Is it all in your head? An insight into the pervasive dismissive attitudes of medical professionals towards women.More
Yoga is having a moment these days. It’s easy for beginners, doesn’t need any equipment (though some Instagram influencers will probably make you think otherwise), and most importantly – you can do it from home. A 2020/2021 pre-requisite.
It’s something I tried and failed at a million times before. I realised that I wanted to be a person who did yoga more than I actually wanted to do yoga. Not being flexible or spiritual made me feel like it was just out of my reach. In classes, I’d get halfway through downward dog and find my wrists aching, arms shaking, and stomach quaking. “Now grab your foot.” Lady, I can’t even see my foot.
But I love a challenge. So when January 2021 came and I became aware of Yoga With Adriene’s 30 Day Yoga Journey, Breath, it caught my attention.
As a plus-size woman who’s never been particularly good at touching my toes, but still runs three times a week and frequents the gym, I thought it was about time I got more in tune with my body in a new way. So I printed off the calendar, tacked it up to my wall, and began my journey (a word I learned to cringe at a little less).
The yoga community online is overwhelmingly kind and supportive, but thanks to some of the media, it looks like it’s just full of skinny bendy people, twisting themselves on their expensive ethically-made mats on a beach in Bali. No fatties allowed, and if you can’t do a headstand you’re not allowed in. Also you need to know what your third eye is and name each chakra.
By diving in head first for a month of yoga every single day, I learned that’s not the case at all.
Yoga With Adriene’s Breath: A Review
The focus of Breath, is learning how to use the breath to move through yoga flows, and how using it in different ways can help you to regain energy, keep your balance, and make it through a round of exercise. It’s also about learning to trust your breath, and use each new breath as an opportunity to begin again.
Each morning a new video is released for free on her YouTube channel, or a day earlier in the app (FWFG, meaning Find What Feels Good). Videos last between 15 and 50 minutes, and the journey comes with a calendar telling you exactly how long that day’s video will be, to help you plan your day.
Overall, the videos were very accessible for beginners, with the potential to be levelled up for intermediate/advanced yogis. Some of the videos are incredibly easy to allow a moment of rest and meditation, and others are designed to physically challenge you. It was a really nice mix.
Now I want to talk about Adriene herself, who became the queen of at-home yoga in 2020, though she’s been popular for much longer. I have dedicated yogi friends who first started yoga with her back in 2015, and still love her today. She has a soothing voice that could calm a rabid bull, but she’s also fun, and not shy of a cheeky innuendo or pop culture reference. She has a sixth sense for knowing which moments might be difficult. “If your arms are shaking right now, you’re not alone,” she manages to say at just the right time.
Special mention to her dog Benji who is usually in the background, and who is very well loved by the community.
To answer a question that my fitness-first friends ask; how ‘hippie’ is it? Meaning, how much is about the exercise, and how much is about things like ‘feeling the energy of the Earth?’
The more spiritual side of yoga is wonderful if that’s what you’re looking for, and it can be immensely healing. But it can also be a bit too much for those of us who aren’t about that. I have a lot of respect for it, it’s just not something that I can easily tap into. Adriene has the balance between the physical challenge of yoga and the mindfulness of it totally nailed. In all of Breath, I think Adriene used the word ‘chakra’ exactly once.
That’s not to say she didn’t get me all up in my feelings. At one point during savasana in Week 1, Adriene told us ‘I love you so much’ and I burst into tears. Yup. Didn’t cry at Marley & Me, but that got me. I immediately bought the app. And ordered a t-shirt from her online store. (It’s super nice btw.)
Adriene doesn’t just feel like a yogi who shows you how to do yoga on YouTube. She feels like my yoga teacher.
What Happens To Your Body When You Do Yoga for 30 Days
So it didn’t change my life, but it did make it a little better. Every now and then when I find myself hurrying about and being busy without being productive, I remind myself to move from my core and to move with intention. And it actually helps me to slow down and stop faffing about.
