Are doctors sexist? (Exploring the phenomenon of the young, sick female)

Before I launch into this post, I’d like to thank all the gracious, intelligent, and hard-working practitioners who have helped me over the years. You have not gone unnoticed or unappreciated!


 

Have you ever cringed at one of those “Lyrica” commercials that make fibromyalgia look like a total joke? You can just see it now…the sad music plays in the background as some pitiful-looking middle aged lady rubs her arm in mild pain and gently sighs.

That poor commercial-lady has come down with a bad case of “bored housewife syndrome.” Or at least that’s what they make it look like.

Terms like “chronic fatigue syndrome” translates to a lot of people (including doctors) as “lazy person syndrome.” When in reality, misunderstood and poorly-named conditions like chronic fatigue can be life changing and downright disabling in many cases.

When was the last time you heard of a man being diagnosed with one of these dinky conditions like “chronic fatigue syndrome” or “fibromyalgia”? Women have got to be making this stuff up, right? Or at least exaggerating their symptoms…right?!

This is absolutely not to shame or overlook men with these types of chronic diseases (in truth, I feel great empathy for chronically ill guys who feel weak and emasculated because of it).

But the point is: women are disproportionately struck by the more under-researched chronic illnesses and our medical system is not equipped to deal with them. The result? Women getting shamed, blamed, and shrugged off at the doctor’s office.

As a young woman who grew up with several chronic, mystery illnesses, I’ve had my fair share of doctors look down their noses at me in disbelief as I rattled of a 3-page list of symptoms. Over the years I’ve noticed that young females, in particular, tend to have their health problems chalked up to one of several specific issues: eating disorders, stress, anxiety, and “women’s issues” (aka. periods and pregnancy). And if their health struggles don’t fall into one of those categories then they are often told that their symptoms are psychiatric or somatic in nature.

Why are these ladies so gosh darn hysterical?AAA hysterical-women pohto for blog

I’d bet a whole lot of money that this all goes back to the classic “hysterical female” trope that started in the 5th century (B.C.) and had it’s hay-day in the mid 1800’s. The ancient notion that women act irrationally due to a “wandering womb” has simply been replaced with the modern notion that women act irrationally due to…you guessed it…hormones!

And while there certainly is a real connection between imbalanced hormones and erratic emotions (coming from the queen of PMS, herself!), the idea that these poor naive women can’t tell a physical problem from a “bout of nervousness or anxiety” needs to go.

Obviously, most people nowadays would never say outright that they don’t trust women to know what’s good for themselves, but little slivers of this mindset are woven throughout the fabric of the medical system. And it rears its ugly head when a young woman walks into the doctor’s office with a pile of strange symptoms not easily explained by a common ailment.

Here is a short list the phrases doctors may use to dismiss a woman’s legitimate, physical complaints:

  • “Period pain and feeling moody? That’s just part of being a woman.”
  • “It’s very common for young women to deal with body image issues and eating disorders…”
  • “Juggling a family and a career? If your “trying to have it all,” no wonder you’re falling apart!”
  • “You’re probably just really stressed out. You might try dropping a few courses?”
  • “You’re exhausted, huh? Well, welcome to motherhood! That’s just part of the deal.”
  • “A lot of your symptoms can be explained by anxiety…”
  • “Have you also been feeling pretty blue, lately? Do you notice that you’re sleeping a lot more than normal?”
  • “Yeah, “growing pains” are pretty common at your age.”

And while sometimes a woman’s symptoms can be explained by anxiety, an eating disorder, motherhood, or just going through puberty or menopause, these kinds of dismissive statements imply that you are making a big fuss over nothing.

There is a difference between mild menstrual cramps and the excruciating symptoms of the disease called endometriosis.

There is a difference between a new mother who is healthy but tired, and a mom with thyroid disease and chronic fatigue syndrome who can barely make it to the grocery store and back.

There is a difference between a college student who is temporarily exhausted from too many late nights studying (and partying), and a college student who can’t walk to class because they’re being crushed by exhaustion.

So, doctor’s are careless and lazy sometimes…how does this become a “women’s issue?”

It’s a women’s issue because, statistically and anecdotally, women are more likely than men are to have their physical health issues labeled as purely psychological or shrugged off as a minor inconvenience.

AAA female hysteria 3
Thomas Lanier “Tennessee” Williams (an American playwright) weighed in with his very expert, medical opinion.

It is a known fact that women are twice as likely to experience an anxiety disorder than men are (or at least they are diagnosed twice as often as men). But that does not mean that every physical symptom a woman has is because of her anxiety.

Because all women have anxiety, right? We are fragile little birdies who quake at every gentle breeze and falling leaf. It turns out that we exist in a only in a vacuum of unchecked hysteria, hormones, and irrational emotion.

In fact, we have no physical bodies at all. We are simply a glob of atoms suspended by a web of estrogen, dark chocolate, and Ryan Gosling movies.

~Men have real physical problems, and women just have anxiety~

Or at least that’s the vibe you get when you leave the 100th doctor’s office with nothing more than a pamphlet on anxiety disorders and a referral to yet another psychologist.

The results of my very official Twitter poll even showed that 85% of the women who responded felt that their concerns at the doctor’s office had been taken less seriously one or more times, purely because they were female.

twitter poll 2

And although this poll only surveyed a very small fraction of the chronic illness community (with 517 responses), I think the numbers still speak for themselves.

Being blown off, misdiagnosed, and dismissed as a hypochondriac is obviously not just a woman’s issue, but it happens a lot more often to women than it does to men. But regardless of which gender, this kind of behavior isn’t right.

