Monday 14 October 2019

Why Lena's oversharing about our final taboo is sorely needed

Writer, director and actor Lena Dunham opens up about her battle with endometriosis, writes Sophie Donaldson

Lena Dunham
Lena Dunham
Sophie Donaldson

Sophie Donaldson

Actress, writer and director Lena Dunham is one of those mouthy millennial feminists who often attracts ire because she is, simply put, an oversharer.

She uses Twitter to opine about all manner of topics including abortion, sexual abuse, Trump, cats, self-care and mental health. She has an email newsletter, Lenny, which she created to give like-minded writers a platform to wax lyrical about feminism and politics.

On Girls, the hit HBO programme she co-wrote and starred in, her full frontal nudity became so frequent you hardly noticed you were looking at her nipples, again.

Last week, Vogue magazine became her soap box. She penned an essay on her decision to have a hysterectomy, aged 31, to combat the crippling pain she experienced over the course of a decade from endometriosis.

In typical Dunham fashion, she doesn't shy away from the details. She talks about vaginal massages, egg follicles and what it is to have 'retrograde bleeding' - in layman's terms she describes it as "my period running in reverse, so that my stomach is full of blood".

She talks about a pain so tortuous that the voices of those trying to calm her become scrambled and high pitched, as the pain infiltrates her every orifice and leaves no room for reasoned discussion. It is a pain that millions of women experience on a monthly, weekly, or daily basis, but one that few are willing or able to articulate.

She talks about the innate sense of knowing something is very wrong with her uterus, despite the assurances of medical professionals and more than 40 vaginal ultrasounds.

When her uterus was removed they discovered that she was right. She very wryly describes her endometriosis-riddled uterus as "the Chinatown Chanel purse of nightmares, full of both subtle and glaring flaws".

She talks about the rage that builds up at the unfairness of it all. She speaks candidly of the distance now lodged between her and her partner as she is left to grapple with this decision alone.

She talks about the hysteria that engulfs a woman who is rendering herself childless, who has decided to bow down before one terrible pain and replace it with another. This new pain will be less perceptible. It won't require vaginal massages or medication. It, too, will be invisible, and it too, is rarely talked about.

She talks about life afterward, about friends conceiving and having children, of becoming the "sad old Aunt", of seeing an Instagram feed full of other women's ultrasound photos. Importantly, she addresses all of that with optimism. She relishes the thought of adoption and remains hopeful that despite her ovaries being lodged somewhere inside a "vast cavern of organs and scar tissue" they may still contain eggs.

Along with the emotional and physical, Dunham speaks frankly of the anatomical. Her vagina, cervix, uterus, ovaries and eggs are recurring characters in this short personal memoir. In fact, they are central to the plotline of every woman's story. Without them, none of us would be here and yet it is rare they are given a cameo, let alone starring role, in open discourse.

We have a fixation on breasts and bottoms, on toned legs and flat stomachs. We'd even rather discuss pubic hair than the vital organs hidden beneath it.

Until Dunham's essay I don't recall ever reading those words in a mainstream publication, nor had I heard the first-hand experience of a woman who has chosen to undergo a hysterectomy.

Shame on me, but I had to stop midway through and Google what exactly the procedure entails. I was vaguely aware that it greatly reduced your chances of conceiving and giving birth but I was unaware there were different types of hysterectomy.

My knowledge of endometriosis was equally as patchy despite the fact that one in 10, or 176 million, women of menstruating age suffer from it. This is hardly surprising when you hear that on average it takes seven years for a woman to be diagnosed, or when you consider our reluctance to talk about 'women's issues'.

Regardless of our gender we all have a complicated relationship with the female body. We alternate between scorning, praising, obsessing, objectifying and dismissing it, usually based on what we can see of it. We have far less to say about what happens inside it. The menstrual cycle and all that accompanies it, including delirious pain from endometriosis, is still the least talked about bodily function. Irritable Bowel Syndrome is a far more acceptable condition to discuss over your lunchbreak.

Women's reproductive health (or lack thereof) remains our final taboo. It resides in that great void of silence alongside all those things We Don't Talk About, including the fact that most women both tear and defecate during childbirth, a silence that will only ever be broken by some much needed oversharing.

Sunday Independent

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