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Medical Herstory: the stigmatization of women's health

Shame and stigma are problems that are far too common in women's health experiences. That's why one woman decided to set up Medical Herstory, a charity that uses stories to educate women and girls of any background and age about their bodies. Eliminating shame and stigma is a monumental task, so we caught up with Tori Ford, the founder of Medical Herstory, to hear exactly how she plans to do it.

Here's what Tori had to say...

Q. What were you like as a teenager growing up? What were your interests and how do they relate to where you are now?

I grew up in a very sex-positive household. My grandmother was a sex-educator at our local school, and I started teaching sex-ed at the age of 16 in those very same classrooms. I remember spending hours working on my custom curriculum that would be inclusive and empowering for my peers. Sex education wasn’t standardized or mandatory in Quebec at the time, so I had the opportunity to design lesson plans and train others on presenting them. Growing up, I was pretty shy in a lot of social settings, but once I found peer-education, I came into my voice. I knew I loved leading teams, generating change, and being outspoken about issues that I cared about. Over the years, this passion has grown and evolved, but I’m still so proud that at 16 I had the courage to break down taboos and work to empower and educate others.

Q. What made you choose to study Gender, Sexuality, Feminist and Social Justice Studies at University? I enrolled at McGill University the very first year that they offered Gender, Sexuality, Feminist, and Social Justice Studies. This program combined all my interests and was progressive and innovative in its curriculum. At the time, I wasn’t sure what a career in the field would look like, but I knew that I wanted to be having conversations and leading research on feminism while creating a social impact.

Q. Where did your interest in health and medicine stem from? What made you go down this path for your Masters? Throughout my undergrad, my interest in sexual health became more focused on how health systems uphold sexism, shame, and stigma, and I wanted to delve more into the realm of feminist health. The University of Cambridge developed a new program entitled Health, Medicine, and Society that offers interdisciplinary learning about the social dimensions of health. I was thrilled to be continuing my work in gender studies with a focus on sexual health and improving patient experiences.

Q. Why do you think there is still shame and stigma attached to women’s health issues?

The shame and stigma surrounding women’s health is multifaceted. Throughout history, medicine and society have centred the male experience and body and ostracised any experiences outside of this constructed lens. This continues to persist today and the historical legacies are evident. Even if hysteria isn’t a medical diagnosis anymore, women and gender diverse people’s chronic pain gets brushed off as dramatic or in their head. In addition, women and gender diverse people are often taught that their bodies are a source of shame and that normal, healthy functions such as menstruation are unhygienic or gross. This discourages patients from advocating for themselves and receiving the appropriate care in the medical system.

Q. What made you become so passionate about empowering women to speak about their bodies?

Sexism, shame, and stigma influence women’s health experiences on many levels. Firstly, there are social taboos that prevent speaking openly about our bodies or seeking help. When women do seek help, they are more likely to be dismissed, unbelieved, and stereotyped as overly emotional or dramatic within healthcare settings due to a trust gap. Women face barriers to self-advocate, and conditions that disproportionately and differently affect women are understudied meaning that healthcare professionals often lack resources. This gender health inequity leads to misdiagnosis, mistreatment, and misunderstanding.

Medical sexism, shame, and stigma leads to various tangible inequities, for instance, many medical schools devote little to no attention to women’s sexual health, painful conditions like endometriosis which affects 1 in 10 women take an average of 7 years to be diagnosed, and women are 7x more likely to be misdiagnosed while having a heart attack.

Q. What is Medical Herstory? When and how did it start?

Medical Herstory is an international, award-winning, youth-led not-for-profit on a mission to eliminate sexism, shame, and stigma from health experiences. It was born out of lived experience. I felt extremely discouraged by my experiences with chronic yeast infections and navigating years of embarrassment, medical dismissal, and unsuccessful treatment.

I was sick and tired of reciting my medical history in a way that felt dehumanizing, dismissive, and emotionally draining. That is when I had the idea of writing a Medical Herstory, a narrative that would be vulnerable, empowering, and impactful.

After sharing my story, I soon heard from many others with similar experiences. A platform did not exist to share these stories, so I created one. This difficult moment of lived experience became a global movement, carried on by countless others who have struggled with the medical system. Medical Herstory began as an online publication in 2019, and since then has evolved to include several portfolios that host educational workshops, collaborate with other organizations, and most of all, strive to empower people to reclaim power over their own health and wellness.

Q. How does gender inequality affect healthcare?

Gender inequality affects healthcare in so many intricate ways. Some are more obvious than others, but together, they shape the experiences of people interacting with the medical system and exacerbate the societal inequities already seen on a broad scale.

Structurally, gender inequality is often found in the healthcare system alongside other forms of oppression like racism and ableism. These forces act together in ways that influence peoples’ clinical interactions, often in an intersectional manner. For example, women are taken less seriously because of the “trust gap”, which refers to the lack of trust in women’s self reports about their health due to a large societal, implicit biases that brushes off genuine health concerns due to one’s gender. These structural influences mean that on a personal scale, women and gender diverse people may have poor experiences interacting with their healthcare practitioners and struggle to advocate for themselves because of a system that seems to be working against them. In biomedical research, the health of women and people assigned female at birth has been historically, and is continually, overlooked. The diverse physiology of people has often been cast aside in research in favour of prioritizing the white, cisgender, and heterosexual male. This has led to huge gaps in research that continue to affect the delivery of appropriate healthcare for different groups of people.

Q. What are the practical steps Medical Herstory takes on educate healthcare professionals on how not to be gender discriminative?

Medical Herstory not only publishes patient experience on our website, but we have built a series of workshops where we utilize these stories as case studies to inspire change. Our workshop “Gender Bias in Medicine” has been taught to medical students around the world including at the University of Cambridge, UOttawa, and the Karolinska Institute, and to train officials at the IFMSA. Our curriculum has been celebrated by UNWomen and we have engaged over 300 medical students to combat gender bias in their own practice. We also host a range of events targeting healthcare professionals about topics often left out of traditional medical school curriculum such as vaginal health, trans health, Indigenous health, and racism in medicine. Each Monday we also publish our media campaign “Medical Fact Mondays” where we gather research and testimonies on a range of conditions and provide tips for healthcare providers on how to improve patient experiences.

Q What are the most common health issues women don’t like to talk about?

The problem is that medical sexism, shame, and stigma is present within all health experiences regardless of the specific condition. Women and gender diverse people are shamed about discussing their sexual, mental, and physical health. Due to this, discussions on our bodies and health become discouraged leading patients to suffer in silence and feel alone.

Q. If there was one piece of advice you could give to a woman to make her feel more confident speaking about her health issues, what would it be?

Your story matters, your voice deserves to be heard, and don’t give up on finding compassionate and comprehensive care.

If you are facing medical sexism, shame, and stigma, know that it is not your fault, and you can make a difference.

Q. Is there anything else you want to add or shed light on?

If you would like to get involved in helping eliminate sexism, shame, and stigma from health experiences check out Medical Herstory! We are @medicalherstory on all social media, and host monthly events, workshops, and media campaigns to advance gender health equity. If you would like to share your story, join our team, or donate to support our work, please reach out.

*All photos provided by Tori Ford


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