The next time I went to the gym (I took January off to focus on yoga) I noticed that I felt much better on the treadmill, and keeping control of my breathing allowed me to run further before getting puffed out. I also went through my usual stretching routine, and instead of juuuust managing to touch my toes with the tips of my fingers, I actually got a pretty good grasp of my foot!
So cardiovascular endurance and flexibility are both up. And I feel immensely proud of myself for showing up to the mat every single day, even when I didn’t want to or it meant having to get out of bed early.
It hasn’t changed my life, or opened my third eye, but I feel physically and mentally healthier. In the Find What Feels Good community, I’ve found an inclusive and yes, even loving, space. After taking a break for a few days I’ll be hopping straight back on the mat, and maybe even finding some open-air classes in the parks here in the city.
TW: weight loss.
For those of you on a weight loss journey (yes even I use the word journey now!) I found that yoga toned my arms and slimmed down my waist, but that’s just a personal experience. I’ll definitely keep using yoga to compliment my gym workouts and weekly runs. It’s a great boost to weight loss, but I wouldn’t say it’s the primary driver of it.
Yoga and Fat Gals. Can We Be Friends?
Short answer, yes! Absolutely!
As Adriene says, yoga is a practice, and there’s nothing about size that dictates whether you’re allowed to practice or not.
But someone should really tell the media that, because images of girls my size doing yoga are few and far between. And there are some amazing plus-sized yogis out there!
Now that the algorithm knows I do yoga, I get a lot of ads. One of them was for Alo Moves, Alo Yoga’s app, and to my surprise there was a plus sized woman. Thankfully almost all of the comments on this ad were positive and pro-representation. The only negative one was surprisingly astute, pointing out that Alo Yoga is primarily a clothing company whose sizes don’t go larger than a UK 12-14. One size smaller than me. Should these companies be using us to represent themselves when they don’t serve us? Feels a little deceptive.
Part of me actually kind of enjoys not fitting the profile for what someone who does a sport “should” look like. I love being the person with the highest percentage of body fat in the weights room at the gym, because at least it means I showed up. And I like not being able to stay in downward dog for very long, but still getting up there for the next one, and the one after that. Not giving up and not being too embarrassed to show up is something to be proud of. It means you’re out of your comfort zone, and not being afraid of judgement.
Yoga, at first, looks like something that’s way more complicated than it actually is. It’s like the Goop of the fitness world. But you don’t actually need a £90 Lululemon outfit, a £200 mat that’s made out of bamboo, or a fancy hot yoga studio. You don’t need to be skinny and bendy, or even be able to touch your toes. Can’t meditate? That’s fine!
You can roll out of bed in your PJs, jump on a £6 mat from your local sports shop, pop on a free YWA video, and just give it a go.
Adriene proved to me that yoga is for everyone, and anyone. And for this flabby can’t-downward-dog-for-more-than-10-seconds cynic, it’s here to stay.
I was in my office in the business district of Madrid when we found out that the first COVID case had landed in Spain. We all started hollering about how it was ‘the end of days!’ But we’d all lived through so many epidemic scares which had eventually turned into nothing, that we didn’t even consider actually panicking. Ebola, who’s she?
When it turned into 200 cases and we were sent home from work, I stood on the metro with my handbag full of half-opened snacks and clutching my second screen. Trying to remember if I’d left any food in the fridge (I had), I looked around me at the carriage full of other people similarly loaded. We looked at each other as if to say, ‘weird, huh?’
My housemate and I were out shopping when we found out that we were living in the epicentre of the pandemic. But it kind of felt like a novelty. We couldn’t bring ourselves to worry about a global pandemic, so instead we made jokes about the strangeness of it all.
The stay-at-home order came through a few moments later, when the government announced that the entire country was going into lockdown. You could leave your house to go to the supermarket, the pharmacy, to seek medical aid, or to help someone in need, but for no other reason.
