Medical Gaslighting Is a Pill Elaine Welteroth Says No One Should Have To Swallow
“We are all susceptible, regardless of what level of education you have, or your socioeconomic status, or your network.”
For Elaine Welteroth—an award-winning journalist, New York Times bestselling author of More Than Enough: Claiming Space for Who You Are (No Matter What They Say), television host, and an all-around trailblazer who self-identifies as someone proud to advocate for herself and issues close to her—the firsthand experience of medical gaslighting while she was pregnant was a tough pill to swallow.
Welteroth and her husband, musician Jonathan Singletary, welcomed their son in April 2022. Today, she expresses nothing but gratitude for her home birth experience under midwifery care, but that wasn’t the original birth plan she sought to create. Throughout her pregnancy, Welteroth tried to find an OB/GYN to deliver her baby, but says she felt uncomfortable—consistently. “I felt myself shrinking in the presence of doctors,” Welteroth says. “I felt myself being shamed into silence. I felt myself after every single appointment, rethinking the whole interaction and wondering, What did I do wrong? How could I have done something different to have warranted better care from this person? Is it something I said? Is it how I spoke? Is it a question that I asked that put them off? Did I ask too many questions?”
When a provider leads a patient to question themselves by way of minimizing or ignoring their pain, symptoms, or experiences, it is medical gaslighting in practice. People who identify as women are more poised to experience medical gaslighting than men for a litany of reasons—including medical research historically focusing on men, thus not accounting for the lived experience of women. And for Black women, the statistics are even more pronounced. In a 2022 survey of 1,000 American women from women’s health-care platform Tia, 63 percent of all women and 70 percent of Black women said they’d seen a doctor who didn’t listen to their concerns; 48 percent of all women and 58 percent of Black women reported a doctor having ignored or dismissed their symptoms.
When people are conditioned to dismiss their own reality, to ignore the wisdom their body signals to their mind, the results are far too often a matter of life and death. Such is the case for the intersection of medical gaslighting that Black women experience and the harrowing Black maternal mortality rate in America. In 2021 (the latest year for which data is available), the Black maternal death rate in America was 2.6 times higher than that of white people at 69.9 deaths per 100,000 births.
"Black women are notonly not believed, butthey're disproportionatelydying as a result duringand after childbirth."
Welteroth and I recently spoke in connection to her collaboration with the Advil Pain Equity Project, which aims to spread awareness about racial bias in diagnosing pain—another form of medical gaslighting. During our conversation, she shared that her own experience with medical gaslighting during her pregnancy fueled her to advocate for Black maternal health. “Black women are not only not believed, but they're disproportionately dying as a result during and after childbirth,” Welteroth says. “[My experience has] given me a way to channel the frustration and the pain I carry not just for myself, but for every Black woman who has died in childbirth. [I want to] really put it to work for the good of our whole community.”
Elaine Welteroth: I'm so glad you're asking this question, because medical gaslighting is so real and so insidious, but also very nuanced. Sometimes it will be so egregious and in your face that there is no denying it—but in other instances, it's going to be way more subtle. It might happen over time in small ways, which might lead you to not even recognize it’s happened until you're down the line and looking back. But medical gaslighting can happen to any of us.
It was hard for me to accept that medical gaslighting was happening to me, because I’m both well-educated and an advocate for issues that matter to me. I felt I should be equipped to navigate it. And yet, there was a moment during one of the last doctor’s appointments during my pregnancy that sticks out [as an example of overt medical gaslighting].
I felt it was going well. Then, at some point in our conversation, the doctor stood up, closed her laptop, and started exiting the room. As she was leaving, she said to me, “You have exceeded your two- to three-question max.” It was so incredibly rude, and I felt so shut down. And then I asked a question about needles, because I have a phobia of them following a previous instance of medical negligence. The last thing I would want when I'm in labor—when I need to be relaxed—is to have needles being put in me without knowing if it’s medically necessary. So, because of my phobia, my question was about her policy on IVs.
[The doctor] literally laughed at me. She scoffed at the question and said, “Of course you're going to have to have an IV when you come in, because everybody needs something when they're going through childbirth…You can't just walk into a hospital, pop a squat and have a baby.” She was still laughing as she walked out of the room.
At that point, I told myself I would not put myself in this position again—to be made to feel like a fool, to be talked to disrespectfully, to be dismissed. I deserved better than this. I was so grateful at that turning point to have the awareness of midwives and the Black-owned midwifery birthing center in Los Angeles, Kindred Space LA, where I ultimately gave birth; it saved me in my most vulnerable state and gave me this better option.
My personal experience with medical gaslighting expanded my perspective on just how broken our medical care system is. It deepened my well of empathy for the many people who've experienced what I have and worse. People have died at the hands of negligent physicians and doctors who are ill-equipped to give us the care that we deserve.
EW: Believe your body. It sounds a little simple, but it's a hard thing to do. Self care is often talked about in a very commercial way, but true self care is honoring yourself—honoring the wisdom of your body. It's our birthright to unlock that wisdom and to honor it.
We live in a world and we navigate systems that don't believe us, so we need to double down on believing in ourselves. It's so much easier said than done, but I really hope that this message becomes more normalized. We need to make sure that people are not shamed into silence around their experiences and that we're amplifying stories about medical gaslighting.
EW: The hell-yes or hell-no philosophy filters into everyday decision-making in terms of my social life, my life as a mom, and decisions I make for work projects. On a personal health level, it's been a major guide for how I navigated the health-care system [while I was pregnant] because I was feeling major red flags in my body that we are conditioned to dismiss.
I had to practice what I've been preaching around “hell yes” or “hell no” in the most consequential way when I was pregnant and when I was going through childbirth. In all other applications of the phrase, it's not life or death. For instance, whether I go to the party or not may have some impact on my mental health, but it's not going to be life or death the way it may when I'm choosing a doctor to deliver my baby.
EW: I wish every mom were asked that question and had the space to answer it. I honestly feel so good at this stage of my life—and I hesitate to say that because I know how extraordinarily challenging this time is for new moms.
The truth, though, is that I'd never experienced balance before. I have it now because my baby forced some real shifts in my approach to achieve it. I now have something more important than work, which I'd never had before. Becoming a mom has allowed me—or even forced me—to create boundaries for the first time in my life around work. And it feels really good to have this permanent reminder that there's more to life than work.
This human being is a portable charger for my soul. I can just plug back into him and somehow everything's okay—even in this world that is regressing and crumbling and coming apart at the seams. He makes everything better; he makes everything worth fighting for.
Before [having my son], I felt depleted from some of the fights that I had taken on in my life and in my career. And now I have this bigger reason and someone who truly refills me at the beginning and end of every single day.
The trajectory that I was on during my pregnancy was really scary, especially in terms of my mental health. This was a direct result of not being believed by doctors and not being made to feel safe in the medical care system. But when I thankfully found myself on a different trajectory, under the care of Black midwives, it set me on a completely different course.
[These women] will forever impact my experience of motherhood, and particularly my experience of new motherhood. It's a romantic way to talk about motherhood, but it's the truth for me. And I’m so grateful that this is my story.