Society often romanticizes the notion that women are hard-wired for endurance and suffering and celebrates their fortitude. This perspective holds a woman’s body as an integral part of her identity, while any deficiency associated with it puts her womanhood into question. Although the idealization of women’s strength seems empowering at first glance, it—alongside the narrative of the damsel in distress—has normalized their suffering and prevents the implementation of effective, timely healthcare.
Let’s take extreme pain, cramping, heavy or irregular bleeding during periods, and infertility as examples. These conditions are often categorized as symptoms of being a woman. Rather than being considered irregularities that necessitate medical attention, they are treated as innate problems that stem from menstruation and the fluctuation of female hormones and bodies. But for one out of nine women, the presence of these symptoms can be an indicator of a more severe condition—endometriosis.
Endometriosis is a painful gynecological disorder in which the tissue that lines the inside of the uterus grows outside of it, in places like the ovaries, fallopian tubes, and other organs. It affects roughly 10% of women of reproductive age and those assigned female at birth globally. Yet it takes the average person over six years after the onset of their symptoms to be diagnosed with the condition.
Though approximately 190 million people worldwide have endometriosis, doctors often ignore, normalize, and dismiss symptoms, prolonging patients’ diagnoses. The disorder has been largely ignored in government policy and research funding globally. It is referred to as the “missed disease” due to its unclear etiology and inconsistencies in its management. Endometriosis may be difficult to detect, misdiagnosed, or ultimately dismissed, as it is an “invisible” condition that can only be confirmed with laparoscopic surgery and biopsy.
Endometriosis’s association with social constructs around menstruation and women’s pain has likely led to its lack of attention in healthcare. Despite the willful ignorance surrounding endometriosis in health care, activists worldwide have come forward over the past 15 years to raise awareness about the disease and share their stories.
Author, model, philanthropist, and Emmy-nominated television host Padma Lakshmi received her endometriosis diagnosis 23 years after the onset of her symptoms. It took multiple laparoscopic surgeries in the following years for her to, “see what life was like for a normal woman.” After realizing firsthand how under-studied endometriosis is, Lakshmi partnered with her surgeon to create the Endometriosis Foundation of America (EndoFound), which advocates for patients, raises awareness, and funds research.
Similarly, Australian television personality, conservationist, zookeeper, and actress Bindi Irwin recently shared her story of endometriosis after undergoing surgery for the condition. In an Instagram post following the procedure, Irwin wrote “For 10 yrs I’ve struggled with insurmountable fatigue, pain & nausea. Trying to remain a positive person & hide the pain has been a very long road. … A doctor told me it was simply something you deal with as a woman & I gave up entirely, trying to function through the pain.”
But, Lakshmi and Irwin are not alone in their struggle to find care for their illness. Biases in healthcare have historically encouraged healthcare professionals to disbelieve women; and, as seen in Lakshmi and Irwin’s cases, they continue to do so today. Medical professionals have too often failed to take women’s pain seriously; thus women struggle to be heard and find few advocate for their conditions, from endometriosis to postpartum depression. Attributed to patriarchy at large, this discrepancy in healthcare is overtly and covertly used to minimize women’s voices. By linking femininity with sensitivity and fragility, healthcare providers have prevented women from receiving the proper care they need.
Due to hegemonic masculinity in medicine and society, endometriosis symptoms are minimized and downplayed within healthcare; as a result, few are aware of this common ailment. But how many more people need to suffer in silence before they can be diagnosed and treated? The significance of endometriosis as a chronic, life-limiting condition that affects millions globally requires attention, illumination, and dialogue. The misogynistic idea that a woman must suffer before a medical professional takes her pain seriously must be eliminated.
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