These days I’ve heard and written about enough women’s health horror stories that not much shocks me anymore. But I was pretty horrified to hear about the experiences of Fiona Anderson and Kerry Thompson – two disabled women who’ve spent years fighting to be given cervical screening (smear) tests at their local GP surgeries. It wasn’t so much the general lack of disabled access in healthcare settings that shocked me, but the attitudes and stigma they faced along the way. Kerry was not only left without a smear test for ten years, but an out of date contraceptive coil was also left inside her for six years.
Meanwhile Fiona’s GP, in an effort to reassure her about their inability to provide a smear test, told her: “Your risk of getting cervical cancer is low because you’re a wheelchair user – you’re sexually inactive.” Except, mother of two Fiona is very definitely not sexually inactive. I wrote for The i about two recent reports, by Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust and Dimensions UK, which highlight how women with physical and learning disabilities are losing out on vital gynaecological and sexual health services because of exactly these kinds of misguided assumptions about their sex lives.
In other recent work, I wrote for Patient about why you don’t have to be underweight to have an eating disorder, despite the stereotype of the emaciated young woman. I spoke to eating disorder charity Beat, as well as #DumpTheScales campaigner Hope Virgo, and recovered binge eating disorder sufferer Meg about how eating disorders come in all shapes, weights and sizes, and why weight stigma prevents many people with eating disorders from accessing the support they need. And, for Refinery29, I spoke to three women who became dependent on alcohol in their 20s and 30s, about some of the devastating impacts drinking has had on their health – from liver cirrhosis to nerve damage, and a double hip replacement at the age of 30.
You don’t have to be underweight to have an eating disorder – for Patient:
Eating disorders affect around 1.25 million people in the UK, a quarter of whom are male, and less than 10% of whom are affected by anorexia. Yet the most common image of an eating disorder sufferer that persists in many people’s minds is of a young, emaciated woman. It’s a stereotype that’s not just misleading, but also perpetuates harmful weight stigma and could prevent many people living with eating disorders from accessing the support they need.
According to national eating disorder charity Beat, anorexia makes up just 8% of all eating disorder cases in the UK, while binge eating disorder is actually the most common – accounting for 22% of cases.
“You cannot tell if someone has an eating disorder just by looking at them,” Beat states. “While it is true that some sufferers of anorexia are severely emaciated, some are not, and the majority of eating disorder sufferers do not have anorexia. Those suffering from bulimia may be within the normal weight range or may be overweight, while those with binge eating disorder are often overweight.”
Drink Ruined My Life: 3 Young Women On Alcoholism – for Refinery29:
How many times have you woken up, head pounding, and promised yourself: Never again? Most of us are familiar with the killer hangovers, mystery bruises and nauseous feelings of remorse that come with overdoing it on the booze. But some of alcohol’s more serious potential health impacts are far less well known or discussed, particularly where women are concerned.
Perhaps that’s because statistics on alcohol use show that men are more likely to drink than women, and those aged 45-64 are the most likely to drink. Meanwhile teetotalism has increased among 16-44-year-olds since 2005, and those aged 16-24 are the least likely group to drink.
‘My out of date contraceptive coil was left in for six years because I use a wheelchair’ – for The i:
When Fiona Anderson, a wheelchair user, tried to book her cervical screening(smear) test at her local GP practice five years ago, she was told the practice did not have the facilities she needed – a hoist – to access screening. However, Fiona, 30, says her GP reassured her: “Your risk of getting cervical cancer is low because you’re a wheelchair user.”
Perplexed, Fiona asked how using a wheelchair could possibly lower her cancer risk, and says the response was: “Well, you’re sexually inactive.” Fiona couldn’t believe what she was hearing. “I’m a mum to two young children!” she says. “Just because I’m in a wheelchair, you cannot assume that I don’t have a sex life. But even people who aren’t sexually active should still have the right to access screening for their own reassurance and peace of mind.”
Fiona’s experience is far from unique. Her change.org petition calling for accessible cervical screening now has more than 109,000 signatures. And cervical cancer prevention is not the only area of sexual and reproductive healthcare where women with disabilities face both stigma and physical barriers to care.
IF YOU NEED SUPPORT
Please note that I am NOT a psychologist or healthcare professional. Check out my resources page for details of organisations who might be able to help.
However, if you would like to get in touch about your own experiences, or a story that you’re keen to tell, please feel free to drop me an email.