Women’s Gynaecological Health and its impact on self-esteem

Gynaecological health and self esteem hit the headlines recently courtesy of the comedian and actress Amy Schumer. Following her appearance on the Jimmy Fallon show, viewers noticed her face seemed puffier than usual. And because it’s a woman’s appearance being analysed, many felt compelled to comment loudly and publicly on social media. By way of reply, Amy wrote:

“I have endometriosis an auto immune disease that every woman should read about. There are some medical and hormonal things going on in my world right now but I’m okay. Historically women’s bodies have barely been studied medically compared to men.”

And, within the same week, a Taiwanese study was published stating that women with polycystic ovary syndrome are over eight times more likely to attempt suicide. A stat so disturbing and confronting that I had to check the research twice. Unfortunately, it all seems sound, and this is the reality of how neglected gynaecological health is around the world.

Commenting on the study, Professor Helena Teede, endocrinologist and Director at Monash University, explains that often doctors will focus on the symptoms but not the impact those symptoms have on mental health and self esteem.

“That extension from the symptom to the impact it has on the person is often quite poorly appreciated.”

Why aren’t women’s problems taken seriously?

I feel surprised. And yet I know I shouldn’t. Because it happens all the time. In Taiwan, and Hollywood. And also in my counselling room in St Albans where I specialise in self esteem. I see the link between gynaecological health and self esteem. I hear about it time and time again. Women who are in frequent pain, who are bleeding almost constantly, whose quality of life has been severely impacted are treated as pathetic, fobbed off, told to take paracetamol and have a lie down by medical health professionals.

I know the impact that this has on their self-esteem. It causes damage to be belittled, disbelieved, patronised. Their pain minimised and their mental health challenges highlighted.

There is an overarching idea that women are meant to suffer. From the bible to the beauty salon, it’s just what women do. Ruth, Mary, Martha – infertility, periods, microblading, childbirth – it all hurts. Yet there is also the dual belief that some women just can’t manage pain and disappointment properly. They are hysterical, weak willed and probably a bit spoiled. Too posh to push, fragile flowers, overly sensitive. In fact it can often be a type of medical gaslighting. And I don’t use that term lightly.

How to get the best from medical health professionals

While researching ways that women can advocate for themselves in the consulting room, I found some advice from Tina Sacks, an associate professor in the school of social welfare at UC Berkeley. Here are her recommendations on how to get effective care and treatment from GPs.

  1. One thing to remember when we go to the doctor is that the provider has specialised knowledge of healthcare and health topics in general, but you know your body. You know more than anyone else about what’s happening to you. If persistent symptoms are quickly attributed to weight, stress, anxiety, depression or work overload, it’s possible that your concerns are being minimised. 
  2. To ensure that your concerns are taken seriously, take notes before visiting your doctor, and list any changes you’ve noticed in your health. Come prepared with a list of questions and concerns you hope to discuss during your visit.
  3. Consider bringing another person to the appointment with you, if allowed. This will give you an extra ear and emotional support. A close friend can validate your concerns and reiterate them if they’re being dismissed. And sometimes, when there’s a second person in the room, that person is another voice. They can say, ‘No, she never had complaints like this in the past,’ and ‘No, this isn’t related to stress.’ Basically it can lend weight and some evidence to what you’re saying.

Further reading and recommendations

And if you want to do a bit of reading around the subject of gynaecological health and self esteem, I have some recommendations. Alongside Amy Schumer I too found It’s all in your Head a fascinating read. And also Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez is an excellent book. It takes a look at how women are knowingly excluded from the design process of a range of products and medical interventions and examines why this still is.

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