Gendered attacks are leveled at women on a day-to-day basis. Women are called shrill, or bitchy, or needy, or crazy, or a million other pejorative adjectives meant to subdue. But there’s one criticism I’ve found to be specifically harmful to female patients as they weave their way through a diagnosis of chronic illness –– “high maintenance.”
Girls are taught from an early age that being deemed “high maintenance” is a bad thing. You should look pretty, but not take too long to get ready. You should be agreeable. You should be eager to please, and not a diva, and not too forthcoming with inconvenient requests or complaints. You should be “chill,” and “go-with-the-flow,” and a bunch of other vague terms that require you to not voice inconvenient feelings or needs.
That’s problematic for any woman –– feeling like you have to stifle yourself to meet a male ideal is the definition of misogyny. But a fear of being high maintenance can become dangerous for women with undiagnosed illnesses.
Scientific studies have been conducted around the different ways female pain and male pain are treated by doctors. Women are treated for pain “less aggressively” than men, which shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with history. All too often, women with genuine physical and/or mental ailments have been deemed “hysterical.” And while hysteria is no longer a feasible medical diagnosis, those same ideas seep into how we view women who express pain –– and how and when those women decide to express it.
As a female patient with a chronic disease, I often find myself slipping into the traditional gender role of the agreeable woman. I can be in immense amounts of pain and still smile politely when an ER nurse asks how I’m doing. I can be out with friends, white-knuckling my drink because the pain has hit suddenly and severely, and I still won’t say anything for fear of being deemed high maintenance or dramatic. I downplay my very real pain in an attempt to not be seen as needy, a thing that I’ve been taught from the beginning is the worst thing to be.
It took a long time for me to be diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease. I was in nearly constant pain and I was terrified to eat because I knew it would just make things worse. I could rarely keep food in my body and lost thirty pounds in a matter of a few months. I was constantly miserable, but every expression of that pain felt like an inconvenience to those around me. When I was told by friends and family that I must just have “a bad stomach,” I convinced myself they must be right. I must just be complaining to much. This level of pain must just be part of being alive.
My story is not an uncommon one. For me, my diagnosis took nearly a year. For others, the process is even longer. And even now that I have an official diagnosis, I still second guess myself before bringing up a new symptom or expressing physical pain. When you’ve been conditioned to believe that low maintenance is the best way to be, the last thing you want to do is to draw attention to yourself by shouting out in pain, literally or figuratively.
That’s why it’s so important to call out the destructive language we use when we talk about women. Not only are the slights damaging to our collective psyche, they can be physically damaging. The fear of making a fuss can stop a woman from seeking help when she really needs it –– and when it comes to your health, we don’t have the luxury of wasting time.
Sam Reid is writer and social media professional from Chicago. When she's not working at her day job in marketing communications, you can find her blogging about my experience with chronic illness at Sicker Than Your Average or raising funds for some very important patient programs. Her goal is to bring patient issues to light and hopefully provide a bit of humor and humanity along the way. She uses her platform to put a face on invisible illnesses and educate others on the realities of the American healthcare system. Outside of writing as a form of advocacy, she spends her time dabbling in the comedy writing sphere, hanging out with her two cats, or eating overpriced cheese plates.