Medical Herstory: An Interview with founder Tori Ford

Interview by Hannah Lin

Cambridge alumna Tori Ford is the founder of Medical Herstory, an international award-winning youth-led non-profit dedicated to raising awareness about gender health equity through storytelling and undoing stigma. Despite spending just five months in Cambridge during her MPhil (cut short by the pandemic), Tori joined 10 different student groups, was Women’s Officer at Robinson College and volunteered at Relate, a sex and relationship therapy clinic. Having joined Medical Herstory myself as a volunteer during lockdown, I am so excited to share my conversation with Tori, where we talked about her experiences with healthcare and how this led to the launch of her platform.

Why did you start Medical Herstory and what were your original ideas or expectations? 

Medical Herstory is really born out of my own lived experience. I had been living with chronic yeast infections, which are very common and very unpleasant, for many years and I was just feeling so alone. I felt I was living with so much shame and stigma and although I talked to so many doctors, it felt like no-one was listening to me. I decided to write about this in a newspaper at McGill University – it made the front page and I then heard from so many other people that had eerily similar experiences of being disregarded within the healthcare system. A platform really didn’t exist to share these stories (when my story came out, it had a bowl of fruit on the cover when I was talking about desanitizing and sterilizing women’s health experiences and I was not happy about that!), and that’s why I created Medical Herstory. I really wanted to create a space where lived experience would be prioritized, where we could support and uplift other people’s stories, where we could tell them that they’re not alone. Since then, it’s grown into an international movement – we now have 70 volunteers across 24 universities in seven different countries. My intentions were never really to start a global movement; it was really about my own personal frustrations and wanting to get my word out there knowing how alone I felt, and wanting no-one else to feel that way. 

From your perspective, what makes storytelling such a powerful tool in achieving Medical Herstory’s goals in advancing gender equity and undoing shame and stigma?

Storytelling is really at the heart of all medicine – when you go to the doctor, you tell an emotional, vulnerable story and then you see your narrative transformed. It can be really dehumanizing and unsettling to see your story just get taken away from you, especially if you’re being dismissed or if you have a chronic condition that’s not being taken seriously. Medical Herstory works really hard to counteract that by taking these stories and honouring them in such a different way. We believe these patients and authors. We give them a space free from shame, stigma and sexism to tell their stories, as well as the support to do so. Beyond that, storytelling just humanizes a lot of these issues. After I shared my story, the most common feedback I got was ‘I’ve never seen this talked about, I’ve been living with this for years’. As much as statistics can help drive home how universal these issues are, hearing an individual voice is really freeing, not only for the person telling it, but also for those who get to see themselves reflected. 

How do your experiences as a Cambridge student feed into the work you do today? 

I’m really lucky that the Health, Medicine and Society program at Cambridge is interdisciplinary, so I entered with a real tight focus on history and very quickly found Medical Sociology. I had no idea I would write my dissertation on chronic yeast infections, but I produced a dissertation that I was so proud of, and it was also so cathartic and healing for me to speak to patients living with this condition and to hear their stories on such an intimate level. I ended up winning one of the Vice Chancellor’s Social Impact Awards and that was shocking to me because here I was, talking about vaginas at one of the top universities in the world, and not only was it being accepted and welcomed, it was being celebrated. [laughing] That was probably the biggest power move in my life, getting to meet the Vice Chancellor and talk about my vagina, and the award just really showed that our work is being celebrated and that we’re on the right path.

Looking back at the process, what are you most proud of achieving? 

I’m most proud of giving space to other people to share their stories and hearing from them how impactful it’s been and how they’ve had a positive experience working with us. Seeing how big our volunteer team has gotten has been amazing, as well as seeing the turnout at our Zoom events, where people take time out of their days to have difficult conversations, hear other people’s stories and hold that space for them. I’m just so proud to have created that community. Internationally, seeing our work featured by UN Women within Sweden and CBC in Canada has been really fulfilling as well.

Do you ever feel disheartened by anything you come across in the process of doing your work and research? 

I’m so happy that the message is universally embraced, but I’m so disheartened that so many people are going through this. So many women and gender diverse people are facing dismissal and although I’ve been able to create this momentum, it’s based around a lot of pain. Because the whole organization is so personal, being based on my lived experience which I think is what drives me so much, there are definitely days where I feel burnt out. There’s a lot of misconceptions that still exist out there that Medical Herstory does a lot of work to debunk, but at the end of the day, I’m just one person and this is just one movement, and to break down all the barriers we’re going to need to keep at it. But there’s definitely way more to celebrate than there is to mourn. 

Do you have any advice for young people wanting to start their own social impact movement? 

Start with your lived experience – I think starting with what is directly affecting you makes you the best person to solve those issues, and don’t be afraid to go for it. And practise a lot of self-care! As much as I think Medical Herstory does an amazing job of creating such a positive atmosphere, a lot of these stories are heavy and this work can be really hard, which is why it’s so important to have supportive communities. Also don’t be afraid to reach out to mentors – I’ve been blessed to have some amazing mentors in my life, so I’d really encourage that too. 

What can we all do in our everyday lives to add to this momentum in advancing gender equity and undoing the stigma surrounding so many women’s health issues? 

There’s so many different ways that you can get involved, and I believe that every individual, no matter what you are doing in life, has so much more power than you know to advocate for compassionate and comprehensive healthcare for all. I think it starts at the level of believing people’s stories and educating yourself, perhaps through attending an event that’s out of your comfort zone to learn more, and not being afraid to ask questions. It’s really in those day-to-day actions and standing up for yourself, standing up to other people if they are perpetuating gender bias and just continuing to learn more, as we’re all doing every day. 

If you would like to read Tori’s full story, it can be found (along with many others) on the Medical Herstory website: https://medicalherstory.com

You can find out more about Medical Herstory and keep up to date with our latest events here:

Facebook: Medical Herstory

Instagram: @medicalherstory

Medical Herstory is also recruiting for more volunteers, so if anyone wants to get involved, we’d love to have you on our team! Get in touch with Kainaz at info@medicalherstory.com for more information on different roles and how to join.

Image courtesy of Medical Herstory.