Misogyny hurts: Canadian doctors keep gaslighting women in pain

Mar 5 2022, 7:57 pm

“You’re probably just stressed out.”

“You’re overreacting.”

“Your period’s the problem.” 

“You should lose some weight.”

These are all phrases women in Canada could have heard from dismissive doctors before.

For Kelli Fleming, a single mother living in Ontario, the most hurtful was the latter.

“While I was suffering from pain, I tried to describe my pain was very tiring, and then when I added the fact that I am a plus-size woman, the blanket solution was, ‘Lose weight and your pain will get better,’” she says.

“This is one of the most humiliating and frustrating experiences with doctors.”

At 49, she has her fair share of medical horror stories to tell, mostly from her 12 years of living with chronic pain and fibromyalgia.

The stereotype about women being oversensitive to pain, or exaggerating it for attention, is deeply rooted in misogyny. But it’s also dangerous and puts women’s lives at risk every day. 

Not only does contempt and incredulity from doctors dissuade people from getting medical attention at all; it also leaves people who desperately want help without any solutions.

That makes it hard to keep living with pain. There’s no light at the end of the tunnel for many women whose doctors blame them for their ailments and tell them there’s nothing they can do. 

It’s a reality in Canada, a country that internationally boasts about its healthcare system. Despite its benefits, healthcare is riddled with inequities that only get worse for Black and Indigenous people, folks with disabilities, and members of the 2SLGBTQ+ community.

Fleming went to countless consultations before her doctor denied her pain medication. She kept trying, but couldn’t find a way to feel better, so she started advocating for her access to treatment and resources online.

Fortunately, now she’s seeing a doctor at NeuPath who has never requested or suggested she lose weight to reduce her pain. This option allows her to create a custom plan that she says has improved her quality of life.

Each time they meet, information about her mental health, step, personal life, and work is gathered before she and her practitioner decide what the next steps should be. Fleming says that has been tremendously helpful to put together a holistic wellness plan.

Chronic pain affects 8 million Canadians, and marginalized groups are among those most likely to experience it, says Elaine McCulloch, Vice President, Marketing at NeuPath Health.

She adds their approach “considers the biological, psychological, and social factors of each person to help restore function for our patients, and to optimize their quality of life.”

“We focus on treating the patient and not the condition because a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach does not work,” she says.

There is also a common misconception that women have a higher pain threshold than men, making the need to educate health experts about chronic pain more critical.

In mainstream healthcare, Fleming says one of the biggest problems is that “women are just expected to keep going.”

As a single mom of two, she didn’t have the option of sitting back and unwinding when the pain hit.

“With this expectation came the fact that if I was able to continue doing all of the regular things, then my pain must not be so bad,” she says.

“When a man is hurt or suffering, they stop doing all of the everyday things, so because I did not do this as a woman, my pain must be less than his. I was told many times that unfortunately, this is going to be a lifetime issue, so really think about losing weight and maybe take a day or two off of work.”

For years, she felt like nobody listened to her or cared about alleviating her suffering.

“There was a lot of wasted time at appointments where what they told me was blanket recommendations, not solutions, where I would be told to try this and come back and see them in three months. None of these appointments ever made a difference,” says Fleming.

Pain-related gender stereotypes make it difficult to find support through the federal healthcare system, she says, so women have to take matters into their own hands. She has some tips for how to alleviate chronic pain.

Looking forward, Fleming hopes doctors hear the calls of women asking to be taken more seriously and given better treatment.

“I would like doctors to actually take the time to simply listen to us,” she says. 

“We as women are overrun with expectations for life, work, friends, and family.  We need someone to take our concerns seriously and want to take the time to listen to us and work with us on a plan that is specialized for us.”

The only advice she has for women is that they continue advocating for themselves and exploring other treatment options.

“Women need to make themselves the important one once in a while,” says Fleming.

“Don’t take no for an answer and don’t feel like this is it for us.”

McCulloch echoed that statement, saying women should get the help they need if they feel they’re being dismissed at the doctor’s office.

“Only the patient truly understands what they are experiencing and if they feel like their concerns aren’t being appropriately addressed, it’s imperative that they speak up or ask questions,” she says.

“Pain is invisible so it’s important to talk about experiences to be able to find the solutions available. Women and all people with chronic pain must be empowered to choose and use strategies based on their own needs.”

There’s no need to be embarrassed to ask for help or admit you’re struggling, she adds.

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