Unless you’ve experienced a real-life miracle, seeking medical help as a woman in 2020 is nothing short of a minefield. Just the act of booking a doctor’s appointment can be anxiety-inducing, so used are we to having our issues brushed off as either hypochondria or irrelevance. The experience is much worse for trans people, non-binary individuals and those from Black and Asian backgrounds, all of whom suffer with a well-documented history of going unheard in medical settings.
Not being taken seriously when it comes to one's health can lead to second-guessing of genuine medical concerns, which in turn can delay the crucial time we could be spending trying to get better. Unfortunately, women’s medical science is diabolically underfunded and under-researched, and with NHS cuts coming into play (not to mention a worldwide pandemic), trying to solve a health problem is often like trying to get on a London bus with no Oyster card: long, and annoying for everyone involved unless you have a totally sound driver.
Some Gen Z women are tackling this issue in a typically Gen Z manner: by taking to TikTok. There, they're recreating their terrifying health experiences in what initially seem like cute sketches set to a soundbite from Disney’s Teen Beach Movie (honestly, it looks like a cinematic masterpiece). The sketches become less cute when they end in hospitalisation or even, in one instance, a surprise birth. From vanished periods to ovarian cysts, miscarriages and mystery pregnancies, this 'challenge' is for anyone who’s had serious medical issues underestimated or minimised. To find out how this all started, Refinery29 reached out to some of these creators to hear about their experiences.
Grace Cleak is a makeup and lash artist from Hertfordshire. For years, her mother had an inkling that her daughter may be suffering from polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) but Grace thought nothing of it until she felt a stabbing pain while having sex with her boyfriend. "At first my boyfriend said 'Oh, you're being dramatic'," she tells me. "But as soon as I told him I needed to go to the hospital, he knew I wasn't joking and it was something serious."
You can find the short version of what happened next in her TikTok video but essentially Grace found herself on the brink of surgery to remove an ovary after seeing no fewer than four doctors, before being told the next day that she had suffered from a 4cm-wide ovarian cyst which had ruptured, causing the pain. "They said not to worry and to come back in four months for a check-up scan as they can disappear on their own or grow," she tells me.
Grace decided to take matters into her own hands. "I didn't want to wait that long so I went privately and they did my scan and found out that although there was no trace of the cyst anymore, they could see that I had PCOS." Grace was shocked that this hadn't been caught when her cyst first ruptured. According to the NHS, one in five women in the UK will be diagnosed with PCOS, which can have negative long-term effects on your mental health, skin, hair and ability to reproduce.
I asked Grace why she thinks doctors initially missed her PCOS and she says that it would help if we were taught more about the way our bodies work. "I feel like we aren't taught enough to know what different things can happen to us from a young age." Hands up who else received incomplete sexual health classes in school where we were taught about male pleasure and little else? "If there are problems," she says ruefully, "people always just say 'it's your period'."
She continues: "When I found out [I had PCOS], none of my friends had heard of it and I didn’t even know how common it was. We are made to feel as if [women's health] is a taboo topic, when in fact it's something that should be spoken about to spread awareness." It's the relief that comes with being heard by others who can relate, she believes, that has led to the popularity of this challenge.
Health inequality is especially prevalent for Black women. This year, Public Health England reported on the disproportionate number of COVID-19 deaths among people of colour but racial bias exists across the entirety of healthcare. A Black woman's chance of dying while giving birth is five times higher than that of a white woman and this year, medical student Malone Mukwende created a guide called Mind The Gap: A Handbook Of Clinical Signs In Black And Brown Skin because he had only ever been taught what certain health conditions look like on white skin. So it comes as no surprise that many young Black women have had wildly negative experiences while seeking treatment for reproductive issues.
Thyra Montague-Imbastari knows the feeling all too well. The 21-year-old TikTok user from Surrey took to the app to share the traumatic story of her menstrual problems. Her first period arrived at 16, along with an intense month-long pain that caused Thyra to faint and vomit. Her cycles got worse and worse, and she ended up bed-bound for the entire summer before college. "When I finally had the chance to visit the doctor and had a blood test," she tells me, "I was diagnosed with anaemia and given no further testing, just a prescription of iron tablets. I still had the same symptoms and after many years of getting just blood tests and no further testing, I grew tired of being dismissed." The situation continued and she was put on contraception which actually made her worse. After five years of going back and forth to the doctor, her mother demanded further tests. "I was given an appointment for an internal ultrasound but this was all cancelled with the coronavirus." Thyra is sadly still waiting for her appointment.
Thyra has no doubt that her lack of beneficial treatment can be linked to racial profiling and the unconscious bias in healthcare. "The history Black people have in terms of racism and segregation has made an impact on how we feel pain, which started with Black women being operated on without any painkillers or anaesthetic," Thyra explains. "We are expected to be a lot stronger than the average person, a strange perception that I have never understood."
As well as racial issues, Thyra feels marginalised by medical professionals because of her age and gender. "Women are told to deal with pain. Childbirth, pregnancy, periods and birth control are all things that happen in a woman’s life that we are told are painful, with side effects, and we are taught that we should deal with it and it's apparently a level of pain as a woman that we have to accept." As many as 84% of women experience pain during their period, which can last anywhere from four to eight days and varies greatly.
Going back to the doctor after coronavirus doesn't sound particularly tempting to Thyra. "There have been too many occurrences that weren’t taken seriously," she says. "It makes us fear that we are going to get the same treatment and be dismissed completely. I have been put off going to the doctor for most of my health concerns and it takes a lot for me to go to the doctor when my problem gets unbearable."
Brook, the UK charity which champions sexual health for young people, agrees that the taboo around sexualities and bodies of women and people with vulvas "means that the experiences of these young women are far too common".
"Empowering our young people to understand their bodies is an important place to start," says Ella Craddock, the charity's senior education and wellbeing coordinator. "Becoming their own health advocates makes up a large part of what we do at Brook. Starting with the basics of knowing the correct terminology and function of body parts, to understanding symptoms which may need medical help." No one, she says, should have to convince multiple medical professionals of the seriousness of their condition or go for years with misdiagnoses.
For both Thyra and Grace, joining the TikTok challenge has helped them feel like they're working to reduce the stigma. For Thyra it started a conversation with others on the systemic racism and sexism of the medical industry. "I think it’s hard for women to have spaces to talk about their own health, especially sexual health. Contraceptives have made little to no change or improvements in the last few years and the fact that we must choose between having birth control that can possibly ruin your weight, mental health or period cycle and being pregnant is astounding. I think [the TikTok challenge] also helps women feel less alone, especially when it comes to periods, which is a subject people deem disgusting when it is just normal."
Grace agrees, explaining that these topics aren’t openly spoken about enough, which is what makes these videos super relatable. "It finally gives women a chance to speak out about what they've gone through; because they have listened to someone else's story, it gives them confidence. I think my video got a lot of attention from young girls as they had never heard of this and were interested."
Unfortunately there’s always someone around the corner willing to diminish a young woman’s judgement. "I had a lot of comments from young boys who thought it was gross," Grace tells me. "Some even called me a slag, when in fact I was just talking about women's health."
Perhaps when the entire medical world isn’t based around what works for men's bodies, then they can have an opinion.