How chronic illness radically changed my view of womanhood | Women

I have always been a girl’s girl. But as a teenager I tried to fight it, intent on the fact I was not like other girls, morally superior to those who spent their days fawning over the latest It bag from Miss Selfridge. It was only as I entered adulthood, and was diagnosed with an incurable illness, that embracing the femininity I had pretended to hate started to make any sense to me.

All through my adolescence femininity was presented as something to belittle, berate or outright mock, with tabloids tearing apart teen pop icons and painting any high-profile woman with blonde hair as a bimbo. I did whatever I could to push against how I was taught I should behave, whether that was ignoring beauty trends, hanging around with boys I didn’t like, or feigning an interest in indie bands. I locked away any semblance of girliness deep inside me, burying femininity until I genuinely believed that I just didn’t want to conform to it.

Then, almost a decade ago, I was rushed into hospital with stomach cramps, weight loss, diarrhoea and a myriad of other symptoms that had made the previous year of my life borderline unbearable. It was two weeks after my 19th birthday, five months after I left home, the day before Valentine’s Day. I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, and the rest of my life was flipped on its head.

Crohn’s disease is an autoinflammatory condition and, while treatment can result in remission, there is currently no cure. In short, my stomach views itself as a foreign object and attacks itself accordingly. My symptoms include chronic fatigue, unpredictable bowel movements and near-constant stomach pain. Experiencing the first year of my independent, adult life in and out of hospital, I not only had to learn how to live as a grownup, but I had to fight to keep my body alive, too.

During that first hospital admission, as I was shuffled between A&E, consultancy rooms and surgery theatres, with all manner of needles being jabbed beneath my skin, any lingering notions I held of being stereotypically feminine were shattered. There is no maintaining of a mysterious, aloof, sexiness as a camera works its way round your digestive system from the outside in.

Desperately grabbing at any semblance of control over my body, I began to indulge in the type of girliness I’d hidden for so long. I found myself longing for acrylic nails, nice haircuts and expensive dresses. One day, I realised everything I’d bought in the past month was pink. I craved the unspoken intimacy of female friendship, of drinking too many cocktails and crying in toilet queues with strangers. As I learned to navigate hospital appointments, endless blood tests and invasive investigations, I began to realise the power of womanhood and all of its fragile, gross, messy, and gorgeous complications.

Ione Gamble wearing an animal print dress, a pale pink curtain behind
‘Desperately grabbing at any semblance of control over my body, I found myself longing for acrylic nails, nice haircuts and expensive dresses.’ Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer

One moment I’d be applying an overpriced face serum, the next I’d be doubled over in pain as my insides battled with themselves. A long, relaxing bath filled with luridly neon fizzing bath bombs would end in me passing out on the bathroom floor from exhaustion. I would spend days in bed surrounded by takeaway boxes, only to then jump up and apply a full face of makeup, go out and take a million selfies. I revelled in existing as a contradiction. Pre-diagnosis, it felt as though any transgression from the path of stereotypical womanhood would lead to becoming entirely undesirable – the game was rigged by standards impossible for most women to uphold, which had encouraged me to opt out at my earliest opportunity and avoid the disappointment.

Now my body, in the eyes of the patriarchy, is inarguably unsexy. An unwell woman is most commonly considered to be helpless, languishing and sad. But just as I pushed against what was expected of me as a teenage girl, when presented with never being considered feminine again, I decided to embrace all the facets of womanhood I’d previously shut out. My illness allowed me to recognise that yes, a lot of the things we are urged to partake in under the guise of femininity are an oppressive farce – but they can also be quite fun. I began to learn that indulging in the beauty rituals, clothes, and content I enjoyed didn’t make me an “airhead” or a tool of the patriarchy. In fact, as illness made my body feel more and more alien, they helped me feel like myself. Finally, free from any expectation, I had found a way to make femininity work for me.

As I began to figure out my own relationship with my diseased body, fourth-wave feminism was bubbling away, building in the online consciousness of people my age. Lengthy Instagram captions urged us all to love ourselves, to accept our flaws and unapologetically go after what we want. Girl power quotes adorned high street T-shirts, and “feminist” self-help books became bestsellers simply for telling us we deserve more from the world than the bare minimum. Nearly 10 years on, our cultural landscape looks much the same. Celebrities still post vulnerable selfies flaunting a single spot, hoping to change the world with their willingness to be “ugly”. These posts have the veneer of empowerment, but still, just beneath the surface, beg for an acceptance from a society that considers femininity as something to revile.

