Mika Simmons: "The more we love and learn about our bodies, the better equipped we are to advocate for our health"

·6-min read
Photo credit: Glenn Gratton
Photo credit: Glenn Gratton

"Someone told me recently that my book, The Happy Vagina, is funny,” Mika Simmons laughs, shrugs and then, looking as though she has just realised it might be true, adds: “I suppose if I want to make some noise about issues I am passionate about, I may as well make people laugh!”

Simmons, an actress, filmmaker and – for the last 10 years – a leading women’s health activist, with a gynaecological health charity (The Lady Garden Foundation) and a podcast tackling female bodily empowerment (The Happy Vagina), knows the power of humour. When, in 2021, she co-founded the extraordinary Ginsburg Women's Health Board with fellow campaigner Nimco Ali, the two women named it after a resonant quote from the inimitable Ruth Bader Ginsburg: “Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.”

Simmons is wary of what she calls “shouty” activism with no actual foothold in sustainable change. The Ginsburg board, in contrast, lives up to its namesake; working quietly but effectively with governments and institutions to push for a radical rethink in the way we treat women in our health and care services. Its work greatly contributed to the government’s recently-released Women's Health Strategy.

“There are many things the strategy gets right, and the fact we have one at all is a start,” Simmons says. “I think there are brilliant steps on mental health and LGBTQ+ access to IVF and I am thrilled with the baby loss certificates. This is something we have been campaigning for around miscarriage and baby loss – recognition of the trauma it creates, and therefore paid, allocated time from work to grieve. Overall, I see the strategy as a great springboard for further initiatives, but it still needs to go further to address medical misogyny, which is often subtly entrenched in our health systems.”

The sad fact is, the UK has the widest gender-health gap of any G20 nation. In real terms, this means that women are not taken seriously by healthcare professionals and are half as likely to receive painkillers as men, with women’s pain more likely to be logged as ‘emotional'. Women may live longer than men, but we are less likely to be diagnosed as fast (or as accurately) and more likely to suffer from chronic pain. Why? Well, this is something Simmons has also looked into.

“The history of why we have a gender-health gap, is actually a bit of a romp,” she says, acknowledging why her call-to-action first book, which looks at these issues, is so entertaining. “I had a lot of fun researching it. I laughed for a week when I discovered an early belief was that women's wombs wandered around our bodies and that the way to bring them back into their places was to waft a candle underneath the vagina...”

Photo credit: Sane Seven
Photo credit: Sane Seven

Simmons is keen to stress that a lot of the long-lasting damage to women’s health was not born out of misogyny, but often deep-rooted, if misguided, views on protecting female bodies. “It took years to get the church to allow doctors to exhume bodies and study them,” Simmons explains. “When they did, it was only criminals, and these were, mostly, men.” This is why our ‘patient zero’ frustratingly remains the male form; women’s anatomy became increasingly unknowable, shrouded in mystery even from women themselves.

“Even early attempts to include women stalled. One very early particular clinical trial caused a devastating impact on female fertility, and so women were tragically never included again,” says Simmons. “There has always been this fear around 'damaging' women but it's led to us being somewhat forgotten. Did you know it's only this year, 2022, that we got our first 3D female skeleton to be studied in schools?”

Of course, not all of his history is well-intentioned comedy. “I believe a lot of the gender-health gap is down to the fact that women were banned from becoming doctors for so long,” Simmons says. “It is also down to the extremely damaging effect of 'hysteria' – an absurd diagnosis given only to women which was used to control and diminish us for so long.” 'Hysteria' (which literally derives from the Latin hystericus, meaning “of the womb”) was thought to be a dysfunction of the womb which led women to become 'hysterical'. Symptoms included sex outside of marriage, a desire for independence, masturbation... “The idea of 'hysteria' is still in our healthcare system today, even if only subconsciously,” Simmons nods sadly. “Women just are not believed by doctors as much as men are.”

Steps to combat this are slowly but surely being taken. Simmons notes that the governmental strategy’s NICE (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) guidelines, are useful for women to quote when they think they are not receiving equitable or appropriate treatment. Women advocating for themselves within the system is, Simmons says, a bleak necessity.

“I am always advising my female friends to stand up for themselves and be strong when at the doctors,” she says. “Part of this, of course, is about understanding your own body and that is a lot of the work I do with The Happy Vagina. We need to say: 'I'm not ashamed of my body, and I can tell you when there is something wrong.' That's why the last chapter in the book is dedicated to self-esteem. The more we love and learn about our bodies, the better equipped we are to advocate for our health.”

Simmons herself does, of course, speak up constantly. One area she has been particularly vocal about recently is menopause and peri-menopause. Breaking the taboo or silence on this issue is making real change, she thinks. “Most women I know who are starting to need HRT to support the menopause are being given it pretty instantaneously by their doctors. That was not happening five years ago. People didn't believe that a woman who was 43 or 44 could have her peri-menopause impact her mental health and physical wellbeing. And I think there's a shift happening there the more we talk about it.”

Yet, we return again to Simmons’ circumspect approach to activism. “We must be careful that women's health does not become a 'zeitgeist' issue or a trend,” she warns. “We get a moment, we make some noise, people get bored and move on. Women are 51 per cent of the population of the world and we are still a minority. In some parts of India, women are still banished to huts when they have their period. Poland has just banned abortion. America is currently trying to ban abortion. We must not allow ourselves to get complacent. We've seen how easily women's power is taken away.”

The entire time we are speaking, it is hard to keep up with just how many projects Simmons, whose day job remains acting and directing, has on. You wonder when she has time to sleep. Yet her dedication to this fight is rooted in the most profound of connections, and the most unwavering of griefs – inspired by the tragic death of her mother, aged just 54, from ovarian cancer. “She was a nurse, a feminist and a scholar who also dedicated so much of her life to working in women's health, studying it, writing about it,” Simmons declares. “She never got to finish this work. So, I am doing it for her. This, for me, is her legacy.

The Happy Vagina by Mika Simmons is published 4 August

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