Every time I go home, my mother cooks me my favorite food. As she makes the saucy cauliflower Manchurian, I often notice burns and cuts on her arm. When I scold her about the scrapes caused while slicing a particularly slippery zucchini, or the recent burn on her index finger from flipping flatbread, my thin-framed mother jokes about its triviality, considering it nothing. When I touch it and ask if it hurts, she winces and shrugs it off, because the pain is expected – a routine and normal part of her life.
There is a telling story in my mother’s cuts and burns that is representative of the everyday female experience.
From a very young age, women are taught to withstand pain; a punch from a boy signals affection, and the cramps from a first period symbolize impending womanhood. Through small steps of socialization, we are led to believe that pain is a necessary component of our lives, that it makes us stronger and prepares us for more pain to come.
As we go through puberty, suffering from more stomach pains, and as we watch our mothers, aunts, and grandmothers, shrug off burns that must hurt, we learn to develop a threshold – a line that we are supposed to cross before the pain becomes more than normal.
Every month, when menstrual cramps make it impossible for us to get up, we are told to nap, and to embrace the pain, as a training session for childbearing. But as soon as the pain from the debilitating cramps tips over into fainting, we panic.
Why is it that we wait until someone faints or worse to take the pain from cramps seriously? Instead of teaching each other to embrace the pain as normal, why don’t we try to hear the stories of the cramps from the beginning and encourage solutions like OTC painkillers and heating pads?
This idea of assuming normalcy in pain doesn’t just impact the way we interact with each other on a daily basis. It translates to concrete consequences on our health as well. In 2014, over 90% of women in chronic pain felt that the healthcare system discriminated against them, and 65% felt that doctors took them less seriously, simply because of their gender. Women struggled to prove to doctors that their suffering was real, which delayed their proper treatment – by as much as almost 20 minutes in an acute emergency situation.
The more I read these studies, the more I realized that no matter what women do, their pain is discounted and largely ignored. And it is because doctors fall for the same stereotypes that we do. When I think of how women are considered to be more tolerant of pain, I think of my interactions with my mother, my grandmothers, my mentors, and my friends. I think about the times I have failed to notice the expression on my mother’s face as a drop of oil from the Manchurian accidentally hits a recent wound on her finger, even when she says it doesn’t hurt. I recall the number of times I, too, have shrugged off my friends’ complaints about their cramps, regarding them as exaggerating or being too dramatic for something that is totally “normal”, something that they should be able to bear.
There are many times I have unintentionally ignored the small calls from help that many women in my life have uttered – due to the stereotypes that have taught me to think of women’s physical pain as simply part of their lives.
Stereotypes, though, no matter how ingrained they may be, can be slowly chipped away. And that’s true for women’s pains as well. We, as women, can help each other by beginning to take others’ accounts and stories seriously. It can be as small as asking a fellow girlfriend about her cramps and making sure she gets a heating pad. Or offering a helping hand with cooking, when our mothers’ cuts and burns are especially visible, so that they can take a break.
The changes may seem minute, but every gesture matters. And if undertaken by many, they could lead to a world where women’s pain is readily believed, their care is fairly delivered, and their silent suffering is justly voiced.