“You don’t look sick”

Emma Eriksen

I’m fourteen, wrapped in a hospital gown and shivering at the antiseptic chill of the room, watching as the doctor chats with my mom like I wasn’t there. After spending an hour collecting my vital signs, asking me questions, asking my mom questions, and palpating my abdomen, all interspersed with long waits, he breaks the news to me. “There’s nothing that I can see that’s causing your issues.”

I had worn my mother down with constant complaints of stomach aches for the better part of several months. At fourteen, I was a freshman in high school, but my abdominal pain had started a long time before that—maybe since I was in middle school, baby-faced and terrified of switching schools in 7th grade. It had gotten to the point where I couldn’t concentrate and I was having more “pain days” than good days. Yet when I went to the doctor, he gave me a bemused little smile and told me there was nothing wrong with me.

Unfortunately, it’s a common theme in healthcare, particularly in the U.S. Sexism bleeds into every aspect of society and it manifests in women like me, who experience troubling and oftentimes debilitating symptoms without a proper diagnosis for years. I can’t count the number of times that I’ve gone to a doctor, shared my frequent stomach aches, migraines, and constant fatigue, only for them to shrug and say to take some ibuprofen. And that’s if they take me seriously—when I was younger, I had multiple primary care physicians tell me that I was “big” for my age and if I lost a few pounds all my symptoms would go away. 

I wish I could say that I’m unique in that I’ve had some remarkably dismissive doctors, but discrimination in healthcare is backed up by statistics. MDs are shown to have a strong bias against overweight patients (Sabin et al. 2012). Cis women are more likely to receive less intensive care than cis men (Govender and Penn-Kekana, 2008). Adding race to the equation makes outcomes even worse: Black mothers have the highest rate of maternal mortality in the nation (Tengel et al. 2019). This doesn’t even cover the lobotomy epidemic, of which 60% of the victims were women, or the infamous diagnosis of “hysteria,” in which difficult women could be confined to abusive asylums at the whims of their male family members.

Obviously, I am grateful to live in the time I do. Healthcare has made leaps and bounds in equitable treatment of patients and so many professionals take their duty of care seriously. However, as my experience and the anecdotes of other women prove, there still seems to be a standard procedure for doctors when women come to them with health issues: misdirect (“maybe you should lose some weight”), minimize (“I don’t see anything wrong with your bloodwork, so you must be fine”), and medicate (“try some rest and Advil” or “consult a psychiatrist, it’s just in your head.”). 

For me, it ended up working out in the sense that I finally got an explanation for all of my symptoms. After years of pain, I found out I had both IBS and endometriosis to thank for my abdominal pain and fainting spells. I also received an autism diagnosis from a lovely psychiatrist who took me and my life seriously. Receiving proper diagnoses was a relief. It was an explanation for what had been plaguing me for years, giving a name to what had been consistently draining my life. It allowed me to connect with others who had the same condition and hear their advice, as well as provide me with a better way to advocate for myself and the accommodations I need. 

If I could have one wish come true, it would include every other woman and marginalized person receiving medical care that would genuinely help them, with no blame on their circumstances, race, age, weight, or sex. While I’m glad that I got a diagnosis that makes sense, I want this article to end with this: it doesn’t take the official word of a doctor, psychiatrist, or any other healthcare professional to know that you are suffering. If you are struggling, whether physically or emotionally, you are valid; I hope that someday you too will receive the care, concern, and clarity that you need.

El-Hai, J. (2017, January 11). Race and Gender in the Selection of Patients for Lobotomy. Wonders & Marvels. https://www.wondersandmarvels.com/2016/12/race-gender-selection-patients-lobotomy.html. 

Govender, V., & Penn-Kekana, L. (2008). Gender biases and discrimination: a review of health care interpersonal interactions. Global Public Health, 3(sup1), 90–103. https://doi.org/10.1080/17441690801892208 

Sabin JA, Marini M, Nosek BA (2012) Implicit and Explicit Anti-Fat Bias among a Large Sample of Medical Doctors by BMI, Race/Ethnicity and Gender. PLOS ONE 7(11): e48448. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0048448

Tangel, V., White, R. S., Nachamie, A. S., & Pick, J. S. (2018). Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Maternal Outcomes and the Disadvantage of Peripartum Black Women: A Multistate Analysis, 2007–2014. American Journal of Perinatology, 36(08), 835–848. https://doi.org/10.1055/s-0038-1675207 

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