You’re just feeling a little pain, honey

The Girl Who Cried Pain

The question changes from “Why do women and men differ in their experiences of pain?” to “How do women dampen the effect of powerful sex differences in physiological pain mechanisms to achieve only small sex difference in their actual pain experience?” [Notice that men’s experience is centered here. We do not ask “Why is the pain experience exaggerated in men?”]

A Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain

A friend of mine once dreamed a car crash that left all the broken pieces of her Pontiac coated in bright orange pollen. “My analyst pushed and pushed for me to make sense of the image,” she wrote to me, “and finally, I blurted: ‘My wounds are fertile!’ And that has become one of the touchstones and rallying cries of my life.”

What’s fertile in a wound? Why dwell in one? Wounds promise authenticity and profundity, beauty and singularity, desirability. They summon sympathy. They bleed enough light to write by. They yield scars full of stories and slights that become rallying cries. They break upon the fuming fruits of damaged engines and dust these engines with color. And yet—beyond and beneath their fruits—they still hurt. The boons of a wound never get rid of it; they just bloom from it. It’s perilous to think of them as chosen. Perhaps a better phrase to use is wound appeal, which is to say: the ways a wound can seduce, how it promises what it rarely gives. My friend Harriet put it like this: “Pain that gets performed is still pain.”

They are wary of melodrama, so they stay numb or clever instead.

The post-wounded woman conducts herself as if preempting certain accusations: Don’t cry too loud; don’t play victim. Don’t ask for pain meds you don’t need; don’t give those doctors another reason to doubt.

I recognized a certain tendency in myself—a desire to compel men by describing things that had been hard for me—and I wanted to punish this tendency. Punishment involved imagining the ways my confessions might repulse the very men they were supposed to bring closer. When I punished myself with this causality, I also restored the comforting framework of emotional order—because I did this, this happened; because this happened, I hurt.

“I was excited by the idea that something really was wrong with me.” Years later, Grealy still took a certain comfort in her surgeries. These were times when she was cared for, and when her pain was given a structure beyond the nebulous petty torture of feeling ugly to the world. “It wasn’t without a certain amount of shame that I took this kind of emotional comfort from surgery,” she writes. “Did it mean I liked having operations and thus that I deserved them?”

I knew better—many of us, it seems, knew better—than to become one of those women who plays victim, lurks around the sickbed, hands her pain out like a business card. What I’m trying to say is, I don’t think this was just me. We all grew up doing everything we could to avoid this identity: self-awareness, self-deprecation, jadedness, sarcasm. The Girl Who Cried Pain: She doesn’t need meds; she needs a sedative.

And now we find ourselves torn. We don’t want anyone to feel sorry for us, but we miss the sympathy when it doesn’t come. Feeling sorry for ourselves has become a secret crime—a kind of shameful masturbation—that would chase away the sympathy of others if we ever let it show. “Because I had grown up denying myself any feeling that even hinted at self-pity,” Grealy writes, “I now had to find a way to reshape it.”

More women were afraid of being secret misogynists than I’d realized.

How do we represent female pain without producing a culture in which this pain has been fetishized to the point of fantasy or imperative? Fetishize: to be excessively or irrationally devoted to. Here is the danger of wounded womanhood: that its invocation will corroborate a pain cult that keeps legitimating, almost legislating, more of itself.

How Doctors Take Women’s Pain Less Seriously

How long is it appropriate to continue to process a traumatic event through language, through repeated retellings? Friends have heard the story, and still she finds herself searching for language to tell it again, again, as if the experience is a vast terrain that can never be fully circumscribed by words. Still, in the throes of debilitating pain, she tried to bite her lip, wait her turn, be good for the doctors.

Not Tonight: Migraine and the Politics of Gender and Health

Were headaches known in the Age of Gold; or, when the millennium shall prevail, will they cease to be? Certain it is, that in any state where there are secrets to conceal or pangs to dissemble, this convenient malady could no more be dispensed with than the most necessary article of attire. How could society possibly go on without the trite but inexhaustible excuse that—better than any soft answer—turns away wrath, and, for a while, at least, closes the mouth of the accuser, so that the accused, whether innocent or guilty, have time to breathe and brace themselves for the question, if it must needs ensue? There are people, I believe, who discourse quite eloquently on the advantages of gout; surely as many could be found ready to cry Vive la migraine!

GEORGE A. LAWRENCE, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, 1870

Doctor visits are further complicated by what Judy Segal, a scholar of rhetoric, has described as the ghosts of patients past. Physicians, she argues, already have a “mental cast of characters” that they anticipate when meeting a headache patient. The clinical encounter, therefore, is truly a performance, as people with headache disorders attempt to persuade their doctor that they are not the expected “hysterical woman,” “malinger,” “hypochondriac,” or “drug seeker” but a person with a legitimate problem. Women are more prone to such interpretations and report they must “work hard” to present themselves as credible patients. This often translates into an effort to carefully control gender displays. Nobody wants to be viewed as a whiny, weak-willed girl. This is a challenging balance. Patients wonder how to be assertive, while conveying a sense of just how badly they hurt. Even with these efforts, patients report that they are “met with skepticism and lack of comprehension,” and that they feel “rejected, ignored and … belittled.”