"Make It Stop" TikTok is highlighting how female pain is ignored

If your FYP has been filled with endless loops of "Can't Stop Singing" from Disney's Teen Beach Movie lately, this is why.

by Marianne Eloise
31 July 2020, 4:00pm

Over time TikTok has evolved from being solely the home of dance routines and short funny videos into a genuinely useful platform for sharing information about mental health, race, and other issues that are often left out of traditional media. The app’s one billion users don’t just post memes and record their friends doing stupid shit, plenty of them also utilise TikTok’s trends to dispel disinformation and spread helpful messages, shifting the way people think in an easy to consume, often funny medium. The “Make It Stop” trend, in which TikTokers talk about times they became seriously ill while lip-syncing to a backing track of “Can’t Stop Singing” from Disney’s Teen Beach Movie, is just one of the latest ways users are educating in a deceptively entertaining format.

The videos vary, and many stray off-message with other “storytimes”, but generally they feature women discussing a time they felt seriously ill and the processes they went through before receiving a diagnosis (if they received one at all). Many videos, which feature users mouthing the lyrics to the (admittedly irritating) song, while text overlay explains their traumatic experiences, are formatted in a typical content creator way — they are cliffhangers, ones that invite watchers to subscribe to receive the story’s conclusion and diagnoses in a second video. On first viewing, the videos are jarring. The cliffhanger format is cynical, and the song itself is obviously an annoying, childish earworm. But the content itself carries a deeper message: one that exposes how the pain and illness of young women and girls is routinely dismissed, leaving them to fight and advocate for themselves.

In a study of more than 2400 women with chronic pain, 84% felt that they were treated differently to men by their doctors. That statistic, while depressingly high, is perhaps unsurprising. On a more general level, women are underrepresented in medical studies en masse, and as a result, many have their pain left undiagnosed for a long time — because diagnoses and symptoms are defined by male patients. TikToker Liza and her family fought hard in the pursuit of a diagnosis of her own chronic illness. It all began when she was eight, and began experiencing a persistent pain doctors first attributed to growing pains, and then stress. It was only after Liza’s parents pushed to have her admitted to a private hospital, where she was given an ultrasound and MRI before being rushed to surgery, that doctors discovered she in fact had a torn meniscus, a result of being born with a rare abnormality in both of her knees.

Liza wants to bring attention to the ways women’s pain is routinely dismissed. “It is really important for women to raise awareness about these issues of doctors not listening to them because often, males perceive women as emotional and worriers,” she says. “Doctors often blame everything on mental health. Sometimes it can be that, but the rush to diagnose means they also refuse to open up their minds for it to be anything else. If medical professionals can’t instantly find the problem, they blame it on anxiety. The best doctors admit that they don’t know and come up with a plan,” she adds.

While many women and girls have their pain dismissed by professionals, others will ignore their pain, too, keen to not make a fuss. Paige, 18, went viral for a “Make It Stop” video about a scare she had at high school. She was in pain during volleyball practice and pushed through, but eventually decided to go to the doctor. They discovered three ovarian cysts which she had to get removed, along with an ovary. “I decided to take part in the trend because I thought my story was unique,” says Paige. “Turns out there’s been a lot of other girls who went through the same thing and it gave us a chance to connect with others who have the same experiences. I think it’s super important to share our experiences because we give others a chance to feel a little less abnormal.” she adds.

While the “Make It Stop” trend sheds light on how women have to push to be listened to by doctors, it also raises awareness for medical issues some might not have considered. Belle, 17, used the trend to discuss her childhood kidney cancer. When she was three, Belle’s mother discovered a lump that turned out to be a stage three Wilms’ tumour. She wants to tell her story to educate parents who might not realise the signs: “Cancer is much more prevalent than some people believe,” she says. “I find it so important to raise awareness on TikTok because people of all ages use it, including parents, and childhood cancer can often go undiagnosed, leading to bigger issues,” Belle says.

Amanda Lynn, 18, also went viral with a “Make it Stop” video, but her story is slightly different. She pretended to be ill to get off school, her video explains, but the teenager’s mother, worried, insisted on taking her to a paediatrician, who realised that Amanda Lynn’s appendix was on the brink of bursting. “In spite of the pretend stomach pain, there were other quantifiable symptoms of appendicitis that I couldn’t deny, like my high fever and abnormal WBC levels,” the TikToker says. “My lie got me as far as the hospital, but the test results in the ER that hinted to appendicitis were entirely out of my control.”

Now, Amanda is studying Biomedical Engineering with a pre-med focus at University, so she’s familiar with the ways women’s pain is dismissed. “It’s become clear to me that some of my female peers and I struggle with having our ideas considered and our voices heard. So, seeing this trend blow up the way it did was really refreshing,” she adds: “While it may not seem to be a super big deal, I think the trend itself, because it is almost entirely driven by female experiences and voices, is a huge step in freedom of female self-expression, which is something that I know not all of us are able to comfortably exercise.”

But the reaction to the “Make It Stop” video trend is not always positive. By occasionally splitting up the “storytimes” into multiple posts — leaving the diagnosis to follow a cliffhanger ending — some users have been accused of exaggerating illness or trauma for social media clout. A generous reading might argue instead that the reason for not giving the clips a solid conclusion is so that a viewer can experience the same delayed gratification that one might experience fighting for a diagnosis. “I think people leave the diagnosis for part two because there’s so many details that go into the first part to make sure everything is clear that there’s no time to add the ending,” says Paige. Liza agrees: “I got a lot of people hating for the fact that I didn’t post a part two straight away, because at first I didn’t know that the video had blown up.” says Liza. “I always knew I would post a part two with detailed explanations to help educate people.”

Mia, 18, posted a “Make It Stop” video about her quest to get a diagnosis for her poliosis, a condition that makes the hair on the right side of her body white. She wanted to tell her story in a funny way, and included the diagnosis in part one because she would, “get frustrated when others didn’t,” and found that a lot of people thanked her for it. “I don’t believe there is a special meaning behind it. Like I can’t see people leaving them on a cliffhanger to represent how they were feeling during the whole process, I think they just wanted more followers,” Mia says. Despite that though, she still believes TikTok is a great platform for women and minorities to have a voice. “While doctors believed me because you could literally see the white hair, I have a ton of experience with doctors not believing me.”

Where traditional media and medicine fail women and minorities, social media has stepped in to fill a gap. While the “Make It Stop” trend is both flawed and musically grating, it shows the medical disparities that women

experience even from an incredibly young age. Traditionally dismissed and ignored because of their gender and their age, seeing young girls advocating for themselves on an increasingly mainstream platform is refreshing and encouraging. And it’s led, in some examples, to real life changes too. Liza, for example, has become an advocate for chronic illness: “A lot of people learn a lot from my account that they don’t learn in school because it’s not taught. I teach and spread awareness about my chronic illnesses, as well as anatomical facts,” says Liza. “Make It Stop” is part of a larger movement of advocacy for women and minorities on social media, and however irritating the song, it’s certainly effective.

chronic illnesses