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Prioritizing Girls' Mental & Physical Health Is More Vital Than Ever

Jamie Schneider
mbg Associate Editor By Jamie Schneider
mbg Associate Editor
Jamie Schneider is the Associate Editor at mindbodygreen, covering beauty and wellness. She has a B.A. in Organizational Studies and English from the University of Michigan, and her work has appeared in Coveteur, The Chill Times, and Wyld Skincare.
Gravity of girls' health
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Trigger warning: This article includes mentions of suicidal ideation.

Women are underserved in the health space—you likely don't need a big Wellness Trend to tell you that. But the issue has surged in the past year, as women face more and more roadblocks on the path to overall health and well-being, reaching a global scale we cannot ignore. 

To call this a mere "trend" would be downplaying the magnitude of the issue and the many, many nuances when it comes to gender disparities (we could spend days discussing the barriers to health care for nonbinary and trans folk). But it seems navigating wellness (and life) as a girl is more difficult than ever before—and in 2022, we're pushing for a renewed, and long overdue, focus on women and girls. 

The scary side of social media. 

As reported by the Wall Street Journal, Meta (formerly known as Facebook) company documents show they have been privy to some scary social media statistics. To share just a tidbit of these: "32% of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram [which is owned by Meta Platforms, Inc.] made them feel worse." And "Among teens who reported suicidal thoughts, 13% of British users and 6% of American users traced the desire to kill themselves to Instagram." 

At this point, we don't have a great causal explanation for why girls may be more vulnerable to Instagram than other genders, but one theory is that the platform is effectively socializing girls at a younger and younger age. It's not new that girls are bombarded with problematic images of diet culture and professional (often retouched) shots of celebrities, all while having face-slimming features and "beauty" filters at their fingertips. These unattainable expectations morph with a false, filtered reality, which can lead to trouble once they finally break their gaze from the screen. 

Let's also sprinkle some social comparison into the mix: According to Ethan Kross, Ph.D., an award-winning psychologist and author of Chatter: ​The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How To Harness It (and a father of two young girls), Instagram unsurprisingly allows people to present a highlight reel of their lives. When you're constantly exposed to the glorified lives of others, it's easy to start reflecting on how "ordinary" your own life may be, which can have some negative implications. 

To be clear, social media is not all bad. In fact, it can be really helpful for creating a vulnerable community, which we'll get into later. "We know from research that when people are experiencing strong emotions, they're very motivated to share those feelings with other people," says Kross. "But in the real world, there are obstacles that prevent us from sharing our emotions when they're at their very peak." Social media provides an instant outlet and an enormous potential to help—but, with respect to Facebook's stats above, it also has the potential to harm. How do we hold on to the positive parts of social media while letting go of its destructive features? That, says Kross, is where the future is headed. 

"We haven't really had a playbook that tells us how to use this technology to make us feel better as opposed to feeling worse," he comments. "But we're beginning to develop that playbook and refine it. The challenge now is to share what we're learning with other people so they can use it." 

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The threat of educational freedom & physical well-being. 

To further bridge girls' mental health with their physical health, we would be remiss not to mention the recent tragedies happening in Afghanistan: With the Taliban coming into power once again, women's educational freedom is threatened—and so, too, is their physical well-being. (The last time the Taliban had control back in 1996, girls were unable to attend school after age 8; women were also forced to have their bodies covered at all times and only be seen in public with a male escort, or they would be met with severe, violent punishment.) 

In the wake of this takeover, nearly 250,000 people have been forced to flee their homes—80% of them being women and children, according to a U.N. report. The U.N. also reported that the number of women and girls killed and injured in Afghanistan reached "record numbers" in May and June (around the time U.S. troops started to withdraw from the area). 

In this case, it's clear to see the connection between educational freedom and physical health. But access to education itself has a very strong tie to overall well-being—even without the threat of violence hanging over women's heads. In fact, that's why acclaimed environmentalist Paul Hawken regards educating girls as one of his solution strategies for combating climate change (which ultimately affects the health of us all).

As he states in his book, Drawdown: "Women with more years of education have fewer and healthier children and actively manage their reproductive health... Educated girls realize higher wages and greater upward mobility, contributing to economic growth. Their rates of maternal mortality drop, as do mortality rates of their babies. They are less likely to marry as children or against their will. They have lower incidence of HIV/AIDS and malaria." 

Translation? Education and overall well-being are deeply intertwined. So the fact that women's education is jeopardized in Afghanistan already harps on their overall health—and the threat of physical violence makes that connection even stronger and scarier. 

The wave of medical gaslighting. 

It's just stress. It's part of getting older. It's all in your head. These phrases are some of the most common examples of medical gaslighting—a concept where doctors dismiss patients' (usually women's) concerns and do not take their pain seriously. This, in turn, causes women to doubt their own reality. 

Allow integrative medicine doctor and mbg Collective member Taz Bhatia, M.D., to share her own experience: When she was 28 years old, Bhatia was not feeling well. Her hair was falling out; her joints were painful; she was gaining weight; she had brain fog and severe acne. After making an appointment with her doctor, her concerns were brushed off with an infuriatingly simple, You're probably just stressed! 

She was sent to a slew of specialists—an endocrinologist, a rheumatologist, and a hair specialist who gave her medicine to help with her increased shedding. Unbeknownst to Bhatia, this medicine lowered her blood pressure (and hers already runs low); so much so, that she passed out at the wheel one day while driving home from a workout. Bhatia crashed her car—thankfully, though, she was OK: "I could have hurt someone else; I could have hurt myself," she recounts. "That was the aha moment for me." 

