Yellow Wallpaper is a project about women's bodies, fertility and how they navigate the gender bias in medicine. Sharing mine and others’ stories.
When I was 14 I was picking up my sister's Bacalaureat exam results. I went with a friend, it was a short walk from home. I was on my period and already in pain, but nothing i wasn’t used to. On the way home i remember blacking out. Not through pain, my vision just completely went black. I grabbed my friend's arm, explained what was happening and went to sit down on the side of a flower bed until it passes. I remember throwing up in the flower bed, and my vision coming back after a few minutes.
That was the only blackout I had, but for the next 20 years I lived in constant fear of my period, but accepted that mine came with pain. Despite regular visits to different doctors and specialists I never knew why.
Last year, at the age of 35, after nearly passing out in the office I decided to investigate my periods again. During a scan the nurse showed me my womb on the monitor and said “Look, it lights up like a Christmas tree!”. I finally had a diagnosis, it was adenomyosis. I asked the doctor what treatment options there are, and she said none, but suggested inducing me into menopause. I wanted to punch her.
This project asks the question why – why is there no treatment? How many other women are in a similar situation, and how do they live with womb related conditions that science has yet to fully understand?
Through personal experiences of the women I've met and photographed, Yellow Wallpaper examines how women have been excluded from medical research, have not been listened to – especially when experiencing pain, causing women's bodies to become medically, scientifically and socially invisible.
“I remember exactly where I was for the very first one. We were on holiday in Eastbourne, my parents, my sister and me. I remember being on the seafront in a typical English holiday, pouring with rain, we were all in the car and I remember sitting at the back holding my tummy, and mum turned to dad saying 'she’s going to have it same way as I am'".
Glen remembers having blisters on her stomach – that's how hot the water bottle would be, hoping to make the period pain go away. “I do remember dad saying once when I was in terrible pain: 'your mother puts up with this, so should you'. I loved my father dearly, but that’s the way society was.”
After years of pain, Glen went to a women’s hospital in London, the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson – named after the first woman surgeon. This was in the late ‘70s or early '80s. “I had a DnC, a dilate and curettage, otherwise known as a scrape, and when I came round they said 'there’s nothing wrong'. I remember I burst into tears and thought well why am I going through this pain every month, when there is nothing physically wrong? Surely if there’s pain, something is wrong!”
As a teenager, Punita went to her GP and emergency room often because of her excruciating period pain. Her GP diagnosed her with IBS or suspected appendicitis but symptoms remained in place. At 19, she was eventually referred to a specialist who performed a diagnostic laparoscopy and confirmed endometriosis, prescribing hormonal birth control to deal with her symptoms. The same specialist also suggested a hysterectomy as an endometriosis cure because she “could never have children anyway” - Punita was left distraught.
The hysterectomy wasn't mentioned in Punita's discharge notes, instead writing to her GP they do trial-and-error of hormonal birth control to see which works best in suppressing her endometriosis symptoms. Although the pill did suppress the endo symptoms, it came with side-effects of weight gain, anxiety and depression.
Punita reported the specialist; the hospital confirmed “she was later under investigation for giving several patients this advice” and not being very understanding with them.
To the woman God said, “I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labour you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” Genesis 3:16
The often quoted study The Girl Who Cried Pain (2001) states “the types of pain that men and women experience tend to be different. Women more often experience pain that is part of their normal biological processes (e.g., menstruation and childbirth), in addition to pain that may be a sign of injury or disease. Women may thus learn to attend to mild or moderate pain in order to sort normal biological pain out from potentially pathological pain, whereas men do not need to go through this sorting process.”
“Given that women experience pain more frequently, are more sensitive to pain, or are more likely to report pain, it seems appropriate that they be treated at least as thoroughly as men and that their reports of pain be taken seriously. The data do not indicate that this is the case. Women who seek help are less likely than men to be taken seriously when they report pain and are less likely to have their pain adequately treated.”
A direct result is women who report pain are more likely to be treated for anxiety or depression, and have their physical symptoms ignored. This happens in women seeking help for womb-related conditions, heart attacks, or even brain tumours.
8341 men, 0 women
Caroline Criado Perez's book, Invisible Women, looks at how the world was built having the male as the default human. From urban planning using the work-day routine of a man's working hours, to office temperatures, to the size of the smart phone you're reading this post on. Caroline doesn't just lament women aren't being seen or heard, she gives us data and examples by the truckload.
Similarly, Maya Dusenbery looked at the medical effect of taking the male-default approach in her book Doing Harm. This became relevant for Yellow Wallpaper, because I couldn't understand why women aren't being heard by their doctors: “The default to studying men at times veered into absurdity: in the early sixties, observing that women tended to have lower rates of heart disease until their oestrogen levels dropped after menopause, researchers conducted the first trial to look at whether supplementation with the hormone was an effective preventive treatment. The study enrolled 8341 men and no women.”
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Get in touch
If you suffer from adenomyosis, endometriosis, PCO(S) or know someone who is, please get in touch.
I would like to hear their story.