I come back from studying abroad with pain radiating throughout my pelvic floor. The pain starts on the plane ride home but lasts for years to come. I am 19. I swallow this pain for longer than I should because the idea of going to the gynecologist sounds like more pain. I regurgitate and re-swallow this pain because I have not been told that my pain is valid. Because female pain isn’t valid.
What is it, exactly, about science and math that gives me anxiety? Is it that girls are told their whole lives that boys are naturally better at math than girls are—that parents expect their boys to out-perform their girls in math and science? Does this belief permeate so deeply into our psyches from the time we are six or seven years old that we are unable to overcome it as we become women?
As a little girl, my dad puts me on my mom’s bike to check if I’ve “grown into it.” He pushes me down a long driveway with a gate at the end. I am not used to handle breaks. My feet can’t reach the pedals. I don’t know why he does this. I don’t know why I agree to get on the bike. I panic. I push my body forward so my feet meet the ground to stop myself from crashing into the gate. I am not strong enough to stop the momentum of the bicycle. The bicycle seat continues forward as my body halts, making contact with my crotch. I am in pain. I cry. My mom is inside. I am taken inside to be checked for abnormalities. Both my parents take off my pants and look. I am bruised. The bruises run down my inner thigh near my vagina. My dad looks at me and then looks to my mother as if to say “sorry” for not having the foresight to imagine such an injury could come from his experiment. My mom looks at me with a look I won’t understand for many more years, as if to say “I cannot shield you from experiencing such pain at the hands of men, not now and not ever,” or perhaps, “you may be bruised in this place again, but next time, it will not be an accident.” I do not understand yet that my vagina is private. I do not feel shame when they look. I only feel pain.
What we remember of what was done to us shapes our view, molds us, sets our stance. But what we remember is past, it no longer exists, and yet still we hold on to it, live by it, surrender so much control to it. What do we become when we put down the scripts written by history and memory, when each person before us can be seen free of the cultural or personal narrative we’ve inherited or devised?
I once had a chemistry teacher bark at me in front of an entire class of students when I was having trouble understanding a concept; he told me that I “could always bag groceries” if I failed chemistry.
What do I say in this moment? How do I defend my intelligence against this man, who has a Ph.D. in organic chemistry; who becomes red in the face every time a student slips and calls him “Mr.” instead of “Dr.”; who picks on his female students as if it is a secret game between him and the male students?
What do I say when my eighth-grade math teacher takes my class of mostly boys to compete in push-up contests on the sports field in place of working out algebra problems on the board? I am speechless, because math is hard and standing up to grown men at age 13 is harder. The math teacher organizes a “spitting contest” in which he and the six boys in my class compete to see how far they can each hock their loogies. Again, I am speechless.
Do I complain to the administration? I do not. I am scared; I am outnumbered; I am angry at Math instead of the teacher. Do I call years later to inform someone of the Title IX violation I believe was taking place while I was in school there? I do. I am blown off; he has since left and is teaching at another nearby school. Do I continue to fight for him to be held accountable for his actions when I hear he is no longer at my middle school? I do not. I am tired; I am angry that I hate Math because of this man; I am sick of holding men accountable for their actions.
I am 20 going on 21 and I have spent months putting my feet in cold stirrups as doctors touch their gloved fingers to my vagina: This time, I feel shame. I also feel pain. The doctors stare blankly at my file: recurring UTIs and yeast infections for a little over a year—recurring bladder and urethra pain, constant burning and itching sensations. But why? What will cure this? No one seems to have an answer for me. None of the doctors, including the women, have any idea how to correlate the pain I experience on a day-to-day basis with their notes in my file. I, a young woman, could not possibly know my body. They make this very clear. This must be in my head. There is nothing they can see physically wrong. My pain is ignored because, according to them, it is scientifically impossible for it to be there.