So, my housemate and I laughed, and went about getting supplies. We were still very cautious and understood that the threat was real, so we stayed within our neighbourhood, only going to our local shops and avoiding the crowded ones as much as possible. It was a nice sunny day so we popped into the local secondhand shop, and I treated myself to a new handbag and a blazer. My housemate bought me a necklace for my upcoming birthday. It was a pretty good day.
We were two weeks into our confinement, in a small flat with windows only overlooking the street, when we found out that both cases and deaths were soaring, and that we’d been asked to stay inside for another two weeks. One thing I had never noticed about my apartment before, is that you could only see the actual sky if you stuck your head right out of the living room window. Between the apartment blocks around us was one small patch of blue.
The two weeks had passed, and we were told to stay indoors for yet another two weeks.
We learned to tell the difference between the different noises that the ambulances made, and there was one particularly melodic woop-woop-woop that we would dance to when it went past.
We learned that our neighbourhood was the worst affected in Madrid, and that Madrid was the worst in Spain… and that Spain was the worst in the whole of Europe. It was funny, in a very morbid way. We could only laugh about it, because if we thought about it too hard it would have broken what little spirit we had left.
We started collecting the wine bottles we were getting through, lining them up behind the television. It stopped being funny, and when we took them out to the bin the weight of them nearly broke our arms.
After those two weeks, we were ordered to stay indoors for another two weeks, and I think that was the most heartbroken I had ever been. Deaths had peaked, and the police were stopping people in the street to check everyone’s shopping bags. You were only allowed out for necessities, and if they thought your trip didn’t qualify, you’d be threatened with a fine.
I had my birthday party over Zoom.
I watched my friends back in England post Instagram stories from their local parks or their gardens. “We’ve all got to get through this together” they’d say. I looked at my single patch of sky, no bigger than the palm of my hand, and wanted to wring their necks. You have no idea. I thought to myself.
We noticed that we got lightheaded if we were outside for too long. We found ourselves rushing back from the supermarket because we got dizzy being out with that much fresh air and sky. I wish I was joking or exaggerating, but we really did feel like moles. I can honestly say I now understand how people can become agoraphobic.
I even panic-bought an exercise bike on Amazon just in case the lockdown happened again.
Now, in December, we’ve left the confinement measures behind us, and we’re back to good old-fashioned social distancing. But the three month confinement, with stretches of 5 days without leaving our apartment, have left a scar.
My housemate has decided to leave Madrid. He, myself, and many others, love being foreigners in a country as beautiful as Spain. Once you have your paperwork in order, are committed to learning the language, and are settled into a routine, it’s not so different to living somewhere in your home country. My friends who have never left England tell me how brave I was for moving away, but honestly, there’s no bravery in sitting in a plaza eating patatas bravas.
Foreigner life is not without its pains of course, but you ignore those because it’s worth it.
Here, we get to be the one with the most interesting stories when we go back home for a visit. We get to meet people from all over the world, and we get to feel like we’re really making the most out of our lives because we’ve found our chosen home. The sunny weather and significantly better food are an added bonus.
But now, I’m seeing a mass-exodus of friends and acquaintances from this city that we shared together, which we swore we’d love for the rest of our lives.
Tiny apartments and cramped streets, however beautiful and full of life, just don’t seem to cut it anymore. Many people I know have fled to Valencia or Málaga to be near the beach. Others, like my housemate, have decided it’s time to go back to their home countries, tired of only seeing their family through screens.
It feels a little bit redundant to say that 2020 has shown me how fragile life can be, because that’s all anyone is talking about! However, I can talk about the effect it’s having on me and my fellow expats/immigrants.
Many of us are starting to turn around and look at the homes we’ve left behind, and the families who feel much further away than they did before. We feel tired of having to translate, or wait for the official translation of the latest life-altering updates. Not being sure of where we’re allowed to go and what we’re allowed to do becomes twice as frustrating when the language barrier adds to the mess.
But as Marie Forleo says, ‘everything is figureoutable.’ If now is the time to go back home, then now is the time. Our chosen homes aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.
