Women’s health has made recent headlines for all the wrong reasons. Alabama, Texas, and Idaho have recently passed stringent anti-abortion laws, and a UK-based survey of 110,123 women found that taboos and stigmas prevented many women from getting the treatment and help they needed.
Unfortunately, these findings won’t strike many as a surprise. The healthcare industry has a long, shameful history of undermining women, and even today physicians gaslight women patients regularly and continue to view women as “hysterical” and “emotional” while men are seen as “stoic” and “brave”.
But what exactly is gas-lighting, and how does it impact women’s health?
What is Gas-lighting?
“Gas-lighting” refers to a kind of emotional and psychological abuse that undermines a person’s self-esteem causing them to doubt their own reality. Deepa Chandrachud explains, gas-lighting can “create a sense of fear”. Victims feel isolated from friends and family who can often help. Usually, gas-lighting occurs when a dominating partner makes their victim feel as though their worries and ideas are trivial. But, it can happen in healthcare, too.
Healthcare has a long and infamous history of gas-lighting women. The short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkin Gilman is the most well-known example of gas-lighting. The story’s protagonist is forced into taking the so-called “rest-cure” even though they personally “believe that congenial work, with excitement and change”, would help alleviate their symptoms.
Perkins Gilman best explains gaslighting through her protagonist’s internal monologue, who wonders:
“If a physician of high standing, and one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression—a slight hysterical tendency—what is one to do?”
Perkins-Gilman’s protagonist knows full well that her problem is not a “temporary nervous depression”. It is rather a form of postpartum depression. But, as you may have guessed, neither her husband nor her physician accounts for her own experience. Instead, they prescribe the “rest cure” which only deepens her postpartum depression and undermines her sense of reality.
Even though Perkins-Gilman’s story is fiction, the gas-lighting experienced by her protagonist is real. Men in healthcare really did gas-light Gilman 50 years later. She was was subjected to the torturous “rest cure”. Unfortunately, women today continue to find resonance with Perkin-Gilman’s protagonist. Gas-lighting in the healthcare industry has simply changed form rather than disappeared.
While legitimate medical practices have done away with rest cure, gas-lighting in women’s healthcare still persists. In particular, women do not get adequate access to pain relief medicines. Doctors often tell them that their symptoms of pain are “in their head”. Healthcare professionals might misdiagnose them.
Njambi Koikai’s experience with endometriosis serves as a testament to the continued gender bias in access to pain medication. Koikai has lived with endometriosis for 17 years. It’s a debilitating condition where tissues that line the womb grow in other parts of the body. But she never received adequate pain medication due to stigma around periods. Doctors repeatedly told her “it was in her head” or that she was just seeking attention.
The healthcare industry needs systemic change to shift the conversation around pain and medication for women. But, in the meantime, women can self-advocate and get doctors to acknowledge their pain by keeping a record of their pain and bringing a buddy to “vouch” for them. These solutions are not perfect. They are signs of a broken healthcare system — yet they are essential for many women whose doctors refuse to acknowledge their pain.
The idea that men should decide policies that directly affect women’s healthcare is beyond audacious — it is dangerous. But that’s exactly what is happening across the globe. Regressive, nationalistic political leaders have opened the door for science-skeptic policymakers in Poland and the USA to walk back reproductive healthcare rights like access to safe abortions.
Regressive reproductive healthcare policies disproportionality affect sex workers, who already suffer from stigmatization and marginalization. Moreover, law enforcement often gas-lights women sex workers. They falsely believe that “violence is an unavoidable consequence of sex work”. These beliefs simply stifle the conversation around sex work. They cause women to forgo their legal right to safety and reproductive health.
Medical gas-lighting manifests itself in many different ways. Oftentimes medical gas-lighting exists under the guise of legitimate medical practice. Worst still, it might be addressed only on a case-by-case malpractice basis. In reality, a host of research and personal accounts attest to the fact that gas-lighting in women’s healthcare is an international, systemic issue that needs the attention of policymakers around the globe.
About The Author
Ainsley Lawrence is a freelance writer from the Pacific Northwest. She enjoys writing about the ways technology, education, and wellness intersect and impact our everyday lives. She is frequently lost in a good book.
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