Guest post by women’s health artivist Alicja Pawluczuk
Medical misogyny sucks.
Medical misogyny might involve someone:
(1) dismissing the severity of your pain (“oh, no need to be hysterical, it can’t be that bad!”)
(2) disbelieving your pain (“it’s all in your head”)
and yet normalising your pain at the same time (“your pain is part of your nature”)
As an endometriosis and chronic-pain warrior, I have heard all of the above over and over again. Medical misogyny (e.g. dislike of, contempt for, or ingrained prejudice against women in the context of their health) has shaped my identity as a difficult woman and a patient, and – most importantly – a furious artivist, ironically using the artistic pseudonym @hy_stera.
In 2020 I launched an online exhibition, Gendered Pain. In it I explore some of the socially-constructed narratives of women’s pain, both online and offline. In this post, I’d like to briefly tell you about what motivates me to obsessively create bloody and weird endo-related art, and why I believe it is important to continue to harp on about medical misogyny.
Collective social media scream: take our pain seriously
At the time of writing this post, there are 1,680,674 #endometriosis posts on Instagram. As I scroll through my feed (it’s 2 am), I’m yet again overwhelmed by the amount of #endo posts. There are countless stories of pain, hope, and support. Just during my 30 sec doom-scrolling session, I came across stories of a young girl sharing her experiences of being ignored by her doctor; a pre-laparoscopic selfie; and a hilarious #chronicpain meme (this one is so relatable).
Social media has helped me in so many ways over the years. “Has anyone tried this medication before?”, “Is it normal to bleed non-stop for a month?”, “How should I approach my doctors so they take me seriously?” Private groups made me feel safe and confident to share my most embarrassing concerns related to my chronic illness. However, it was not only about understanding endometriosis as an illness, but recognising its social dimension – for example, menstrual injustice and medical misogyny. Endometriosis support groups continue to be instrumental in developing my self-advocacy, resilience, and self-care. Both my advocacy and artworks have been heavily influenced by the #endowarriors community.
Still, let’s not forget the dark side of the endometriosis community and its indirect impact on one’s mental health. Despair, anxiety, and disbelief – these are some of the feelings I’ve experienced too. Scrolling through online ‘cry-outs-for-help’ (“please help, I can’t take it anymore”) have made me feel powerless and hopeless. In particular, I remember the death of Alison Kimberley, who took her own life after desperately trying to get help (and being dismissed) at one of the Australian hospitals. Her last Facebook post, her story of pain, stayed with me for a long time.
Why are female patients not taken seriously? What can be done to bring female patients’ voices to the forefront without labelling them as hysterical? And finally, whose responsibility is it to get their shit together? Patients? Medical professionals? Or society as a whole? I decided to dig into these questions.
Playing the socially constructed role of a sensible endometriosis patient
In 2018, I wrote a blog post about my personal struggles of being a female patient in the United Kingdom. Apart from being perceived as a difficult woman, with a tendency to exaggerate her pain, I was also an Eastern European migrant. To be taken seriously, I had to manage my different identities to ensure that my pain is taken seriously.
My long lasting chronic pain experience made me realise that medical misogyny is another form of systemic oppression. Societal preconceived perceptions of pain have been informed by centuries of sexist assumptions, male-centred science, and some truly bizarre theories. It was clear to me that women do not even get the privilege of owning their pain. Women’s pain – or at least the narratives of their pain – are affected by their social status, race, disability, physical appearance and many other factors. Women’s pain is like a performance, to be judged by those around her (employers, family, doctors): Does she sound and look credible? Does her story add up? These are some of the problems I explore in my art and in my recent exhibition.
Genderedpain.online art manifesto: responding to medical misogyny
So, what’s Gendered Pain all about?
It’s loud, colourful, and bloody weird. You can listen to the male voice reading out infuriating statements about women and women’s pain. You can listen to patients’ social media posts (note: these are not real posts, but representations of some of the online discussion). You can also play gendered-pain bingo and learn about the different preconceptions that might affect your pain narrative (e.g. age, weight, social class). You can admire (or not) some of the striking visuals of glitter, meat, and red paint.
Finally, if you feel that this isn’t weird enough, please feel free to follow me on Instagram. I’d love to connect and take this conversation forward.
Let’s get bloody angry and creative together!