‘Time’s up’ for lots of things lately. From sexual harassment to workplace inequality, women are speaking louder than ever against those things which seek to diminish and damage them. But what happens when the problem comes from inside your own body – and is dismissed by many as an inevitable part of womanhood?
This is the question at the heart of a new exhibition by the photographer Rankin on endometriosis – the excruciatingly painful disorder which affects over 1.5 million women in the UK alone. The exhibition showcases images and video interviews of fifteen women, many recognisable media personalities, affected by the disease
Rankin’s portraits portray a series of women in their own clothes and environments staring confidently at the camera. Their interviews, however, tell a more harrowing story. One of suffering for years from a potentially devastating illness whilst being routinely misdiagnosed. Having their complaints of horrific menstrual cramping, fainting and chronic exhaustion ridiculed by GPs as part and parcel of being a women.
Rankin admits that, like many men out there, he used to “switch off” when it came to anything to do with “periods.” He was deeply moved, however, by the interviews he conducted for this exhibition in which the women pictured would speak of being regularly told to “man up” or dismissed with the phrase, “It’s just your period, love.” He also mentions his own personal astonishment at the “nutty” lack of awareness around a disease “as big as Diabetes.”
But perhaps the lack of air time for endometriosis is no surprise. Emma Barnett, a British broadcaster whose portrait and interview appears in the exhibition, is more explicit about the undeniable sexism underlying being ‘fobbed’ off by GPs over a disease which could have seen her “sleepwalking into infertility.” Barnett, who was finally diagnosed by a female friend who just happened to be a gynecologist, came face to face with our culture’s squeamish dismissal of realities of the female body when she became the first person to ever say on live television, “I’m menstruating right now and it really hurts.” A comment she describes as having created a media furore at the time over its appropriateness.
This exhibition has a real purpose. Both Rankin and Barnett underline that it is vastly important for women’s stories to be believed in the realm of women’s health and for their experiences not to be silenced or dismissed. A culture of turning away from ‘unclean’ aspects of the female body and making stories about its realities inadmissible only contributes to widespread ignorance which, in its most extreme form, can be seen to haunt the recent deaths linked to the practice of chhaupadi in Nepal. This ritual, which remains popular despite having been criminalised last year, banishes menstruating women and girls to ‘period huts’ due to a belief that their subsequent impurity will anger the Hindu gods if they remain in the family house. It has been “a real struggle,” Agni Shahi the NGO Federation president states, “to make the women let go of the belief that’s been plaguing the country.” This is pure, unadulterated female shame. And there is no time left for it.
The ‘Beyond the Invisible’, presented by Standard Life, will be at Stills Gallery, 23 Cockburn Street Edinburgh, from 1-8 April, open to the public every day from 11am – 5pm.