Women are taught from a young age to be ashamed of our bodies. We’re conditioned to stay small, look pretty, and have no flaws – and if we do, we must certainly never admit them. This is maybe why so many areas of women’s health – from periods to fertility to menopause – are shrouded in taboo. We’ve been taught that anything less than physical perfection is something to be ashamed of.
Taboo and shame are incredibly powerful. They stop us from sharing our experience, from finding out we aren’t the ‘only one’ going through something and seeking help when we need it. We don’t realise that conditions we assume impact a minority are actually affecting more people than we realise – even those closest to us.
So often we hear stories of someone opening up about a miscarriage or fertility struggle, only to find out that their best friends or family members have been going through the exact same thing in secret. This unnecessary stigma and isolation can have a domino effect on our mental wellbeing and physical health. It causes us to withdraw from our support networks even more and not feel comfortable to share with our health providers. It’s a vicious cycle. The only way to end it is to open up the conversation and break the taboo.
The physical and mental impact of shame
The taboo and shame cycle doesn’t only impact our emotions – it can also have an effect on our physical health.
Research has shown that when a woman experiences taboo or shame, they are less likely to reach out for professional help and medical advice. This can delay diagnosis time and potentially lead to a more serious condition.
However, the sad fact is that even if you make it to a doctor, you may not get the level of care you deserve. Many women’s health conditions are under-researched and under-funded – as taboo has kept them at the bottom of the priority list. This means that even the most well-meaning medical professionals can find themselves under-informed and ill-prepared to offer effective solutions and support. Endometriosis famously has an average diagnosis time of eight years.
Finally, not speaking about our negative emotions can worsen our health as issues are exacerbated by stress. Having the confidence to talk about our feelings and experiences can transform our overall health and wellbeing.
Miscarriage and baby loss
One of the biggest taboos in reproductive health – and a personal one to me – is pregnancy loss.
Whilst losing a baby can be an incredibly isolating experience, it is sadly not an uncommon one. 1 in 4 pregnancies will end in miscarriage and yet it is still a subject full of shame.
Society tells us to wait three months to announce a pregnancy. And why? So that if we lose it we can do so quietly and privately. Whilst this might sound like a tactic for protecting our wellbeing, it actually cuts us off from our support networks when we need them the most.
Unfortunately ‘miscarriage’ finds itself at the intersection of two taboo topics – reproductive health and mental health. Losing a baby can have a long and devastating effect on your mental health. A recent study showed that 70% of women who experience miscarriage will go on to have some symptoms of PTSD. But this is an uncomfortable fact that no one wants to talk about – and certainly isn’t something a lot of medical professionals are prepared to deal with.
Many women in our community report feeling unsupported and unsure how – and where – they can get advice around pregnancy loss. Routine mental health care is not given to women following miscarriage and GPs – who often don’t specialise in women’s health – can be ill-prepared gatekeepers, unsure how to even talk to a woman going through baby loss – let alone treat them.
Dr Ines de Santiago, data scientist and researcher from Cambridge believes that ending the stigma around miscarriage is essential if women are to get the right support. ‘Pregnancy loss can have a serious psychological impact, yet it’s not widely talked about and it is often linked to a sense of humiliation and personal failure,” she says. “Breaking the taboo around miscarriage will break the stigma and shame that many women experience, which will, in turn, improve their chances of receiving appropriate and respectful care during such a difficult time.»
The rise of boundary-breaking femtech brands
But it’s not only pregnancy loss that suffers from being put in a box labelled ‘taboo’. Female pleasure, period health, infertility, postnatal depression, incontinence and menopause all fall under this umbrella – and in turn end up falling through the cracks of healthcare.
Women’s health as always, has been sidelined, by business and medicine alike – two areas historically dominated by men. And that’s no coincidence. If women find it uncomfortable to discuss issues around their own bodies, it’s unsurprising that men have shied away from these ‘taboo’ topics as well. But the growing femtech sector is here to change that.
This incredible growth of femtech over the last decade can actually be linked to a collective desire to end shame around women’s health. Many of the businesses at the forefront of this movement are founded by women who have felt under-served by a traditional approach to healthcare. They are demanding more and are creating the products and services they couldn’t access themselves, putting women’s needs at the core. Investors have started to recognise the importance of this sector and – slowly but surely – these companies are getting the financial backing they need to help more women. Brands like Elvie – who cater for pelvic floor dysfunction and breastfeeding – have closed one of the biggest femtech investment rounds ($42 million to be exact) in recent years. Menstrual cycle tracker Clue has raised €27.4 million to date and last year global healthcare giant Bayer acquired KaNDy Therapeutics – a biotech company specialising in menopause – for more than $1 billion. It’s clear that breaking taboos in women’s health is big business.
Technology tackling taboos
But femtech is not only driven by breaking taboo – it’s helping to close the care gap caused by shame. Technology makes it easier than ever to connect with healthcare professionals from the comfort of home. It also means that it can be done anonymously, encouraging women to deal with conditions they may have previously avoided. It also creates a safe and engaged community where women can share their experiences and feel less isolated on their personal health journey. A common thread amongst female-founded femtech businesses is that they not only develop products that solve a problem – they create brands that start a conversation. They also involve the women affected in the design process to ensure they are building something that caters to their needs and is sensitive to their feelings.
At Parla, we are dedicated to breaking the taboo around infertility and miscarriage and providing access and support for women at every stage of their fertility journey. We are proud to be part of the femtech movement that is working to end the shame and close this health gap, ultimately ensuring women live healthier, happier lives – shame free.
About the author: Lina Chan is the founder and CEO of women’s fertility platform, Parla: «Parla was inspired by my own experience with fertility. I always felt on the back foot. Like many women, I found it difficult to understand what was going on with my body, get trusted support, and take care of my emotional health. Parla means to speak, and we believe it’s time to make women’s health an ongoing informed conversation. We’re breaking taboos and making misinformation a thing of the past by creating a space that empowers women as they become the authority of their health, body and choices.»