It’s about time the medical community started taking chronic illness and its implications more seriously.

When you’re “too young” to be this sick

So we’ve covered the first half of the “sick, young female phenomenon,” and now it’s time for the second part: it turns out that youth is not your friend in the doctor’s office.

I could go on for days about all the times I’ve been “health shamed” by doctors and older adults in general who have no idea how hard it is to be disabled and sick in the supposed “prime” of your life.

I’ve heard more passive comments about “growing pains” and about how “young people bounce back” than I care to mention.

AAA Female_patient_with_sleep_hysteria_Wellcome_L0040300
A young patient with “sleep hysteria” in Paris, France

So many doctors can’t seem to grasp the concept that young people can, in fact, have serious chronic health conditions that weren’t entirely caused by a reckless lifestyle. It’s as if the medical community is blind to the fact that people are starting to get sicker and sicker, at younger and younger ages (at least in America they are).

I have run across the stories of countless young women who were between the ages of 15-30, all who were extremely ill with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, dysautonomia, compromised immune systems, Lupus, mast cell disorders, severe allergies, Lyme disease, POTS, epilepsy, and many, many other life altering diseases.

The number of children who are growing up with severe mental and physical health issues these days is staggering. And it’s not because we are any less strong or motivated than the generations before us. There are more of sick kids because our genetics are screwy and our environment has gone to crap.

And it’s about time we were taken seriously.

Alright-y, I’m all done ranting. Now, onto the practical part…

Hey sick girls, here’s a few self-help tips:

  1. Try switching to a female doctor. If you have a history of being dismissed by male doctors, try a female practitioner. Sometimes it’s harder for a man who doesn’t experience periods and female issues to distinguish what’s way out of the norm. Older male doctors may have an even harder time seeing past the “female-ness” of their patient, so if they can’t, go for the lady doctor.
  2. Advocate for yourself until you can find a doctor who will also advocate for you! This biggest hurdle in my chronic illness journey as finding a practitioner who would validate my illnesses. Even if they didn’t fully understand what was going on, just having someone with a medical degree say “I believe that you’re in real pain and it’s not your fault,” can mean everything. Until you can find such a doctor, research on your own time, explore other options, do your homework, and show those doctors that you take yourself seriously and that they should take you seriously as well.
  3. Get a support system to back you up. Unfortunately, sometimes your own voice isn’t enough to convince a practitioner that you truly are that sick. If you can talk a parent, relative, or adult family friend who knows your well into accompanying you to your next medical appointment, do it! I have personally felt the entire tone of the conversation change when an adult relative spoke up on my behalf and said “I can vouch for her, I know she’s really sick because she can’t do _____ anymore.”
  4. Don’t dismiss your own mental health concerns. I know how infuriating and defeating it can be to rattle off a 3-page list of physical symptoms only to be slapped with a label of “anxiety” or “depression” and sent out the door. And obviously you’re dealing with real, physical issues, but most of the time we also have some mental health issues (often as a result of our physical illness) and it’s wise to deal with that part, too. You may want to throw that recommendation for counseling back in your M.D.’s face, but in reality, it’s in your own best interest to also address any anxiety, depression, or stress that’s going on. Once you’ve got that going…then you can drop that doctor like a hot potato and write them a bad Yelp review.

You can also check out this link for a relatable info-graphic that perfectly sums up the issue of “sexism” in the doctors office.

If there is anything that you should take away from this post, it’s these three things:

  1. You are too valuable to have your health concerns thrown to the wayside
  2. You deserve to be truly cared for (by your medical team and by people in general)
  3. You have the power to stand up for yourself and be heard–you’ve got a voice, so use it!

Until next time…you go, ladies (and gents)!

Love,

Em the Silver Spoonie

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4 thoughts on “Are doctors sexist? (Exploring the phenomenon of the young, sick female)

  1. Oh my gosh, this hits home hard. Especially compounding young age with it! Unfortunately, my worst experience with this was with a female doctor, who straight-up accused me of lying about my (lack of) sexual activity and (lack of) partying and binge-drinking, because obviously every underclass college student gets blackout drunk and sleeps with someone new every night. //end mini-rant//

    Thanks for this, Emily. 🙂

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    1. You are so welcome, Kristin, and thanks for reading! I think it is so sad that so many young women can connect to this post and totally know what I’m talking about. And it’s even worse when the doctor shaming/not believing you is a woman…she should know better! I have never personally met a doctor who was openly sexist towards me, but it seems to be so subtle that the doctors probably don’t even know that’s how their thinking. The notion that women can’t be trusted or that they don’t know what is good for them is so degrading.

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  2. We don’t get drug commercials like that in Aus – they sound like I’m not missing out on much! Thanks for writing about this issue. There are some horrific stories out there about women who have had irreparable damage done to their bodies because their concerns were not taken seriously by medical professionals. A stellar Aussie journalist, Jill Singer, recently passed away from a rare blood disease. She spent much of the last portion of her life in a psychiatric hospital, having been incorrectly misdiagnosed with depression – when in reality, her body was shutting down, and when she finally had a diagnosis, the damage was done. What a crime.

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    1. Yes, I’ve heard that other countries don’t have drug commercials on TV, which seems a lot smarter to me. I personally think it’s kind of unethical to have drug commercials, because then patients pressure their doctors for certain drugs and that’s not how medicine should work. And that is so sad about Jill Singer…let’s hope that the medical community starts to wise up about these things…

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