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Sarah Graham "Rooted in patient voices, stories and experience": Rebel Bodies and the gender health gap

An upcoming Festival of Debate event will host Sarah Graham talking about reporting on the gender health gap. Alice O'Connell speaks to her about the issues. 

A woman lies in a white bed. Her face is obscured by her arm.

A woman sleeping in bed


Sheffield’s Festival of Debate will host Sarah Graham next week, in an event discussing her book, Rebel Bodies; A Guide to the Gender Health Gap Revolution. Sarah has spent the past eight years of her journalism career highlighting the stark differences in the treatment and healthcare access between men and women, writing particularly about women’s sexual, reproductive health and mental health.

There are many causes for the disparity that remains in the treatment between genders when it comes to health care. Sarah tells about how emotionally distressing it can be for women who have health issues but are being ignored, and this was what pushed her to research and find out more about the gender health gap.

A woman in a striped top smiles at the camera.

Sarah Graham

She wanted to create content that allowed women to feel they were being heard for the first time, so she created the Hysterical Women blog, a platform for “women to create a place to share their own stories and prove they weren’t on their own. It wasn’t just them who was affected. It all grew from there and eventually became the book”.

Stigmas and taboos around women’s health and menstrual health specifically are a massive part of the issue. Sarah tells Now Then:

We have, for so long, normalised this idea that periods are supposed to be painful. Effectively if you’re born with a womb, then you have to suffer every month. I think so many of us internalise those messages that when we do struggle with things, whether that’s psychological issues related to our periods or heavy bleeding, we just think that’s what it’s like and we have to get on with it.

The support and healthcare for periods, menopause and menstrual issues still feel very dated and stuck in the past. So much has been done to try and dismantle the associations we have about women’s reproductive health, removing the shame surrounding it, teaching young girls that it's normal and natural. So it begs the question: why does it seem that the health care and support from professionals for women hasn’t progressed in the same way?

For a girl with heavy periods and excruciating stomach cramps it still seems like such an uphill battle to get the recognition or support she needs in an accessible and simple manner.

Not only does it seem that women have been conditioned to believe periods mean a lot of pain or that menopause should be awful but it feels like society has, for such a long time, conditioned women – especially those later in life – to put themselves as the last priority.

Sarah feels that this is particularly common among menopausal women.

They’ve got busy careers, families, possibly caring for elderly parents and other relatives as well. There is absolutely this sense that women are supposed to put themselves last. It’s ingrained in us to just crack on and minimise our own experience.

When women do eventually go to the doctor, things are really bad. They’ve got to a point where they’ve have gone ‘Okay, I can’t cope with this anymore and finally have to do something’. Then to have a doctor say it’s not that bad, or you’re exaggerating, that has a massive impact.

To then still be dismissed sets her back a step and she questions why she thought it was important in the first place. It’s a vicious cycle.

One of the main elements that contribute to this issue is the state of medical knowledge and understanding. Sarah acknowledges how complex the problem is and that there are many solutions that are all multi-layered.

However if research did receive more funding it could fill some of the gaps that exist due to lack of medical training.

Of course in the current post-pandemic climate the healthcare system is under an immense amount of pressure, so tackling issues such as funding and research is harder than probably it’s even been before. But it feels imperative to continue to push for it, it’s an issue affecting 51% of the population.

Considering over half of us will need this care, the conversations don’t seem to be proportionate to how impactful the topic is.

Sarah says:

Issues like empathy and having the time to listen to your patients, a lot of that comes down to workforce pressures and capacity, meaning they have to rely on stereotypes. So I think funding for resources and workforce to ensure we have enough staff to run healthcare services and retaining those staff, because conditions are good enough, is important.

It’s something at the forefront of everyone’s minds at the moment with all the strikes that are happening. So I think it’s really a political thing that needs to happen as we need that commitment to funding for the NHS to change massive issues like the gender health gap.

There’s not only a clear gap in how women are being cared for in terms of reproductive health, it's the case with mental health, too. This has been in the spotlight in recent years as both medical staff and individuals have acknowledged how impactful getting the correct support for mental illness really is.

Men’s mental health is also an issue that needs attention. Sarah explains that men find it really difficult to come forward. So both women and men do feel dismissed and that their mental health concerns aren’t taken seriously enough.

Many women can resonate with being told they’re a ‘drama queen’ or they’re ‘attention seeking’. It feels like a lot of the time, because women often speak more freely about their emotions and mental health, that when they do speak about it’s not taken as seriously. There is also a view that women attempting suicide are attention seeking.

Sarah researched this and found that:

Women don’t necessarily succeed in their suicide as often as men, and that’s [seen as] a reason to not help them. That feels like the attitude from a lot of society and the healthcare system. Men have higher suicide rates but women have higher rate of attempted suicide.

The feedback and conversations on the gender health gap were a “massive motivation” for Sarah to write Rebel Bodies and start the Hysterical Women blog in the first place. She tells me:

I wanted to give hope, that inspiration that when you hear all these women who’ve been through similar things, all these campaigns and all the ways you can join in, can get more women involved.

I’ve been so moved by the people coming up to me and telling me about their personal experiences and stories, I think that’s such an important part of the book, I wanted it to be rooted in patient voices, stories and experience. That’s completely at the heart of this.

Learn more

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by Alice O'Connell (she/her)

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