The Inevitability of Female Physical Pain

I was talking to a dear friend years ago and she explained how girls grow up experiencing "routine" menstrual pain from a young age and that sets us up as women to accept that pain is just part of our reality. Girls learn that their body experiences pain and that there is no real help for that because it's "normal." If Midol isn't enough, you're kind of screwed. I remember the desperation I felt when I could not keep my pain under control. What can you do? Go into an ER and have someone laugh at you? Have a medical professional hear your situation, tie it to menstruation and say AND? That is the female experience. And I know that all women are different. Some women don't have difficult periods. Trans women don't even have uteruses. I understand that there is a spectrum of "female" experience. But I think learning from a young age that our bodies just experience pain regularly and that that is part of being female is formative. For me, my cramps were straight up debilitating. I would vomit. I would tremble. I would not be able to get off a bathroom floor. I even burned myself once with a box of plug in hair curlers because I was using it as a heat pack. The normal heat packs were not hot enough. Yet we are expected to do all the things other people do while in pain. Ideally, we would fake our lack of discomfort so well, no one would even be able to tell that we are menstruating. Because the natural menstrual cycle is not only painful but it is also "gross" and "embarrassing." 

Going through monthly menstruation also plants the seed early that our bodies serve a greater, communal purpose outside of our personal wishes. We learn that our bodies are about more than ourselves from a very young age and as adults, if we have biological children, our body becomes the actual living place of another human being for the greater part of a year. And even if a girl and woman has no interest in biologically procreating, guess what? THEY STILL MENSTRUATE. It's obnoxious. Yes I know, you could always have surgery, remove the offending organs and begin early menopause. But you'd first have to convince a doctor to actually sign off on it. That could take years. Frankly, that's a lot to ask of women to avoid monthly debilitating (or even just inconvenient) pain. So pain is part of a woman's life. And women get used to compartmentalizing pain from a young age. 

We tend to get more stress-related cancers and more problems with unreasonably tight muscles because women are just used to sublimating pain and getting on with it. We repress pain. I wonder if that has anything to do with our culture's propensity to think that women overreact and dramatize everything? And we still rely on working women to take care of the majority of chores and child-rearing, making it impossible for women to slow down. And of course, we have the babies. So no matter what your labor and birthing stories are, usually pain is involved. Even if you never had a contraction, once the baby was out, something was sore, bleeding, healing from stitches, swollen, etc. Breastfeeding is the same. Awesome when it works, but even then cracked nipples occur. Mastitis happens. Babies bite you ON YOUR FREAKING NIPPLE. It's life. 

I hurt my back last week. I'd gone to yoga and later, when I was carrying Penny, I felt a burn at the base of my spine. Overnight it crawled up to my shoulders and neck. And it was actively hurting so much so that I woke up at 4:45am and could not fall back asleep. As a headache/migraine person, pain is a regular part of my life. So it was notable to me that it was actively hurting (this means pain I feel inclined to medicate versus its more tame cousin, pain I just put out of my mind). After a few days rest and treatment at home, I saw my massage therapist and she got in a good hour of work. But let's face it: it was nasty. Crunchy, crumbly nasty stuff had to be broken up to release my body so my spine could realign. And I had to actively breathe and reassure my body that it was safe and it was free to untie those knots. My massage therapist knows my body well and shoulder tension is a part of our regular treatment. But even she was bummin' when she felt how bad it was. And I remember thinking while I was on her table, "this is actually kind of bad." Why did I need to acknowledge that? BECAUSE I HADN'T YET. I'd been injured for three days at that point. And I had limited my activity and tried to treat it at home. But being on that table felt like "facing the music" and it occurred to me that I was actually, truly in pain.

I recently switched back to Kaiser health insurance. The marketplace increased my rates and even then, I had to switch to an old carrier. I transferred my migraine meds over and saw my old doctor right away, whom I love. I made sure to get everything lined up immediately because I need to refill my medication monthly and I didn't want to run out of the only med that has ever consistently worked for me with my migraines. Of course, my med is not on their formulary and they required me to take a bunch of meds they preferred to give me, wait til I react so they can document it (yeah vomiting and a day's lost work) so they can inevitably give me the only drug that works. I got to be their guinea pig. I went down to that pharmacy every week for 5 weeks, spent hours on the phone and went to my doctor in order to get that one prescription filled. The whole time this was happening, I had no assurance that in the end of it all, I would actually get my drugs. Why? Because they care more about keeping costs down than in their patients being functional in the one area in their health that actually needs care.

I got to host two incredible conversation threads on my Facebook page about Aziz Ansari and Grace. I even wrote a post about them though I didn't publish it. So much has been said about them. And that conversation is so critically important. Trying to figure out what's okay, what's not okay, how to communicate what you need, how to pick up on verbal and non-verbal cues etc. is so important. And let's face it: we've done a shit job in all of those areas so far. We have a lot of work to do. We need to learn more about consent. We have to create a culture that values the female experience. We as women have to un-learn that our purpose is to make sure the men around us are happy. We have to recognize what we feel and need and communicate those things without apology. And men need to stop being so fucking aggressive and selfish and think that it's hot. It's not hot. It's gross and it needs to stop. And if a woman keeps removing her hand from your penis, you should probably stop placing it there. She knows where it is. And she's not voluntarily touching it. 

I read an article this week that connected the fact that Grace didn't leave Aziz's apartment sooner with our refusal to care about female physical pain and it was freaking brilliant! Please read it. Rape culture and misogyny is so prevalent we don't even research female health issues as much as men's. We cover viagara before we'll cover basic birth control. What does that tell you? We all believe female pain is inevitable in a way that's specific, normal and downplayed. Not like, "well, everyone experiences pain" but that male pain (or even inconvenience!) is a problem that must be met with urgency and female pain is not important, even expected, if we're lucky to even have it acknowledged. I think it's a common trope that women have higher pain tolerances. And I believe that's true. But I don't think it's innate. It is learned. And while being so physically resilient can be useful, it is so terribly tragic that we've become this way due to neglect. What if we looked at female strength as the ability to take our own cues and advocate for ourselves rather than the self-sacrificing, never sit down, ideal we have now? We are so freaking strong. But are we strong enough to demand fair treatment? Are we strong enough to say that our pain matters? Are we strong enough to practice self-care and allow the people around us to care for themselves? I think we are. I think we must be. Get it girls.