How Sexism Is Hurting Your Health
With a new year upon us, our lives are full of resolutions — especially those tied to wellness. Seemingly everyone wants to be fitter, eat healthier, and live a more holistic life. But while we can dictate how much we exercise, the foods we eat, and the amount of sleep we get, some variables are less controllable — like, for example, the sexist attitudes (both subtle and overt) that continue to affect how women’s health is studied, funded, and treated.
Research into women's health is, almost across the board, considered a lower priority than research into men's health . This is most clearly demonstrated through the fact that women aren’t included in clinical trials at the rate they should be, leaving medical researchers to struggle to understand the gender differences of common diseases. For instance, only one-third of participants in clinical trials to test drugs and medical devices for heart disease are women, and most of those studies don’t report results for men and women separately. And while twice as many women suffer from depression as men, less than 45 percent of animal studies aimed at better understanding depression use female lab animals.
This troubling trend reaches all aspects of medicine — from the laboratory to the clinic to the ER. Here are just some of the ways sexism is affecting your health.
It May Have Kept You From Receiving All The Facts About Your Birth Control
A Danish study published in JAMA Psychiatry recently made waves for finding a correlation between the use of hormonal birth control and clinical depression. While the study found that women on the pill, vaginal ring, or a hormonal IUD were more likely to be prescribed antidepressants, those findings were widely debated — further complicating a women’s ability to know what this kind of information means for them.
The study may be the first to bring the connection between hormonal birth control and depression out of the shadows, but it isn’t the first to identify a link between hormonal birth control and mood change. In fact, according to Broadly, subjects involved in research trials for the birth control pill as far back as the 1950s also complained of issues with mood change.
In fact, for a medical innovation that has been so helpful for so many women, the origin story of hormonal birth control is filled with oft-disregarded rampant racism and sexism. When the pill was being developed in the 1950s, many test subjects were told that they were participating in a fertility study; they were not informed that the pill was designed to prevent them from getting pregnant. In another clinical trial, women attending medical school in Puerto Rico were told that they had to participate in testing out the new medication or face expulsion.
According to the National Center for Health Statistics, 16 percent of American women ages 15–44 use the pill, and 7.2 percent use IUDs or vaginal rings. Having full knowledge of the history of hormonal birth control, as well as knowing exactly how it affects your health and well-being, are both essential for making a truly informed decision.
It’s Putting You At Greater Potential Risk Of Contracting Diseases Like Zika
When the Zika virus landed stateside, the White House said it would need $1.9 billion to effectively protect Americans from the disease. But congressional Republicans didn’t approve the emergency funds until the last possible minute; by then, more than 23,000 people in the mainland U.S. and Puerto Rico had contracted the Zika virus.
Moreover, initial warnings were exclusively targeted at pregnant women, asking them to avoid countries with Zika outbreaks and encouraging them to use condoms or abstain from sex if their partner might have Zika — effectively placing the responsibility of staying healthy on women. Writer Paula Young Lee wondered in Dame Magazine: “Rather than telling women to ‘avoid pregnancy’ in the manner of avoiding a pothole, why are none of these assorted agencies telling men to stop having procreative sex until we know more about Zika?”
Chavi Eve Karkowsky, a medical doctor specializing in high-risk pregnancies, argued that since Zika doesn’t really affect people who aren’t pregnant — 80 percent of adults who get it are asymptomatic — it wasn’t being taken seriously as a public health crisis.
“Maybe these people will start to notice that nothing about taking care of humans during reproduction is easy, or simple,” Karkowsky told the Daily Beast. “And maybe they’ll start to think that it might be helpful if we could add some nuance to the debates about sex or contraception or abortion. Maybe we can start to talk about some of these issues in stories and compassion, instead of slogans and shouting.”
It Discourages Us From Speaking Up About Having A Heart Attack
Yet even when women make it to a doctor’s office or an emergency room, they often remain subjected to biased treatment that could be a matter of life or death. In a preliminary study published in Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes, researchers found that women have trouble recognizing when they’re having symptoms of a heart attack. Contrary to the Hollywood stereotype of the dramatic heart attack, symptoms in real life — like nausea or pain down the arms — aren’t always so obvious.
Sadly, even when women think they’re having a heart attack, many said they hesitated to seek help because they didn’t want to appear to be overreacting. Their concerns are valid: Several women in the study reported that they were initially misdiagnosed with conditions like acid reflux or gas. According to Judith Lichtman, associate professor of epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health, medical professionals “need to do a better job of listening.” And with heart disease being the leading cause of death for women in the United States, Lichtman told NPR that women must be empowered “to share their concerns and symptoms.”
It Can Make Doctors Disregard Your Pain
Another study, “The Girl Who Cried Pain,” identifies how gender bias tends to play out in clinical pain management. For example, the study found that women are more likely to be given sedatives for their pain while men are more likely to receive pain medication, and physicians prescribed less pain medication for women aged 55 or older than for men in the same age group.
In his essay “How Doctors Take Women’s Pain Less Seriously,” Joe Fassler recounts his wife Rachel’s harrowing ER journey of being misdiagnosed with kidney stones, when she was actually suffering from an ovarian torsion — her fallopian tube was twisted like a wrung-out sponge — which could prove fatal if left untreated.
“Nationwide, men wait an average of 49 minutes before receiving an analgesic [painkiller] for acute abdominal pain,” Fassler wrote. “Women wait an average of 65 minutes for the same thing. Rachel waited somewhere between 90 minutes and two hours.”
Unfortunately, the current political climate isn’t exactly a warm and welcoming place for women’s health. Congressional Republicans have begun taking steps to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and House Speaker Paul Ryan announced that Republicans will strip all federal funding for Planned Parenthood as part of the process they’re using to dismantle Obamacare. Congresswoman Barbara Lee tweeted that these moves will leave “many women with zero healthcare options.”
Whether you suspect that your birth control is jeopardizing your mental health, that your stomach pain isn’t just cramps, or that your nausea might be linked to something serious, trust your gut and never let pervasive sexist attitudes tell you otherwise. Fight for your health — because without it, there isn’t much worth fighting for.
Image: Ashley Batez for Bustle