A look back at sexism and dismissal in women’s health over Christmas and the New Year

Happy new year! I hope you’ve all had a wonderful festive break, and sending very best wishes for the year ahead. Thanks also to everyone who responded to my call for submissions before Christmas – I’m really excited about all the brilliant guest posts we’ll be sharing in 2019.

Our first guest post of the year was by campaigner and author Hope Virgo, on being denied treatment for anorexia because her BMI wasn’t low enough. The new year is a particularly tough time for anyone struggling with eating disorders, so it felt like a really important time to share Hope’s story.

Describing her own experience, she writes:

“Let’s weigh you…”

Moments later, the sweating started again. My eyes whirled with tears, my brain went into overdrive. “Your BMI isn’t underweight.”

So what am I? A fake anorexic? A drama queen? An attention seeker? How can I show you I am really struggling?

Hope is now campaigning for healthcare professionals to #DumpTheScales, and stop over-relying on BMI to diagnose eating disorders.

Here’s what’s been happening elsewhere in the two weeks since Hysterical Women took a festive break…

Study highlights ineffective treatment options for endometriosis

New research by Birmingham City University highlights the long delays women face in receiving a diagnosis for endometriosis, as well as the cycle of often ineffective treatment options available to manage the illness.

The research, led by Professor Elaine Denny and Dr Annalise Weckesser – both based in the University’s Faculty of Health, Education and Life Sciences – explored women’s  experiences with medical treatments for endometriosis symptoms and how willing they were to try further treatments.

Dr Annalise Weckesser explained: “It’s estimated that 10 per cent of women worldwide suffer from endometriosis, and it can take years from the onset of symptoms to receive a diagnosis.

“Many women suffering from the condition feel desperate to stop it from taking over their lives, but with no known cause and no definite cure, they end up trying a number of treatments often with little success.

Women’s Mental Health Taskforce report published

The Women’s Mental Health Taskforce report was published shortly before Christmas, with the following recommendations:

  1. Explicitly considering women’s needs in all future mental health policy development, locally and nationally;

  2. Further embedding trauma-informed care by raising expectations across services and awareness across the system and developing the evidence base to demonstrate this value of these approaches;

  3. Supporting routine enquiry about violence and abuse in future policy development, including consideration of a requirement to gather and report data;

  4. Using the principles of the taskforce to inform service design and delivery so that there is better access for women and girls to gender-informed and gender-specific holistic services and after care, including through the women’s sector. The taskforce would like to see such support accessible in every area, providing specialist treatment for women including those from diverse groups e.g. BAME, LBTQ+;

  5. Recognising that women’s identities, and often their roles as mothers and carers, are important in individual treatment and in-service planning. Awareness needs to be raised of this across the system.

  6. Ensuring the safety of women in residential mental health care by ending breaches of single sex wards and pursuing robust policy, practice and reporting processes around sexual harassment and sexual violence.

The taskforce was set up in 2017 following Agenda’s Women in Mind campaign, as evidence illustrated deteriorating mental health among women and poor outcomes experienced by those using support services. You can read the report in full on Agenda’s website.

Women want mandatory consultation for emergency contraception to be scrapped

A poll commissioned by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (bpas) found that the majority of women in the UK would like emergency contraception to be made available for purchase without a mandatory consultation. According to bpas:

64% of women aged 18-45 polled said they believed the consultation should be optional, with 57% wanting to see it sold directly from the shelf.  Women described mixed experiences of the consultation – ranging from: “Awful. Made to feel like a whore” and “Quizzed and made to feel slightly slutty,” to “informative, respectful and swift” and “easy and pain free”. Women also describe instances of being denied the medication they requested, including one case ending in unplanned pregnancy and abortion. The price was also described as “exploitative”.

My Body Won’t Let Me Have Sex

Viva published one woman’s perspective of life with vaginismus – a condition defined as: “involuntary contraction of muscles around the opening of the vagina in women with no abnormalities in the genital organs. The tight muscle contraction makes sexual intercourse or any sexual activity that involves penetration painful or impossible.”

Of her experience, writer Em Ree writes:

After MRIs, painful internal examinations, and many an unfortunate misdiagnosis, eventually they found I had a birth defect in the entrance to my vaginal canal coupled with a narrow pelvic frame that was causing the horrific pain I was experiencing. Once I underwent my surgery to remove the defect, I was told that this was the end of the road and that I was able to lead a happy and fulfilling sex life. I was also signed up for physiotherapy to help me stretch the muscles. Safe to say I was fucking buzzing.

