Medical Herstory: Undoing gender-based stigma and shame

In conversation with Tori Ford, Founder of Medical Herstory, and Laura Murray, a volunteer for Medical Herstory.

In 2019, Tori Ford first shared her story of living with chronic yeast infections in the school newspaper. At this point, Tori was disappointed with medical care: disengaged, she felt alone in dealing with her chronic illness, and her trust in a caring and compassionate medical care “had been betrayed.”

When writing her story for publication, Tori tells me that although “there was so much frustration… so much drive to just be heard,” once it was published, there was the inevitable fear of how people would react – Tori had put her health story into the public eye, and it was impossible to predict how her story would be received.

But Tori was pleasantly surprised: soon after she shared her story, Tori heard from people who she’d known for years, living with the exact same condition. Then, she began hearing from strangers who had somehow stumbled across the Facebook post.

“I knew in that moment, I want to do something more with that.”

As more and more people reached out to Tori to tell of their similar experiences with the condition, as well as many other cases of misdiagnoses with different conditions, alongside not being taken seriously, Tori realised, “maybe this isn’t just me” and that her story is not just “an isolated incident, that despite the “twists and turns and shocking factors,” what she had “stumbled across” was something that was really prevalent, and really powerful. And so, she tells me how “I knew in that moment, I want to do something more with that.”

And this is where Medical Herstory began – a movement beginning with a single story – that now involves around 100 volunteers from across the world.

Medical Herstory seeks to redress these harmful inequalities and stigmatisation around women and gender diverse people’s medical care.

Tori initially saw Medical Herstory as an online publication for people to share their stories and experiences with healthcare. She edited each contribution “day in and day out” and still talks to every person who shares their story on Medical Herstory’s platform.

As more and more people asked how they could get involved, Tori realised she should create an even wider platform. Consequently, Medical Herstory has dramatically expanded in the past year to work to solve the gender-based healthcare issues that so many women and gender diverse people suffer. Now, the group are taking the same stories that fuelled Tori’s motivation to begin Medical Herstory and are using them in different ways.

With permission from Medical Herstory

From the Doctor’s room…

“It makes it so much easier when you’re going through something that can be as difficult and isolating as illness, to have a community around you who rallies for you, who supports you.”

Medical Herstory focusses on the individual to undo the stigma and shame around female and femme health. Unlike in a medical history where you are recorded by a series of numbers, Medical Herstory reminds all parties of the importance of the individual and their story.

And Tori explains how she too has learned so much from the community that she’s established. Most women have never been given tips on how to prepare for the doctor’s office – “as young women, we’re taught to be timid” and not to come off as arrogant – and Tori praises the Medical Herstory community for helping her to give herself the tools for self-advocation in the doctor’s surgery. The community has been pivotal for so many women and Tori tells me how “I’m so proud of myself and others, every time that we go in those spaces that weren’t created for us and advocate for ourselves, and work towards that.” Because after all, “it makes it so much easier when you’re going through something that can be as difficult and isolating as illness, to have a community around you who rallies for you, who supports you.”

…To medical practice more generally

But the movement also sheds light on how gender bias can be tackled more generally in medical practice. Tori explains how “a lot of the times physicians are working with patients who don’t really understand what’s going on, they often feel really intimidated or shy, or they don’t really know how to explain what’s going wrong in their bodies when that shame and stigma is also present and is also present on the side of the provider.” Conversations with young people around sexual health last an average of 36 seconds and there’s uncomfortableness for both parties – so the reason that prompted the young person to go to the doctor’s isn’t fully addressed, let alone openly discussed.

Therefore, the Medical Herstory movement uses the stories they receive for “how-to self-advocate” workshops for patients. Medical Herstory also goes into medical schools and takes those “lived experiences as case studies to talk about gender bias and medicine.” And Medical Herstory has made a real difference in the medical profession: Tori proudly tells of medical students who have told her that they will change the way they perform medicine after hearing her story. Tori continues, “people in medicine have been very responsive to the changes” that Medical Herstory continues to push for. “And we try our best to acknowledge the complex structures of gender health and equity, without alienating anyone and more pulling them into these conversations.”

And events for all…

And the Medical Herstory movement isn’t just about undoing the stigma and shame via serious presentations. Medical Herstory hosts a wide variety of events that have reached a few thousand people – from feminist health Comedy Nights to sex-positive trivia, as well as an annual feminist health conference taking place in July this year. Like everything in Medical Herstory, community building, as well as undoing stigma and shame, are the main aims – and the events are a light-hearted and fun way to continue communicating these messages.

How to get involved

Laura and Tori cast light on the ways we can all work to undo gender-based stigma and shame in healthcare. Having conversations within your friendship group is a great place to start. Tori explains that women and gender diverse people should not have to pretend like everything’s normal if “you’re on your period, or you’re in pain, or you have a flaring yeast infection,” or are suffering any other condition that so many of us are forced to live with. We all must work to normalise conversations around our bodies, and we shouldn’t have to feel “that shame and stigma that it is inappropriate or unladylike.”

And Laura adds how important it is to hold “that space for somebody after they’d been to the doctor’s” When going for a doctor’s appointment, Laura acknowledges, “yes, there are a lot of difficulties with shame and stigma and the way that they go about asking you specific questions. But if you hide things from them, or if you are not honest with them about what you’re feeling, then there’s definitely no way they can help you. You have to be open and honest and discuss things and that is a lot easier with your friends.” So, if we talk to our friends first about our bodies, we can build up from there.

You can get involved with Medical Herstory and access their informative content through their social media platforms. All of Medical Herstory’s events are posted on the Facebook page, and you can sign up for the newsletter here.




Thank you to Tori and Laura for their time and inspiring, thoughtful and considered answers throughout this conversation.

Featured image: With permission from Medical Herstory.

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