Opinion: 'We need to scream about female pain'

Britney Spears at the height of her pop career

Britney Spears at the height of her pop career. The star has recently spoke out about the pain of life in a conservatorship - Credit: PA/Kirsty Wigglesworth

Listening to the wider news, both home and abroad, it’s been a pretty bleak week for womankind. 

Over the pond, I’ve been following live testimony of Britney Spears with great interest. The 39-year-old likened the conservatorship of her person and affairs to human trafficking and gave a harrowing account of 13 years, during which she asserts her father and his team of lawyers effectively kept her prisoner. The former pop princess claims she was forced to take lithium to perform on stage while ill, has been unable to even paint her own kitchen cabinets, and, more alarmingly, alleges she was forced to keep an IUD (intrauterine device) so she couldn’t get pregnant. 

A recent BBC documentary unveiled documents that appear to suggest those vested in Britney’s conservatorship (chiefly her dad) may have claimed she had dementia or a similar illness, leaving her unable to control her own estate. 

It’s bleak reading. Especially when you consider Britney’s father himself, James Spears, has been accused of alcoholism in the past. How is it that a man can be effectively pardoned of his own actions, and given control over a grown woman who, at her lowest in 2008, was suffering post-natal depression, likely entwined with a form of PTSD brought on by the constant, harrowing violations of her privacy during her darkest moment? 

At the time, the public, guided by the heavy hand of red top newspapers and gossip vloggers, seemed to collectively come to the mass conclusion of ‘female hysteria’ which, let’s face it, is nothing new. 

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You only have to look back in the history books to see what doctors’ suggestions were for so-called ‘hysteria’ in the 19th century. 

Why is it that over a decade on, a woman, nearly at middle age, is having to beg and plead for her freedoms?  

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On this side of the water, I listened with tears in my eyes as broadcaster Naga Munchetty spoke with great eloquence and fearlessness about her own ‘hysteria’. Female pain.  

It’s often thought women are ‘warriors’. We’ll just ‘get on with it’. Think of the man-flu analogy in which women keep calm, take drugs and carry on, while men are depicted curling up into a ball with a fistful of tissues in bed. There’s a well-known advert with a message to that effect. Is this really the vision of women we want sent out into the world? That it’s OK to ignore our anguish when we’re ill or in pain, because we’re strong enough to take it? 

Talking on BBC Radio 5, Munchetty this week told how she fainted twice while having an IUD fitted, screamed so loud those in the waiting room could hear her, and was never offered sedation or anaesthetic during the procedure. 

Another contributor on the wire explained that, while having her coil removed in Australia, a doctor there instantly offered pain relief because she wasn’t “barbaric”. 

And writer Caitlin Moran has been exceptionally vocal on the topic. “Why is it presumed that women will be fine with having their cervix dilated with a pair of metal barbecue tongs before having what is basically the wire coat hanger from a doll’s house inserted into their uterus,” she said. 

The NHS rallied to say some people may find the process painful, but that a local anaesthetic can help, and painkillers can be taken before or after the fitting or removal of an IUD to prevent discomfort. 

I cannot think of one woman I know who has been offered pain relief for either process as standard. 

Anecdotally I know three people who’ve suffered greatly with pain upon having an IUD fitted. One continued to experience extreme pain, and was effectively ignored, until scans showed her IUD had ‘moved’. She was offered little in the way of relief when this was diagnosed, and continued to be in pain for weeks after removal of the device. 

Now that’s not to say we shouldn’t be having contraception fitted (where IS that pill or patch for men?). These devices have proven efficacy for preventing unwanted pregnancy. But there has to be better protocol around pain management. We cannot be expected to just accept the discomfort because we’re women, or because we may have given birth. 

Where was my pain relief when I was given a sweep (more excruciating than labour itself for me), to induce labour with my first child? 

Where was the pain relief when I had to have a drug-free episiotomy (a cut to the nether regions) while delivering my daughter? 

Where was the sympathy after giving birth, for the severe pain, caused by third degree tears, that ripped through my body whenever I needed the loo? “It’s normal,” we’re told. “It’ll get better.” 

When my husband had ‘the snip’ after we had our second child, the winces and pats on the back for his bravery and pain went on for weeks, as if he’d been to war and come back a hero.  

Isn’t it time for this to stop? 

As women, we are biologically disadvantaged. It’s not our fault – it's science. 

Which brings me onto peri-menopause and menopause, which is fast becoming a hot topic, particularly in the vlogging and podcasting world.  

I was surprised to learn recently that a lot of women I know are experiencing peri-menopausal symptoms, ranging from extreme fatigue to depression, hot flushes and, most disturbingly of all for these professionals, brain fog. Imagine constantly being plagued by the feeling you’ve forgotten something. 

There is currently no legal requirement for employers to support women or enact flexible policies to help them navigate middle life, despite it being a natural, par for the course in our lives. If men experienced hot flushes and waves of depression so bad they couldn’t get out of bad, would this be the case? Who knows? 

Channel 4, CIPD and Google are just three big names looking to lead the way in menopause policy, but this needs to come further down the line. 

Women, particularly part-time working mothers, have been proven time and time again to be some of the most productive members of workforces. That needs to be recognised. We need to be recognised. Our voices, our pain and our experiences, as women, need to matter more – and not be swept under the rug. 

Now is the time to talk about change. To speak up if we feel uncomfortable at a gyny appointment. To let me people know we’re suffering with menopausal symptoms. Change comes from within ladies. 

We’re planning a series of features this year discussing peri-menopause and menopause. If you’d like to share your story about this please get in touch. Email charlotte.smith-jarvis@archant.co.uk 

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