by Bronwyn Lea
Sophia is the Greek word for Wisdom, and Propel Sophia seeks out the voices of truly wise women and asks them to share worked examples of how they express faith in daily life. Pull up a chair at Sophia’s table, won’t you? There’s plenty of space. Learn more here.
“You’re not due for an appointment until November,” my dermatologist’s receptionist huffed, “so if you have any concerns I suggest you talk to your primary care provider and get a new referral.” For a moment, I was ready to hang up and do as she said, but then something else kicked in. I took a deep breath. “Listen, I’ve been living in this body for many years,” I said, “and I’m going to need you to trust me when I tell you I need to be seen sooner than that.”
She scheduled the appointment. And when the appointment date came, my concerns turned out to be valid. My body knew.
I am not alone in this. I’ve been stunned by the stories women have shared about their own interactions with doctors. I’ve heard woman after woman share they also had doctors tell them there was nothing wrong with them, that they were exaggerating, that perhaps they just needed to lose a little weight and try to reduce their stress levels. Women with Lyme disease, fibromyalgia, autoimmune conditions, chronic pain and long-term debilitating conditions wrote me, saying they’d gone into depression and worried about their own sanity after years of seeking help and finding no relief. And oh! When it came to experiences surrounding pregnancy and birth, the stories of women being dismissed and disbelieved about their own bodies were heartbreaking.
I don’t want to give doctors a bad rap, though. I do trust and depend on their medical knowledge. I do not think googling symptoms on webMD is any substitute for professional, diagnostic health care, and I am proud to call a number of caring, capable, and ethical doctors friends. However, these friends would be the first to admit that modern medicine is not infallible, and women’s health is understudied. As it turns out, there’s a vast amount that hasn’t yet been researched about women’s bodies. What’s more, even with known conditions it can be incredibly difficult sometimes for women (and especially women of color) to get an accurate diagnosis and timely help. Too many women have been told “there’s nothing wrong with you,” when the message needed was, “we believe you when you say there’s something wrong, we just don’t know what it is yet.”
This is not a post about what the medical profession should do, though. This is a post about being a patient. A female patient. And a Christian female patient, at that. For there are two aspects to how I was raised that God, over time, is challenging me to rethink. The first is that women are often raised not to cause a fuss. We’re raised to be nice. Accepting. Not pushy. And so when a person with a title tells gives us an answer, it can be hard to speak up - and even more so if we’re weak or in pain. But truthful is more important than nice. Nice is not a fruit of the spirit.
The second challenge is that we live in a culture where we tend to trust information we’ve discerned with our brains, but we are not well-trained in listening to information from our bodies. We override our bodies’ signals from the time we’re little, and grow up with a lifetime of having ignored its cues to eat (or stop eating), breathe, and sleep. Instead of sleeping, we pour another cup of coffee. The body’s wisdom is overruled once again.
But God created our bodies, and he declared them good. “I am fearfully and wonderfully made,” writes the Psalmist (Psalm 139:14.) God created our brains and yes, we are called to think and reason and use those to process information and live well; and he also created our bodies with built-in wisdom we desperately need in order to live well. Without our having to think about it or make a single decision, our bodies know how to digest and process nutrients, keep our hearts pumping, our kidneys purifying blood, how to grow babies and feed them, how to cool ourselves when we overheat, and how to form scabs when we’re bleeding. Our bodies are scientific and creative masterpieces - worthy of our respect, attention, advocacy, and care. Access to medical tests are a wonderful privilege, and yet they are no substitute for the information and wisdom of our lived experiences in our very own skin.
In his famous passage on marriage and the mysterious union between Christ and the church in Ephesians 5, the Apostle Paul makes a surprising statement: “For no one ever hated his own body,” he argues, “but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church.” Of course you’d nourish and cherish your own body, Paul assumes! That’s the gold standard for care! And this is how Christ cares for his body, the church! Yet it seems to me that as a Christian woman, we haven’t always done a great job of nourishing and cherishing our own bodies, as Christ does his. Yet Jesus cares about our bodies, and he wants us to care, too.
Part of learning to love, nourish, and cherish our bodies means trusting the information our bodies give us, and advocating for our bodies when needed. Of course we want to be respectful, cooperative, and gracious when we’re talking with our doctors: but we must also be truthful, clear, and consistent in speaking up about our lived, bodily experiences. That’s information no medical test can replace. I respect the expertise of medical professionals. And by also respecting the information my body is giving me and speaking up about it, I can better partner with them to care for this walking temple I get to live in a few years longer.
Bronwyn Lea is an author, speaker, activist, and the editorial curator for Propel Sophia. She loves Jesus, puns, her home country of South Africa, her adopted country of the US, her endlessly patient husband, her three goofy kids, wisdom and justice, seeing women thrive in the Kingdom, and quality ice-cream (in no particular order). She sends out a monthly newsletter with a few of her favorite things, and connects on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.