I reread an article I’ve read at least a dozen times to validate my pain, because nothing else will. Joe Fassler’s “How Doctors Take Women’s Pain Less Seriously” pacifies my pain and I tear up; and then I sob—not for me, but for all the women whose needs have been ignored in the classroom and on the examination table. I feel the pain of all the women whose aggrieved bodies have been treated as overreactions. Fassler details a horrific day he spent in the emergency room with his wife, who lost her ovary because doctors assumed she was overreacting to abdominal pain. I feel her ovary die inside of me; her ovary is my ovary; I am waiting in the emergency room for hours, with a dying ovary—or, I might as well be.
Second opinions and third opinions, fourth and fifth opinions: they all feel insignificant. Nobody knows why the pain has persisted and morphed. At a visit with a new doctor, I am tested for STIs for the tenth time that year, despite my insistence that I have not been having any sex due to excruciating pain throughout my pelvic region. When the results come back negative (again) for gonorrhea, chlamydia, and trichomoniasis, my doctor lifts her eyebrows and shoulders concurrently, bewildered by my body. I am insulted by her lack of humanity. I am in pain, I am not a jigsaw puzzle to shrug one’s shoulders at by the fire of your winter vacation home.
And a woman like me could—should—feel grateful I have access to healthcare at all. I, a woman with the privilege of being white, am privileged to receive (on average) better healthcare than a black woman. Black women die at 3.3 times the rate of white women as a result of pregnancy complications, but also, much more frequently have their pain disregarded by physicians.
‘The common thread is that when black women expressed concern about their symptoms, clinicians were more delayed and seemed to believe them less,’ he says. ‘It’s forced me to think more deeply about my own approach. There is a very fine line between clinical intuition and unconscious bias.’
The next doctor I meet with runs through the standard procedure, puts me through swabs and blood work, and somehow manages to lose my test results. All this? For nothing. She asks if I will come back in to redo the tests. I decline.
Every time my vagina is touched by doctors’ fingers, I wince. I am becoming more tense, more tender; the pain is becoming more acute and I am associating it with the doctors. White lights. Gloves. Equals Pain. Despite my obvious discomfort at so much as a pinky in my vagina, not one of the doctors stops to ask if I’ve been assaulted or raped. It must be something I did. It is my body’s fault for not taking to the antibiotics, antifungals, the myriad of treatments I’ve been prescribed.
Women are born with pain built in. It’s our physical destiny. Period pains, sore boobs, childbirth, you know. We carry it within ourselves throughout our lives. Men don’t. They have to seek it out. They invent all these gods and demons and things just so they can feel guilty about things, which is something we also do very well on our own. And then they create wars, so they can feel things and touch each other, and when there aren’t any wars they can play rugby. And we have it all going on in here, inside.
I am 14 and in sex education class. The class is separated by gender to allow us to ask questions more freely. We ask questions about condoms and birth control, but none of us ask questions about the parts we cannot see; those intimate parts that are swaddled by our lower abdomens.
Someone asks if sex will hurt. The teacher says it does hurt for some women at first, and then it feels better eventually. We do not learn about how to stay emotionally healthy as well as physically healthy; we do not learn how to keep our vaginas healthy. We learn exclusively about heterosexual sex. We do not learn what it will be like to go to a gynecologist—what this experience should be like, and what it should not be like. We do not learn that harrassment, assault, and pain are often part of being female. I will not learn anything until I have to: until my body is in pain.
My vaginal wall, a tube of tight muscles, has grown around the trauma and pain of female pasts: the pain that dismissive doctors have unknowingly prescribed me as my psyche grows around the snide STEM educators throughout my life. Only now am I finally recognizing that my pain may be more a product of years of swallowing and regurgitating: swallowing the suffering I experience, and digesting it to make it normal—all so I can resist vomiting it back up. For so long my body has been trying to tell me this is not normal, and for so long I trusted establishments steeped in the patriarchy to tell me how to feel inside my body and mind. I’m 24 years old. Only now am I finally starting to listen to what She says, what I say.