An Interview with Lara Parker
Authors: Bethany Dawson and Bethany Bale
BVisible had the pleasure of talking to Lara Parker, chronic illness advocate, author, and deputy editorial editor at Buzzfeed, recently about her work on destigmatising chronic pain conditions - specifically chronic pain conditions affecting the vagina and reproductive system. We chatted with her about the reaction she receives online when talking about her health, and about the often ignored (but incredibly important) issue of gender inequality in medicine.
With a large following of over 23.1k followers on her personal twitter alone, we’re always delighted to see the needs of people with invisible illnesses being represented on such a large platform. We were curious, as people who are still learning to talk about our health so openly, what Lara’s experience was like in learning to be open about her own health - a part of your life that you’re so often taught to keep quiet. Here’s what she had to say:
“It took me a really long time to open up about my health. I struggled for years before I ever told any of my friends. It felt easier to talk about it publicly, in a weird way. Even though I knew, on some level, that people would be able to read what I wrote and therefore know things about me and my vagina that I hadn't even shared with my closest friends, it didn't seem to register. It felt so good to get it off my chest that once I began writing about it, I had a hard time stopping. I wasn't able to vocalize how I was feeling about any of it, and writing helped. After sharing some pieces and finding that I wasn't alone, it became cathartic and helpful to continue doing it. One reason that I personally avoid talking about it is because I grow tired of the constant stream of advice and suggestions from people who are trying to "fix me." I don't want to be fixed by someone on Facebook. Sometimes I just want to talk about something and that's it.”
Lara often talks about her life with vaginismus, vulvodynia, and endometriosis - conditions which cause great pain in the vagina and abdomen, and often cause sex to be painful. We were keen to understand what reaction Lara tends to receive when she discusses her chronic pain online, and if that reaction changes when she discusses her sexual and reproductive organs:
“The reaction is generally positive — in part because I try to avoid the comments section on most articles and videos, and in part because chronic pain is not as uncommon as anyone would think and I think unfortunately people can relate to the content I create around chronic pain in one way or another. I tend to get a lot of "stop talking about this, no one wants to hear about your vagina" when I talk specifically about my vagina or reproductive system, but that reaction only adds more fuel to my fire. The reason I suffered for so long, and why so many people still continue to suffer, is because not very many people were talking about it, and I felt like I wasn't allowed to, therefore I never processed my pain. So when I get reactions like that, it really only makes me talk about it more.”
Sometimes, if you live with a chronic illness, it might feel like you need to master the art of juggling: being able to balance your work and/or study commitments alongside keeping yourself as healthy as possible can be really difficult to keep up with (especially when you're feeling ill!) So we asked Lara if she had any advice on how she balances her work, online activism, and health:
"I do my best to stay in touch with my body and my mind and recognize what I need at any given moment. Sometimes it's helpful to take a 24-hour break from Instagram and I will delete the app entirely off my phone. Sometimes I'll spend the day watching reality tv to decompress from a week of work. And sometimes I'll go out with my friends to a bar and have a glass of wine and pretend, if only for a night, that I'm not sick and that I'm just another 28-year-old spending too much on a glass of wine at a sh*tty bar in Los Angeles."
Lara talks openly about her struggle to get a diagnosis. Her story, alongside several other young women, of dismissive health professionals and gendered attitudes towards her symptoms can be found here. Lara's story is not unique: in fact many young women - including both the founders of BVisible - often spend years trying to get their chronic pain understood, recognised, and taken seriously by doctors. This 'quick to dismiss' attitude can be seen even more so in gynaecology when many serious conditions are rejected as period pain and/or psychological.
We asked Lara what advice she would give someone currently struggling to get their symptoms taken seriously:
"You know your body best. Period. If you think something is wrong, listen to that. And remember that at the end of the day, doctors work for you."
Finally, we asked Lara about the impact of gender on chronic pain diagnoses. Caroline Criado-Perez’s recent book “Invisible Women” explores the fact that women are far more likely to be given antidepressants for chronic pain than men living with chronic pain, and she also notes that women are more likely to die from conditions such as heart failure due to a severe lack of research into the way in which medical conditions affect women in comparison to men. Research has proven that there's a dangerous gender bias within medicine which harms women: whether that's through lack of research, low rates of diagnosis, or the fact that their symptoms are less likely to be taken seriously. This dismissive attitude is also not just the case women are the patient, but also when new mothers express concerns regarding their baby. Even if subconscious, there is a proven bias that women will be considered hysterical before they are considered unwell within medicine.
At BVisible we are well aware of the obstacles that women face during their journey to diagnosis and treatment of chronic pain. Here’s Lara’s take on this subject:
“I don't believe that this issue is up for debate. It's been proven time and time again that there is a clear gender bias in medicine — especially when it comes to women of color. I know for a fact that if men were dealing with painful sex and periods, etc the way that women are, there would be mountains more funding, solutions, and attention paid. There have been pills around for decades now that exist in an effort to treat ED. Most doctor's I've seen don't even seem to acknowledge that painful sex or issues with sexual intimacy exist for women.”
Although BVisible does not condone avoiding health professionals for fear that they won't be understanding - and please don't worry that every doctor you come across will be misunderstanding, because that won't always be the case - we do believe that, to have this conversation properly, we must include health professionals. It is only when everyone takes part in this conversation that we can truly start to change the gendered attitudes that surround medicine and gynaecology.
We’d like to thank Lara for taking the time to talk to BVisible, and in doing so helping us bring illnesses that are out of sight into mind.
If you’re interested in reading more on the subject of the gender bias within medicine, we’d recommend reading the following pieces: Invisible Women by Caroline Criado-Perez, The Gender Bias in Medicine by Katarina Hamberg, Gender bias in research: how does it affect evidence based medicine? By Anita Holdcroft and Fay Schopen's article exploring the fact that women are less likely than men to receive CPR.