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Less Shame & More Research: Changing the Conversation on Women's Health

Women's Health Week is May 10-16, this week we discuss letting go of the shame that surrounds women's bodies.

Women have learned to feel a lot of shame about their bodies and it isn’t just how we look externally; we have been shamed about everything from our vaginas, boobs, body hair, sexuality (or lack of), menstrual cycle… you name it we have dealt with it. One of the major problems with all the shame around our bodies is that it causes silence and silence is dangerous. If women don’t understand how their body should work then how can they ever sufficiently take care of themselves? If women don’t have the right to make decisions about their body, and aren’t given the facts about how their body should function, how can they ever fully let go of the shame and stigmas that surround them? How can they help their friends who have questions or the next generation who will look to older women for their experience?

Women have lived with this shame for so long that some don’t even talk about something as perfectly normal as their period with friends, something we all deal with, because they feel it is too taboo to discuss openly. Seriously, why is it that even when almost every woman gets a period we have grown up to be ashamed of it? Why have we had to hide our tampons and periods and slink in to the bathroom hoping no one knows?

There is so much about our bodies we don’t fully understand and sometimes we are even afraid to ask. We are these powerful beings with bodies that can do amazing things (we can carry and then deliver babies out of our vaginas for the love of God!!!) and I believe that it is vital to our health and well-being that we get to a place where we are able to talk more openly about the issues we deal with every day.

But here is the other thing we need: research. Part of the reason so many of us lack the knowledge is because our world as a whole does. Women, you know the same human beings who make up over half the world’s population, have been treated as some anomaly that didn’t deserve to be studied (don’t even get me started on how absurd the idea we are anomaly is). Our bodies are so misunderstood, sure there has been a small push recently to better understand them, but that push still isn’t big enough or funded well enough. So listen to all my ladies making up half the population, and the men who share this planet with them, let’s raise our voice and demand action. Why? Let me give you a few things to chew on…

It wasn’t even a requirement till the 90s that women be included in government funded studies, so that means long term studies, the really helpful ones when it comes to health, still don’t actually reflect how women are affected. We don’t actually know that much about women’s health. The US has the highest maternal mortality rate in the developed world, mostly because unlike other countries we won’t come up with a streamlined approach to treat the issues that arise post birth. Failing to study women can have serious health consequences…Consider heart disease: Women are historically underrepresented in cardiovascular research because they often have different symptoms than men. For women, a heart attack could feel similar to indigestion—not pain in the chest. This bias is at least partly responsible for the fact that women are less likely to survive a heart attack, particularly when treated by a male doctor. Women have also been the victims of unforeseen bad reactions to certain drugs. In a span of three years 8 of the 10 drugs for which the FDA withdrew its approval had harmful side effects for women which they did not know prior to releasing them on the market. (Foley)

Did you know women live longer than men? And that isn’t just a trend in America that is a fact in all countries across the globe; the life expectancy of women is longer than that of men, and this isn’t a new thing, research shows this has been true throughout history. The crazy thing is they have just started to research why this might occur, (do I have even to point out the fact that once again women are considered the weaker sex yet outlive their male counterparts?) there are popular theories but no real concrete answers. Many believe that it has to do with our estrogen and progesterone levels protecting us from certain diseases but we have barely scratched the surface on this research (I will hold for your surprise). Another popular theory is that women tend to take their health more serious and visit their physicians and report issues they are having. “When it comes to the most basic instinct of all-survival-women’s bodies tend to better equipped than men’s.”

So wait, women are the medical world’s bread and butter? Not only do we use their services more often but all this time we could have helped the general population live longer?!? It is like they don’t even know…but maybe it is worse than that, maybe it is that those in power making decisions don’t really care.

That is why I am going to dive more in to Women's Health this year, and really the existence of Women Do, because I want to help women know what research is out there. To help them better understand their bodies and then be able to share that information. To find good medical providers who take their health seriously and have done the research. To stop allowing perfectly normal things, like our period, be treated as taboo and start openly talking about them. To start answering the questions so many of us have. To start learning things we didn’t even know we needed to be aware of. To get to the experts and figure out how we can live our healthiest life, not based on research done on men, but research done on women. And to make us in to not only our own best advocate but also an advocate for all the women around us. My career has been in sports medicine and I have seen first hand how the lack of research on the female athlete has affected them, there are changes being made mostly thanks to power houses like the US Women's Soccer Team, but we need more NOW, on all ages.

Wouldn’t it be phenomenal if when we visited our healthcare providers they knew more about us? Wouldn’t it be amazing to know that if women are going to make up a large percentage of the day to day population that is coming in to their office that they are knowledgeable about what affects us and how it affects us? Wouldn’t it make sense that if women are going to come in to offices more often that research about how medications and treatments affect their bodies would be equally funded and important? And that they take our concerns seriously? The answer to all of these is yes, but the truth is we aren’t there yet.

I understand that I am standing on a soap box here but the truth is more of us need to. There is so much that we don’t discuss and don’t research about women’s health. But I believe with our size in population alone we can demand more if we work together. There are too many things that we need to know and too many things we learn too late or never learn at all. It is time to make it better for women now and for generations to come. We won’t be able to cover it all here but maybe, JUST maybe, we can start a conversation. And if that conversation leads to even one woman taking a hold of her health and finding healthcare providers who listen, and explain, and make that woman feel heard on her journey then this was worth every ounce of research and writing it took to make this series. I don’t want to live in shame about my body for one more second and I don’t want other women to either. I want us to be able to talk about it, and more importantly, understand it. I want us to be fully knowledgeable in the fact our differences DO NOT make us less than or weaker and they do not make us anomalies. We have been underrepresented in research and decision making for too long. We have been misunderstood and worse disregarded at times but the time has come to demand change. The time has come to finally understand women’s bodies and our health because our lives depend on it.