Denormalizing Female Pain

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.

5 Steps Towards Bridging the STEM Gender Gap

Argonne National Laboratory: Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day 2012.  Photo courtesy of Argonne National Laboratory Flickr account, used under of Creative Commons license
Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day 2012. Photo courtesy of Argonne National Laboratory Flickr account, re-published under Creative Commons license

In 2011, when addressing the lack of women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) industries, U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama said:

If we’re going to out-innovate and out-educate the rest of the world, we’ve got to open doors for everyone. We need all hands on deck, and that means clearing hurdles for women and girls as they navigate careers in science, technology, engineering, and math.

By leveraging the creative energies of women, who serve as an untapped, valuable resource across all industries, companies will receive a surplus of benefits, ranging from fresh perspectives to problem-solving from female participants, a wider talent pool, and increased diversity of ideas. So, what needs to change to bridge the gender gap in STEM subjects and careers from this generation of women? Below are five steps that must be taken to empower women in STEM:

  1. Revamping the K-12 curriculum. As subjects within math and science depend heavily on prior learning to determine future understanding, schools should provide a focused, aligned, and clear-cut curriculum to facilitate learning in these subjects. Schools should stress the depth – as opposed to breadth – of learning. It is only through comprehensive understanding of conceptual knowledge that students can master these subjects. Math and science programs should emphasize “hands-on” experiential learning, rather than studying by rote, in order to capitalize on students’ interests and experiences. Accelerated courses should be offered if possible, so as to prepare girls for the introductory science classes offered at university.
  2. Developing programs that will pique girls’ interests in science and technology. Be it dynamic summer internships in technology start up companies, a Chemistry lab camp that encompasses the study of food Chemistry and forensics, or a science fair that features cutting-edge research ideas, girls need to know that science entails so much more than dry theory, and can be exciting and novel.
  3. Introducing girls to women leaders in STEM. These women in STEM – ranging from engineers to CEOs of technological companies to researchers in university laboratories – should impart their knowledge and expertise to girls who aspire to work in STEM and STEM-related fields, so that they know more about the rigors, intellectual stimulation and job prospects attached to STEM fields. Middle and high schools should invite women leaders to talk about their professions and shed light on the career prospects in STEM, so that girls can make informed decisions about their future careers.
  4. Combating stereotypes. In order to fully eradicate this underrepresentation of women in STEM fields, we must make sure that women and men don’t grow up in a society in which they digest images of scientists as boringly studious male misfits and absorb fallacies about the roles of men and women in science. Girls need to know that women have been the linchpins of many scientific projects throughout history; women discovered radium and polonium, proposed the nuclear shell model of the atomic nucleus, worked on the Manhattan Project, advanced the techniques of X-ray crystallography, and contributed to our understanding of ribosomes and DNA.
  5. Letting girls know that they matter. A simple word of encouragement, whether from a parent, peer or a teacher, is crucial to empowering women who are determined to overcome the hurdles that militate against their decision to pursue a career in STEM. The two simple words “you matter”, when said clearly and honestly, are essential to dispelling the deep-seated insecurities girls harbor about their futures. Only when girls know that they are an integral reservoir of talent, replete with value and potential to contribute to our society, can they, armed with newfound confidence in themselves, channel their creative energies into avenues of innovation in the fascinating nexus of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.

The Thin Line Between Violence and Art

When it comes to sexualisation in the media, often people respond with – “sex sells.” Although sex may sell, I often wonder at what cost? Who is footing the bill? The answer: everyone.

Sexual exploitation in advertisements affects the whole of society in one way or another.

However, women bear most of the costs and, as a result, our mental health and well-being suffers. Although much has been said on the sexualisation of women and girls in the media, sexual violence, particularly in fashion advertising, must be addressed.

In 2007, Dolce and Gabbana (D&G) published the advert below:

Image Courtesy of Buzzfeed.com
Image Courtesy of Buzzfeed.com

Many women’s rights groups and advertising watchdogs have argued that the advertisement above clearly symbolises gang-rape. Held down against her will, the woman in the image falls victim to her male oppressor while an additional three men look on eagerly, seemingly awaiting their turn. Gang-rape is a horrifying and grotesque human rights violation from which no one should ever have to suffer. Why then, is it perfectly acceptable to normalise gang rape and use it as a concept in advertisements and marketing campaigns? In response to the global public outrage, D&G withdrew the advertisement from all its publications. However, D&G insisted the image was not meant to be controversial but simply represented an erotic dream.

The fashion industry continues to push the boundaries of what is new, edgy and original. Some argue that fashion advertising is art and therefore should not be taken literally, yet I beg to differ. Take this 2012 winter collection titled ‘Shameless’ from the Dutch company Suit Supply:

Image Courtesy of Buzzfeed.com
Image Courtesy of Buzzfeed.com

The advertisements above suggest that, by buying a Suit Supply suit, women will allow men to do whatever they desire, including sex, touching and groping and peering at our vagina’s. Suit Supply’s advertisements not only represent women as sexual slaves, but also imply that men buy suits to enhance their sexual appeal solely to women, thereby ignoring the entire homosexual population.

Some advertisements are ridiculous, stupid and extremely offensive, others are indescribable:

last image
Image Courtesy of Buzzfeed.com

Considered ‘fine art’ by the fashion world, marketing executives marvelled at the degrading advertisements.

Studies show that such violent images negatively impact adolescents’ self-esteem and confidence. The continuous bombardment of violent  images on television, magazines and the internet reinforce negative gender stereotypes and normalise violence and the sexual exploitation of women and girls.

Whether deemed fine art or fashion, it is wrong and unacceptable.