'I am not the kind of woman who complains of everything': illness stories on self and shame in women with chronic pain

Soc Sci Med. 2004 Sep;59(5):1035-45. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2003.12.001.


In this study, we explore issues of self and shame in illness accounts from women with chronic pain. We focused on how these issues within their stories were shaped according to cultural discourses of gender and disease. A qualitative study was conducted with in-depth interviews including a purposeful sampling of 10 women of varying ages and backgrounds with chronic muscular pain. The women described themselves in various ways as 'strong', and expressed their disgust regarding talk of illness of other women with similar pain. The material was interpreted within a feminist frame of reference, inspired by narrative theory and discourse analysis. We read the women's descriptions of their own (positive) strength and the (negative) illness talk of others as a moral plot and argumentation, appealing to a public audience of health personnel, the general public, and the interviewer: As a plot, their stories attempt to cope with psychological and alternative explanations of the causes of their pain. As performance, their stories attempt to cope with the scepticism and distrust they report having been met with. Finally, as arguments, their stories attempt to convince us about the credibility of their pain as real and somatic rather than imagined or psychological. In several ways, the women negotiated a picture of themselves that fits with normative, biomedical expectations of what illness is and how it should be performed or lived out in 'storied form' according to a gendered work of credibility as woman and as ill. Thus, their descriptions appear not merely in terms of individual behaviour, but also as organized by medical discourses of gender and diseases. Behind their stories, we hear whispered accounts relating to the medical narrative about hysteria; rejections of the stereotype medical discourse of the crazy, lazy, illness-fixed or weak woman.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Attitude to Health*
  • Chronic Disease
  • Female
  • Feminism
  • Humans
  • Middle Aged
  • Narration
  • Pain* / psychology