My generation grew up on the internet. Oversharing on social media is essentially small talk for millennials and Gen Z. On any given day, I’ve probably read the most traumatic experiences of five of the people I follow on Instagram or TikTok before I’ve even had lunch. But these overshares are rarely posted with the purpose of becoming more truthful in our experiences. We’re not seeking to shock, disrupt, or even challenge the status quo of womanhood. Often posted alongside a perfect selfie or curated photo-dump, at the heart of these confessions an uncomfortable fact remains: we’re all seeking attention.

There are only so many times a hospital selfie would make me feel better about the fact I was attending my fourth appointment of the week, and only so many instances in which the juxtaposition of my bright pink nails against the beige of a waiting room felt like subversion. More often than not, the short spout of attention gleaned from oversharing didn’t help me feel more accepted in my flawed femininity. These posts simply held a public magnifying glass to the fact I would always be seen as unwell first, and a woman second.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with craving attention. We all long for the satisfaction of watching the likes rack up on our most recent photo. The problem is, that by framing our search for acceptance as empowering, we’re upholding the same damaging expectations and stereotypes that women have been held to for the best part of modern history. These overshares may feel vulnerable or even shocking, but rarely do they move the needle when it comes to accepted femininity. Owing to our deep-rooted desire to remain liked, these posts are almost always cushioned with patriarchal platitudes, worn like protective armour to protect us from rejection.

It remains rare to see a representation of illness that lays bare the often ugly reality of existing as an abnormality that resists categorisation and, instead, demonstrates the truth of being an unwell woman with all of its complications. This is because we still allow the patriarchy to dictate the right type not just of unwell women, but women in general. We’re constantly softening ourselves for our messages to be heard, to the point at which they become almost entirely meaningless. Women who do remain truly unfiltered in the telling of their lives (Britney Spears for example, on Instagram following the end of her conservatorship) are often regarded as unhinged, inappropriate, and out of control.

Some of us choose to lean into being considered unhinged. Writer Chris Kraus described her Crohn’s disease as “hysteria of the organs”, and explicitly correlated her irritable bowel disease flaring up with her mental health declining. But being labelled “confessional”, or frequently told we are “oversharing” when discussing the reality of our lives, are uncomfortable descriptors often placed upon women against our will. Why should asserting the very real things we go through be considered a confession? The attempts to discredit our stories, which lead to the type of self-censorship that has us posting a sexy selfie while discussing depression, are just another way in which society controls what femininity is. Without these feminine trappings, we still consider any woman who speaks about her experiences with her body to be making an unnecessary fuss that endangers the carefully constructed notion of womanhood itself.

Ione Gamble wearing an animal print dress, holding her tabby cat, a pale pink curtain behind
‘Society ridicules our desire to be gorgeous while enforcing attractiveness.’ Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer

Deep down, we would prefer that women keep their pain to themselves. That is, of course, unless their pain is watered down enough to avoid pity, remain entertaining or be profitable for the patriarchy. We see the honesty expressed by “unfiltered” women as an out and out rejection of femininity. Unwell women live with their symptoms every day. We learn to intertwine every pang of pain, every day spent in bed, every burst ulcer in our stomach and every subsequent surgery with our female identities. Sharing these experiences should be no more shocking than revealing that you have a hangover. That we still regard discussing the physicality of womanhood as something as shocking proves how fragile our notion of femininity is in the first place.

At the crux of it, no matter how many influencers tell us that women don’t owe anyone pretty, we’re all still aspiring to beauty – a beauty that, regardless of how many eye creams we buy, most will never be able to achieve. Our society ridicules our desire to be gorgeous while still enforcing attractiveness as a requirement. Women of all ages have been taught that to be considered beautiful, or sexy, or even just attractive, is the same as being liked. Our validity is contingent on acceptance from a society that profits from feminine insecurity. The purpose of modern self-love, of Instagram posts in which social media personalities flaunt vulnerability and of empowering advertisement campaigns, is not to make us actually hate ourselves any less. Rather, it reframes our struggles and the expectations placed on women to constantly appear palatable.

It would be easy to assume that my chronic illness exists at odds with my femininity. That I’m constantly fighting with my unruly body to allow me womanhood; but I believe that the opposite is true. Being unwell has allowed me to see the farce of gendered stereotypes for what they truly are. My condition forced me to find my own power in femininity, and to accept that being traditionally desirable is not the only valid path of existence.

Only by becoming the most viscerally repulsive version of myself could I make parts of traditional femininity work for me. By placing the disgusting alongside the desirable and the gross with the gorgeous, I became the woman I truly am; and not the one I feel forced to be.

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