Women’s health has commonly been discussed in private sectors, whispered about behind
closed doors. At a young age, girls are taught to be ashamed of their magical bodies. We were trained to slide tampons up our sleeve or stick one down our boot to keep other people from knowing we were on our *hush, hush* period — always whispered like it’s a dirty word.
The beginning of my journey to becoming a woman started with shame and embarrassment. My body was a fortress that I was not familiar with. We did everything together — ran through the woods, skinned our knees, painted murals, laughed, and cried — but I didn’t know her, nor what she was capable of. The human body is a vessel for humanity, beauty, and empathy. It can also be a destroyer, sabotager, and the greatest villain when it is not taken care of.
Educated Without Learning Much
When I think back to the education I received over human anatomy, what I mainly remember
is male- and female-presenting bodies being divided into separate classrooms. We watched
a cartoon video that fostered an environment full of under-the-breath giggles and snickers. No one took these films seriously, not even the teachers. Before every word regarding human anatomy or reproductive organs, the teachers would blush and pause to gain the courage to say it - as if our anatomies were bad words. This gave me the impression that the environment provided for students were not comfortable for the instructors either.
If “grown-ups” could not talk about our health education without feeling fear, shame, or embarrassment, how were the students supposed to learn to be confident and curious
about their bodies?
As I have approached educating myself and getting comfortable with my own body, I have
experienced what it feels like to have my voice minimized and dismissed. In choosing to become my own advocate and take control over my health, I’ve learned many valuable lessons that I believe every woman should know. And now my voice is heard.
Asking For Help But Not Knowing What to Ask
Around the age of 15, my body quickly began to shut down. The anxiety and mood swings were uncontrollable. I couldn’t make it through the day without a nap. Every single joint in my body hurt as if I was a woman aged decades beyond my years. And don’t even get me started on the stomach issues: good-bye dairy and gluten. After many doctors’ appointments, sleep-aids, and energy drinks, I was tested for hypothyroidism and discovered I have Hashimoto’s disease, an autoimmune disease of the thyroid. At that time, I was prescribed the only medical form of treatment that existed for hypothyroidism—Synthroid. I was told to take it every morning, an hour before breakfast, with plenty of water. As long as I took my medicine, I should be fine. Key word being should.
Years went by, and I still felt like a slug, watching everyone and everything pass by me because my body just could not keep up. After complaining so much that I think my doctor just got frustrated with me, I was referred to an endocrinologist. I personally like to think of these specialists as superheroes, but the textbooks would typically describe their practice as hormone experts. In their care, I felt as if I was finally being heard. They offered additional support other than a pill; they gave advice and lifestyle changes that could improve my symptoms. From my experience, endocrinologists like to examine the body as a whole, try to determine the cause or source of the symptom without writing off your small details.
The first lesson I learned on my journey of physical healing was that sometimes a doctor who does everything isn’t the best person for the job. For example, a company interviews its candidates to determine 1) their fit in the role, 2) their approach to tasks, and 3) their level of enthusiasm towards challenges before offering them the job. Why could I not do this for my doctors, as well? As a patient, I look to these professionals for answers to heal and care for my only body. I pay more than just money to receive treatment; my time, mental health, physical health, and peace of mind are all costs to be considered. As a patient, I should feel comfortable, confident, and recognized by my healthcare providers.
Receiving a diagnosis is scary—new territory and the unknown is frightening. Being diagnosed with Hashimoto’s was not an easy adjustment for me. Sometimes having a diagnosis helps to reassure and validate the symptoms people are feeling. Cramps have become a normalized punchline, as is dismissing hormonal irritability by telling someone to “take some Advil.” During my time studying women, gender, and sexuality, I have examined the impact of how much society minimizes and mocks women’s pain and health.
Last year, I was experiencing the worst cramps of my life. I had always experienced painful periods, but never to the point of thinking I was dying. I felt like I was bleeding internally, and my insides were replaced with burning lava from my midback to my mid-thigh. After maybe an hour of dramatically crying, rolling from side-to-side on the floor in a fetal position, and reaching a high fever, my family insisted we go to the hospital.
I was quickly checked in and given medicine to lessen my pain, but it did nothing. After some time, a male doctor came into the room and began asking me questions about my periods, my sexual activity, my birth control, and a bunch of other irrelevant questions. After an ultrasound on my legs and hips, he suggested it was just period cramps, to take some painkillers, and to follow-up with my primary care provider the next day. Because I didn’t receive quality education on what could happen within my body, I just trusted his underwhelming diagnosis.
Leaving the emergency room, I felt stupid. I felt like I wasted everyone’s time. I believed I was
making everything up in my head. This leads to my next lesson—listen to your body, to your
pain. I did exactly what the doctor said and followed up with my family practitioner, where
she ordered an ultrasound on my uterus and my ovaries.
Had the ER doctor listened to my pain, he would have discovered that I had an ovarian cyst the size of an orange attached to my right ovary. Surprisingly, an ovary’s size is equivalent to the size of an almond. If the doctor had taken me seriously, he would have seen the wreckage of another ovarian cyst rupturing inside of me and the foreign orange engulfing my other ovary.
After receiving the proper care and test performed by an OBGYN, we determined I am one of the “lucky” ten percent of women with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS). PCOS and Endometriosis are both conditions impacting women’s reproductive and hormonal health,
causing painful periods, and raising women’s death rates.
Because women’s health is rarely discussed past surface-level issues, many women tend to
go undiagnosed and live with internal pain and suffering. Even with medical help, there is no
cure for either disease, only treatment of the symptoms.
No Longer Silently Suffering
Though I am learning to live more comfortably and adapting to my diagnosis, I cannot help
but wonder how my treatment may have been different had my voice been heard the first time. What would my treatment have been like if I knew where my ovaries were located and I could have said, “My pain is nearer to my reproductive organs,” rather than just, “My stomach is hurting”? I know the “what ifs” can be damning, but it’s hard not to wonder how much sooner I would have been properly treated had I been given more education and knew enough about my body to have asked more of the doctor.
The important lesson I have learned as I have fought for agency over my own body was the
importance of advocating for yourself. The idea that women’s bodies should remain a mystery is aiding and abetting the continued narrative of shame, guilt, and embarrassment. We must advocate for more. To rewrite this social expectation, we must ask more of our educators. We must recognize the powerful influence of our own voices. You are the only one who knows how you are feeling and what is happening inside of you. Own your body. Celebrate your body. Raise the bar for education on your body.
Sherine Munroe photographed by Abbey Bullerdick of Abbey Elaine Photography. Fruit arrangements by Vanessa Riche of Copper Jade Events