If we choose to return one day, our chosen homes may change and old friends may disappear, but those places will never lose the qualities which made us fall in love with them in the first place. Giving up our residency will hurt at first, and for us Brits re-applying after Brexit won’t exactly be a joy. But home, wherever it is, will always triumph over bureaucracy.
So foreigners, if you want to, go home.
A big thank you to Ellen, the author of this article! Take a look at her blog and follow her on Instagram:
In her book, Invisible Women, Caroline Criado Perez exposes the data bias in a world “designed for men”. One of the book’s most important chapters addresses the biases against women in the medical world, specifically through medical gaslighting. Medical gaslighting is a set of behaviours displayed by doctors and other medical professionals, that make the patient question whether they are actually experiencing their symptoms. For example, blaming your physical symptoms on mental illness, or making you feel like you’re catastrophising or being dramatic. Essentially, medical gaslighting is when a doctor dismisses your symptoms and worries as unimportant, exaggerated, and/or not serious enough to require further investigation.
Chapter ten of Invisible Women, The Drugs Don’t Work, opens with an anecdote about a sixteen-year-old woman who had been experiencing painful, bloody bowel movements for two years, until it got so bad that she decided it was time to see a doctor. She was rushed to the emergency room, where a doctor asked her if she could be pregnant – no, she said. She hadn’t had sex; besides, the pain was in her bowel.
“The next thing I knew, a large, cold metal speculum was crammed in my vagina. It hurt so badly I sat up and screamed and the nurse had to push me back down and hold me there while the doctor confirmed that I indeed, was not pregnant.”
The young woman was then discharged with “nothing but an overpriced aspirin and the advice to rest for a day”. Over the next decade she sought help, and eventually she was diagnosed irritable bowel syndrome and ulcerative colitis. For years, she had been repeatedly told that all of this was in her head, and it wasn’t until she was twenty-six that she finally had a colonoscopy that diagnosed her condition (Invisible Women, p 195-6).
This infuriating account reminded me of two similar incidents that happened to me in the last few years.
It’s Just Anxiety, Dear
Some four or five years ago, I was on a commuting on a train when I started having very odd symptoms. Every minute, I would have an episode of what I can only describe as all of my senses short-circuiting which lasted for about twenty seconds and came back every few minutes. I couldn’t see, I couldn’t hear, I was confused every time it happened. To begin with, I thought maybe it was vertigo or a migraine aura, but my vision wasn’t the only sense affected and my head was not hurting. I started to feel quite worried, so I asked the people on the train to call an ambulance for me.
At the hospital, I remember having blood tests and an ECG (a test to see how the heart is doing). No brain scan though. After many hours of waiting, I was seen by a doctor who concluded that it was all… anxiety. (Yes, female doctors can gaslight too). She talked to me condescendingly, and even gave me a patronising hug and pep talk about looking after my mental health. After the hospital visit, my symptoms lasted a whole week.
I went to my local GP to get a different opinion, who ran a few more tests and it turned out that my problem has been physical after all. He suspected I had a few simultaneous infections going on in my body. He prescribed me antibiotics and eventually I started feeling better. To this day, I’m still not sure if the diagnosis was right. I never even had a brain scan, and with symptoms like that and a concussion in my medical history, was I wrong to expect them to take me more seriously? Why didn’t they?
To refer back to Invisible Women, it’s possible that the way women are socialised to “downplay their own status” and behave in a friendly and approachable way, may prevent from effective diagnosis. However, a lot of the time even when a woman says exactly what’s going on and how much it affects her quality of life or safety, she is still dismissed. Invisible Women tells another story of a woman, Kathy, who was told by four medical professionals that her problems were all in her head, which later turned out to be a potentially life-threatening case of uterine fibroids which required surgery. Another woman, Rachel, was also told her pain was imaginary. She was consistently told that there was nothing wrong with her, until finally, years later she was diagnosed with endometriosis (p 223-4). Endometriosis is an incurable condition where tissue similar to the lining of the uterus is found on other organs. It can cause extreme pain (to the point of fainting and not being able to walk), and it takes an average of eight years to diagnose. Sadly, it is a condition I am too familiar with.