After 6 months, I went back to the gynaecologist for a follow up appointment. I was furious, confused, and I felt so fobbed off yet again. I explained nothing was working and the pain was still there, and he slapdash told me I had something called vaginismus and that the physio should help.

You no longer have a physical fault, so please be assured there is nothing wrong with you anymore—I’ve checked.”

I felt like he thought I was a dickhead with a capital D, and to be fair I felt like one myself. The failed attempts continued and defeated me to the point where I genuinely felt like I was going slowly crazy, where I didn’t recognise myself anymore, and I was gutted that my body and brain weren’t cooperating with one another. My confidence had depleted. I was emotionally and mentally deflated.

‘You did not cry when you had sex, so shut up’: Balkan women share agonising #MeToo gynaecology stories

Another story on the horrifying stories of obstetric and gynaecological violence coming out of Croatia. The Telegraph reports:

“They tied my arms and legs and started a curettage without anaesthesia… these were the 30 most horrible minutes of my life,” Croatian MP Ivana Nincevic-Lesandric told a male-dominated parliament in October.

“I could tell you about every second as each was lasting an eternity,” she said, of the surgery that involves scraping tissue from the uterus and is often performed after a miscarriage or abortion.

“You did not cry when you had sex, so shut up,” one woman recalled a doctor telling her during a biopsy when she was whimpering in pain.

“They held me by my hands, legs and head, and the doctor said I was spoiled for crying,” wrote another, who said she was denied an anaesthetic during a curettage after a miscarriage.

The UK government is failing to meet healthcare needs of trans people

Conservative MP Maria Miller – the former Minister for Women and Equalities, who now chairs the Women and Equalities Select Committee – has accused the UK government of mishandling the healthcare needs of trans people. According to Gay Star News:

She has urged for reforms which would allow trans people better access to vital healthcare.

‘Many trans people simply don’t have access to the basic healthcare that the rest of us take for granted — things like cervical smears are often things that trans men are not able to access,’ she said.

And finally…

The Cut from New York magazine published a fascinating long read by Lisa Miller, on the complex relationship between eostrogen and women’s mental health – Listening to Estrogen: Hormones have always been a third rail in female mental health. They may also be a skeleton key. Here’s just a small snippet, but it’s well worth reading in its entirety:

Estrogen does not have to be a single or straightforward cause of schizophrenia for it to merit the attention of researchers and doctors; it does not have to be a proven miracle cure to represent an opportunity. The treatment of schizophrenia remains today a matter of trial and error, and estrogen represents one promising path forward. Indeed, Sage Therapeutics is currently seeking FDA approval for a progesterone-like synthetic hormone that promises to alleviate postpartum depression, which makes sense. The links between estrogen and mental illness are clear and the prospects for treatment too interesting to dismiss, particularly given how poorly women have been served, over centuries, by doctors who did not want to look squarely at their femaleness in treating them or who saw their problems as expressions of that femaleness and therefore not worth treating.

The stigma associated with women’s menstruation — and hormones and uteruses — goes back at least to Leviticus, which establishes a catalogue of all the ways monthly bleeding makes a woman “unclean.” But menstruation has historically signaled more than just female filth; it has been seen as the cause of women’s anger, volatility, instability, unreliability, weakness, frailty, and neuroticism. The ancient Greeks, including probably Hippocrates, believed the uterus could sometimes become unmoored inside a woman’s body and rattle around, resulting in excessive emotion. The best remedy for this, they thought, was rigorous sex.

Even now, when we know better and pay lip service to the idea that monthly bleeding (and its cessation) is normal and natural, and women laugh over dinner about loving the conveniences of their new period-absorbant underwear, the stigma around menstruation persists and constricts women in two ways. Our legitimate emotions, moods, and reactions are discounted to our hormonal cycles — if we are pissed off or weepy, we are said to be “on the rag,” a diminishment of our anger or distress and a denial of whatever’s troubling us — and at the same time any actual health problems that arise from our reproductive cycles or hormones or organs are disbelieved or minimized.

Yet just as our reproductive organs are thought to make us fragile, emotional, and irrational, we are expected to endure their effects on our bodies and minds stoically and without complaint. Boyfriends and husbands perpetuate this bias, but so do doctors, even elite ones. And if menstruation remains taboo, even in an era when little girls strut around wearing T-shirts that read the future is female, then menopause is worse, because the only thing more disgusting and shameful in culture than the manifestations of fertility — the blood and the egg-white discharge and the hormonal cloud — is the absence of all of that.