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By Alexandra Jones
Someone messaged me about it last night – I have to read it to you,” Michelle Kennedy reaches for her phone.
“She had a miscarriage and on her medical notes the wording was, ‘We have to clear out the products of conception…’ It was the wording used in conversation too. Your baby just died, and at that most vulnerable, devastating moment, imagine being told: ‘We need to clear you out of the products of conception.’ It must be shattering.”
Michelle is the founder of Peanut, the social app for women and mothers, and since the launch of its new campaign, The Renaming Revolution, she has been inundated with similar stories.
What started as a conversation between users on the app about how it feels to be called a “geriatric mother” (a conversation amplified by Chrissy Teigen) has now evolved into a wider movement about medical terminology.
This week, as part of the Renaming Revolution, Peanut launched a new glossary to replace the disempowering, dismissive – and at times downright insulting – medical terms to which women and mothers are subjected every day. From “habitual aborter” (a woman who’s had three or more miscarriages), to “inhospitable womb” or “lazy uterus”, the conversations Michelle and the Peanut team were seeing on the app made it “abundantly clear that we’re dealing with antiquated, even misogynistic terms which don’t reflect modern motherhood but which have a real, profound impact on women”.
‘Why shouldn’t women have the power to change the language that's used to describe their bodies and their health?’
At 35, Michelle was herself called a “geriatric mother”. “When you hear yourself being referred to as that, your first reaction is to laugh,” she says. “You chat with your girlfriends about it, slightly embarrassed, awkward like, ‘Oh my god, did that happen to you?’” As her friend’s example demonstrates, “geriatric mother” is just the tip of an iceberg.
“I think about another friend who went through fertility treatment for seven years, and the feedback she was constantly given was, ‘you've got premature ovarian failure’. Even the word “failure” in relation to your own body, when you already feel like you're failing, can be incredibly painful. You’ll feel the sting of it for years afterwards. Well, we just want to say, ‘no more’.”
The fact that these are official medical terms legitimises their use and has made them difficult to challenge.
“I was definitely surprised by the amount of people who initially responded to the campaign, asking, ‘Well, what can we do about it? That’s just the way it is,’” says Michelle. “It shows how difficult it is to overturn the status quo when it comes to medicine and healthcare…” She pauses before correcting herself, “Well, women’s healthcare.”
The status quo around women’s healthcare has been much debated in recent weeks when worries around the AstraZeneca vaccine and its potential link to unusual blood clots went viral online. As many (mainly) women were quick to point out, clotting is a statistically more common side-effect of the contraceptive pill and yet it is prescribed to young women every day and has seldom featured in the wider conversation around the contraceptive pill’s efficacy and safety.
It's interesting to me that it takes something like the AstraZeneca vaccine – and for men to feel worried and threatened, as if their health is at risk – for us to begin questioning the status quo [around a medicine],” says Michelle.
She argues that similar attitudes exist around medical terminology.
“I think the Renaming Revolution and the conversation it has sparked, has allowed us to ask: ‘Why shouldn’t women have the power to change the language that's used to describe their bodies and their health?’”
Multiple studies have shown that language can have a profound impact on our emotional and physical perception of the world. The words used before, during and directly after a medical procedure, for instance, can even change how much pain we experience; in 2019, researchers from Jena University Hospital in Germany authored a paper in the US journal Brain and Behavior arguing that appropriate word choice was paramount to helping a patient manage pain after surgery.
“These things matter,” says Michelle. “Going into this, we knew everyone was going to say ‘We're in the middle of a pandemic; there are other issues we have to solve first before we tackle vocabulary’. So we’ve done the legwork. We've got a panel of linguists and medical experts who’ve taken the 80 worst offenders and reworded them.”
Peanut has funded the research and created a new glossary of terms, which Michelle hopes will soon be issued to healthcare practitioners who can bring them into common medical parlance.
“We're at a point in time,” says Michelle, “where our public consciousness around the words that we use and the impact they have on our mental health and wellbeing is more sophisticated. It feels like the right time to not only say ‘yeah, that hurt me,’ but also to ask, ‘How do we change it?’”
See the full campaign at Peanut
Language matters, and it’s time the medical world stopped using terminology that dismisses and disempowers women.
By Alexandra Jones