This Will Only Hurt a Lot – Endometriosis, PCOS, and Intrauterine Systems (IUS)
Four years ago I wanted to get an IUS (also known as the hormonal coil). I still do. I wanted something I could just forget about, something that wouldn’t make my periods worse, and something that didn’t involve a lot of hormones because I’m prone to blood clotting (due to a genetic disorder, a story for another time). An IUS seemed to fit my needs, so about four years ago I tried to have it inserted for the first time. A year later, I tried to have it done again. Then a couple of years later I tried it again. And again, and probably one more time. In total, it must have taken five or six tries before I just gave up because of the insane pain that nobody warned me about.
Every time, the doctor (or another medical professional) who was going to insert the coil told me that most women experience “some discomfort” on insertion.
Some discomfort? I have never experienced a worse pain in my life – I felt like my insides were being ripped apart. I nearly passed out each time I tried to get it done, but every time I would reach a point where I thought “this is not worth the pain”. Some discomfort my arse.
No one told me that it could be excruciating for some women, and when I asked to be sedated to have it done, it was refused because that’s “not how we do this procedure in the UK”.
Similarly, when I was diagnosed abroad with PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome), the doctors in the UK were refusing to officially diagnose me because I wasn’t overweight (which is a typical symptom of PCOS but all women with the syndrome are overweight). But did they offer to scan my ovaries and check? Of course not. They refused that too. What was I supposed to do? Have cancer so they take me seriously?
It took an actual cancer scare to finally get me referred to a gynaecologist. A blood test for ovarian cancer markers came back with a concerning result, so I was rushed to the hospital (by rushed I mean it took two weeks to get seen by a doctor), I had scans done and was diagnosed with PCOS and endometriosis. Thankfully, no cancer. It turns out endometriosis can also cause a spike in the ovarian cancer marker test.
The oncologist I saw there told me to ask my GP for a referral to Dr Gynaecologist to discuss my treatment options for PCOS . Even then, my GP told me that he didn’t think there was much to be gained from the referral since having a coil put in could resolve my symptoms.
Why don’t I just shut up and do what he (not a specialist) says, since he knows better than a gynaecologist (a specialist).
Why Does Medical Gaslighting Happen?
Why do women have to be in a potentially life-threatening situation to be taken seriously? To have further tests done? To be believed?
I thought, maybe medical gaslighting is happening because the NHS is under so much pressure, and they can’t afford better care. Although it could be a contributing factor, women are being dismissed and disbelieved by doctors around the whole world. This is not a UK-specific issue. It goes deeper than that.
“The result of this deeply male-dominated culture is that the male experience, the male perspective, has come to be seen as universal, while the female experience–that of half the global population, after all–is seen as, well, niche.” Because of this male-centric world we live in, research into the female body and illness is put to the side. There is an infuriating lack of funding for medical research relating to women’s conditions, decided by panels of men, which leads to a massive data gap that explains why a lot of conditions that affect women (or those that affect men too but show differently in women) are misunderstood and misdiagnosed. This, along with the tendency to see women as hysterical (which is still pervasive in medicine), leads to women being dismissed by medical professionals, and to their suffering being reduced to a figment of their imagination.
Personally, I have decided to stop feeling bad for talking to doctors when I’m feeling unwell. I am not imagining things. I am going to challenge a dismissive GP whenever I encounter one, and I encourage others to do the same. Only by challenging medical gaslighting and raising awareness about this issue, will we move closer towards fairer and safer treatment of women.
Do you have a story about being dismissed or gaslighted by a medical professional? Tell us in the comments below, or DM us on Instagram and we will publish your stories on our social media to spread awareness!
Disclaimer: All of the above can be relevant to any gender, I simply focused on women because they tend to be dismissed more than men by medical professionals.
This article ended up being half a personal account, and half a letter of praise to Invisible Women. Please read it. You won’t regret it.