‘We’re not overreacting’: Just when *will* women’s pain be taken seriously?

‘Yentl syndrome’ is named after the heroine of the nineteenth-century short story Yentl the Yeshiva Boy by Isaac Bashevis Singer, who had to disguise herself as a man to study the Talmud. This term has made its way into medical research to suggest that women are only treated seriously if they are perceived to be as sick as a man or pretend to be one.

Women are less likely to be taken seriously and treated immediately at the early stages of a healthcare diagnosis, and their pain is not considered as significant as men’s. Yentl syndrome is about the invisibility of women, particularly in medical research and treatment. It has now been reliably shown that women experience disbelief at the early stages of a healthcare encounter and experience pain for longer before they are referred to a specialist clinic compared to men.

Women are prescribed less pain medication as they are often perceived to be anxious rather than in pain and assumed to be ‘over-reacting’. As an example, 50 million Americans have one or more autoimmune diseases. A survey from the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association (AARDA) shows that 62% of people with an autoimmune disease have been labelled ‘chronic complainers’ by doctors. Since more than 80% of these people are women, this attitude affects women disproportionately, sometimes 16 times more than men.

At Wimbledon in 2021, the 18-year-old British tennis player Emma Raducanu withdrew from her fourth-round match due to medical reasons. She was struggling to breathe and clutching her chest. John McEnroe, the three-times Wimbledon men’s champion commentating on BBC Sport, said that it “had got a little bit too much” for Raducanu, and she could not handle the pressure. 

McEnroe also said: “It makes you look at the guys that have been around and the girls for so long – how well they can handle it.” There was an implication in his comments that Raducanu was not hurt or really ill but that she was perhaps not mentally tough enough to compete at that level.

History (and scientific research) has shown us that women’s testimonies about their bodies are not believed and that it is often attributed to their over-emotional nature or their inability to handle pressure.

I remember a few years ago; I was suffering from acute abdominal pain, the kind where I could not settle down for a single moment. I went to the local doctor a number of times, and was told that it was perhaps only “stomach cramps,” “you could regulate your diet and notice the difference” and “it is probably gastric.” One doctor suggested that I was being too “dramatic” as he couldn’t see anything wrong. Another told me that some exercise and weight loss would do me good. Every time, the doctor asked me if I was sure of my pain. 

Once, I looked over at the doctor’s notes, and the woman physician had written, “Looks alright.” I was suffering from acute gallbladder cholesterolosis and needed urgent surgery.

Although the terms ‘hysteria’ and ‘neurosis’ were removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) of the American Psychiatric Association in 1980, women are still likely to be over-diagnosed with a range of psychiatric illnesses, from depression to borderline personality disorder, and over-prescribed medication for mental illnesses. The World Health Organization has warned that women’s physical pain is often underestimated and attributed to psychosomatic causes.