively cohesive manner, but it should go without saying that such an undertaking is absurd for a single blog post.
I’ll start by enthusiastically joining you in flipping a finger to Freud. Cote’s reference to his “hysteria” diagnosis is appropriate not only in the sense that it is reproduced by medical professionals when they invalidate menstrual pain, but also because his style of rhetoric continues to inform how we talk about periods in popular culture. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard “hysterical” being used to describe women on their period. You can also see this in the well-populated forums on Reddit and Quora addressing the question “Why do women get hostile when asked if they are on their period?” This rhetoric denies any claim to rational thought, and conveniently negates the necessity of providing a solution because it defines menstruation as an unpredictable, uncontrollable, and mysterious area of health.
So, the general consensus forms that periods are simply annoying. A nuisance, for everyone involved–despite the evidence to the contrary. In fact, a tidbit in a Quartz article from 2016 recently got a lot of press because it cited a professor of reproductive health at University College London who ruled cramping pain “almost as bad as having a heart attack.” This was met with a sort of cathartic “yes, we know, it’s about fucking time you acknowledged it” across many social media platforms, but gynecologist Dr. Jen Gunter says that “comparing period cramps to heart attacks isn’t useful or accurate.” A more accurate analogy might be childbirth, or cutting your finger off without anesthetic.
However, the fact that this pain exists has had little bearing on its reception in the Western medical ecosystem, where research in menstrual health is scarce and doctors are often dismissive of menstrual symptoms. Invalidating or ignoring pain that is inherently tied to fertility is no “mere accident or bad habit,” either; it serves a strategic purpose in “protecting men and the world that serves them” (Cote). Women are socialized to normalize their pain, and prioritize fertility over comfort. This preserves the female body as a vessel.
The legacy of the medical profession exploiting other bodies for a ‘greater good’ that exclusively serves said male hegemony is especially pronounced at aforementioned intersections of race, class, sexuality, education level of a community, gender identity, body dysmorphia, etc. Consider the ‘father of modern gynecology,’ J Marion Sims, who developed the surgical techniques that earned him his title by operating on female slaves without anesthesia. His contributions to the field are enshrined in a utilitarian argument that conveniently negates his savage medical abuse, and in this case, “the most powerless group, which is also a racially distinct group and a captive group, is the group upon which doctors inflicted harm” for a supposed ‘greater good’ that black patients do not benefit from in the current medical landscape (Washington, Harriet A. Medical Apartheid. Doubleday Books, 2006.). If women are socialized to normalize their pain, black women are doubly so, which Serena Williams voiced–after nearly dying after childbirth–when she noted that black women are three times more likely than white women to die during pregnancy or childbirth. “Doctors aren’t listening to us” (Ledbetter).
Doctors are in a position to make decisions about other people’s bodies when they are at their most vulnerable. So yeah, believe uterus pain. Erasing it because it doesn’t fit into your frame of reference is quite literally dangerous. In the meantime, we’ll keep making noise over here, because the more people feel comfortable voicing their discomfort, the better.
Cheers to yelling about cramps,
P.S. My letter is already venturing dangerously into research paper territory, but here are some more sources if you're interested in jumping down my rabbit hole: 5 Reasons Plants Are Essential to My Health as a Black Woman, The prevalence of endometriosis among African-American and African-indigenous women, Making The Case That Discrimination Is Bad For Your Health