Bhatia had experienced an almost fatal case of medical gaslighting, and she is not alone. An older study found that women who went to the ER with severe stomach pain had to wait for almost 33% longer than men with the same symptoms. A more recent study discovered women with chest pain waited longer for evaluation in an emergency room setting than men; they were also less likely to receive cardiac testing or be seen by a consultant compared to men. Separately, a third of women diagnosed with PCOS saw at least three health professionals over the course of two years before receiving a diagnosis

"You can change the faces. You can change the diseases and the medication, but it's [almost] everyone's experience nowadays," Bhatia explains. "And it really is the result of a very broken system." Of course, the gaslighting is only exacerbated for women of color and the LGBTQI community: Specifically, Black women's needs are frequently ignored in the medical community, and a 2015 survey reported nearly a third of transgender individuals had at least one negative experience with a health care provider in the past year, such as verbal harassment or refused treatment. 

Medical gaslighting is not a new concept by any means, as women have been historically brushed off for far too long—it hasn't been resolved, but the issue has been propelled into the spotlight. 

Enter: TikTok. Hundreds of young women on the app have recreated their own encounters with medical gaslighting—misdiagnoses, dismissive doctors, and the like—set to the catchy tune of "Can't Stop Singing" from Disney's Teen Beach Movie (here and here are just a couple of examples). Many of these videos include witty comments and entertaining reenactments, but their underlying message is quite clear: Medical health professionals often do not take women seriously, and women are quite literally sick of it. 

"I'm not surprised at all that it's a trend," Bhatia says of these viral videos. "Every single woman [may have] a story at every stage of life about how they have not been able to get answers—and I would even lump teen girls into that, too." But now women are sharing these horror stories on such a global, shareable platform—that's the new (and dare we say "trending"?) shift worth discussing. 

How we can prioritize women's health in 2022. 

Women's health has always been a vital conversation, but given these recent challenges, it's more important now than ever. While solutions will not happen overnight, it's time we kick-start a renewed focus on wellness and girls. 

Starting with social media, "If you find yourself being negatively influenced by particular kinds of content, you do have the capacity to alter the social media environment that you're interacting with," says Kross. For instance, you can set time limits on your devices, or you can silence certain accounts to transform your feed into a space that serves you well. (Neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki, Ph.D., author of Good Anxiety, seconds the advice, as she personally tailors her algorithm to videos of calming tea meditations. "I see a lot of that on my feed, which I find very relaxing," she says on the mbg podcast.) 

Still, if you find yourself scrolling mindlessly, Kross recommends implementing what he calls "if, then" statements. Create a tangible plan: If I feel X, I will do Y. For example, you could say: If I'm tempted to scroll through Instagram after school or work, I will call a friend to talk about my day instead. "When you link a specific behavior with a specific action, that makes it more automatic," says Kross. "The moment you find yourself in that situation, you don't have to think. You know exactly what you're going to do." The commitment also holds you accountable, so you're more likely to follow through. 

Parents also have an opportunity to talk to their kids (especially young girls) about how social media truly works—that Instagram showcases a highlight reel, not the behind-the-scenes; that someone likely took 100 snapshots before selecting The One to share on their grid. "We teach our kids from the time they're very young about how to navigate the world," Kross adds. "This is just another part of our social lives." 

Medical health professionals often do not take women seriously, and women are quite literally sick of it.

As an international community, we can also speak up for Afghan women and advocate for their well-being. If you're able, donate to organizations supporting women in Afghanistan during this crisis. Take Sahar, for example, which partners with the Ministry of Education and Afghan-based organizations to build schools and educational programs for girls; or Women for Afghan Women (WAW), an organization that provides family counseling, education, and vocational training for women, children, and families throughout Afghanistan. 

On a political level, you can urge your representatives to call for an expanded visa program that would allow nongovernmental organization (NGO) workers to apply for a special immigrant visa. (Canada, for example, includes women leaders, human rights advocates, LGBTI individuals, and journalists in their special humanitarian program.) According to Sahar's robust resources page, if you text "CRISIS" to 52886, it will send you a link for an auto-populated letter and a call button. 

For victims of medical gaslighting looking to advocate for their own health, Bhatia recommends a three-step plan. First, come prepared: "Have a good timeline of when your symptoms appeared, what you've already observed about your symptoms, and have very clear questions that you are trying to get answered," she explains.

Next, gauge the doctor-patient relationship and notice any red flags: Is your doctor someone who will pore through medical journals to figure out what's going on, or do they dismiss you, chalking it all up to stress? If your gut feeling aligns with the latter, Bhatia recommends a Step 3: Seek multiple opinions, if you can, until you find a professional who will listen. 

As researcher and medical decision-making expert Talya Miron-Shatz, Ph.D., notes in an mbg podcast episode, a strong relationship with your doctor can lead to better treatment and better health outcomes—and a strong relationship is contingent on mutual respect. "You have vital information about your symptoms, about how you feel, about what you've been doing," she says. "And someone should listen to you."

Of course, it's not all on women themselves to put in the work. Bhatia urges doctors and health care professionals to reconnect with patients, even if it means admitting that they don't know all the answers (but will fight tooth and nail to figure them out). "We will never solve our health care crisis until we return the doctor back to the patient, honor that relationship, and give it the time and the nurturing that it needs," she says. "If the system doesn't allow us to do it, then we need to change the system." 

You are not alone. If you or someone you know is struggling, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or visit suicidepreventionlifeline.org

This is just one of the trends mbg is predicting for 2022. Check out our full list of the latest health & wellness trends. 

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