There are some things you can only understand once you step foot onto the UC Berkeley campus. Those acronyms that make no sense to outsiders, such as GBC, GBO and FSM; the reconfiguration of time that means we get an extra 10 minutes for, well, everything; and, for us female-identifying students, that phrase we utter to each other when even the slightest thing feels wrong: “Should we go to Tang?”
Pain, in all its myriad of forms — random, fleeting, obscene — has been such a big part of my life for the past decade it’s impossible for me to think of what it means to be a woman without it.
Perhaps no one has put it so beautifully and so devastatingly as Phoebe Waller-Bridge in her show Fleabag. “Women are born with pain built in. It’s our physical destiny — period pains, sore boobs, childbirth. We carry it within ourselves throughout our lives. Men don’t. They have to seek it out. They invent all these gods and demons so they can feel guilty about things, which is something we 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. We have it all going on in here, inside.”
Except sometimes, it’s not just hormonal fluctuations and monthly cycles; our bodies can often feel like a prison because of how society attempts to control and exclude those who possess bodies that are different from the societal prototype of the straight, white male.
Writing in the Guardian, Olivia Laing sees “the struggles of the last century from feminism to gay liberation to the civil rights movement” as revolving around “the right to be free of oppression based on the kind of body you inhabited.” Yet, this utopia seems more distant than ever since “everyday people are killed, hurt, hobbled because of bodily markers like skin color or gender or sexuality.”
And these systems also manifest themselves in the slightest, subtlest ways.
The summer after my freshman year I had an internship at an office downtown. Every morning, I rode the train as I sat in the steaming, swelling summer heat of the city. But, not even 20 minutes after I’d arrived, I’d find goosebumps peppered along my arms and thighs.
It wasn’t just me; every woman at that office was either wrapped in a winter sweater or draped in a blanket they permanently kept under their desk. Imagine my surprise when I learned office temperatures are designed and set for men’s metabolic rates, leaving women not just unexplainably cold but less productive at work. The kicker of this study is that men don’t appear to be affected when the thermostat gets raised.
I could go on. In most of the country, tampons are still taxed while Viagra and Rogaine are exempt because they are considered “medically necessary.” As a result, American women are estimated to spend an extra $150 million per year on menstrual products. Up to 80% of women experience cramps with their periods, which doctors have finally stated are as painful as a heart attack.
With not much else to treat dysmenorrhea, women often turn to over the counter drugs to manage their symptoms so they carry on with their normal lives, except these anti-inflammatory drugs often come with dangerous side effects if used long term. Drugs themselves have a history of sexism. Gabrielle Jackson’s book “Pain and Prejudice” reveals how women weren’t included in clinical trials until the 1990s. And while women make up 70% of chronic pain sufferers, 80% of pain medication has only been tested on men.
My grandmother once told me a story of how her mother took her to see a doctor after she realized how bad her daughter’s cramps were. In 1950s Kashmir, the only doctor they could find was a man who told her that her pain would stop once she got married. “It didn’t!” she said, laughing at how naive she once was in believing such a doctor.
It’s ironic that despite all the progress that has been made, we’re oftentimes still silenced or shamed for our pain even though it’s responsible for the future of humanity. All of this serves to reinforce how women inhabit a world that was built by and for men. As Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s character Selina Meyer said on “Veep,” “If men got pregnant, you could get an abortion at an ATM.”
Growing up, I always saw safe, legal abortions and access to birth control as two of the biggest keys to women’s rights because they allow us control over our own bodies. However, I’ve recently learned the pill comes with its own set of problems. Sarah Hill’s book “This is Your Brain on Birth Control” explores the myriad psychological side effects of the pill that women have previously just accepted as something that comes with reproductive freedom.
While reading, I thought of how many of my friends have just said, “Oh, the pill made me crazy,” with such normality, and my own disastrous experience with even the lowest dose of hormones was a sadness so sharp it caused a pit in my stomach.
Hill found that the stress hormone profile of pill taking women is similar to people who experience chronic stress and that the suicide risk of young women aged 15-19 who are on the pill is twice that of those who do not take the pill. The pill even impacts the immune system, learning and memory. All of this is coming out now because up until very recently, there’s been almost no research on the pill’s effects on the brain. The side effects that are known and discussed about the pill, namely its high risk of developing blood clots and or having a stroke, are often just accepted as par for the course.
The recent halting of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine sparked a big debate about women’s health online due to much higher risk of developing blood clots on the pill — six in 6.8 million odds with the vaccine compared to one in 1,000 with birth control — and how women’s health issues are rarely met with such care and concern.
Regressing into a world where there’s no pill isn’t the answer; it’s one of the easiest and most reliable forms of contraception, but as Hill’s book boldly shows, there needs to be a greater investment in women’s health and into the medicines we already do have impact on our bodies.
A couple weeks ago, I spilled the soup I’d just boiled all over my rug and had to clutch the wall to stand upright. I called my cousin. “Something doesn’t feel right,” I said. This time, Tang was swapped for the emergency room.
She came over that night to take care of me, and everything ended up being OK, but in those moments I spent waiting for her, it, at first, seemed like there was nothing I could do. That’s the thing about pain, it renders you oblivious to all your surroundings, all the things you care about and feel a responsibility toward until the only thing you can think about is how your body is punishing you.
The only thing that did make me feel better was taking a pencil to old-fashioned paper and writing. For those few minutes, time stood still as my hand flew over my notebook and I felt myself lifted out of my body.
Writing is usually not a special process for me. I spend most of my day hunched over a laptop scribbling notes, sending emails or typing up research reports. I saw how all of this had caused me to become so alienated and disconnected my body in my everyday life, only really becoming aware of it when it caused me pain.
In an interview a couple of years ago, the novelist Zadie Smith talked about how “200 years ago, our creative capacities were more fulfilled,” and that people used to be “making their own clothes, cooking, making their own food, the domestic arts which so much contempt was piled when I was a kid by a certain form of feminism of which I was totally a member. But as an adult, I now understand that those arts are examples of our capacity to make things. And for thousands of years, they were the only evidence of women’s capacity to make things given that everything else was blocked to us, the professional arts, and that they are of serious worth and value.”
The writing I did as I waited for my cousin was nothing of significance; it wasn’t ever going to be read by anyone else, but for that moment I forgot everything else and felt the slightest glimpse of pure euphoria.
Contact Zara Khan at [email protected]