The XX Factor

The Many Urinary-Tract Infections of Lena Dunham

Lena Dunham at the Elle Women in Hollywood Awards on Oct. 19, 2015, in Beverly Hills, California. 

Photo by Michael Kovac/Getty Images

Urinary-tract infections have no greater publicity agent than Lena Dunham. The Girls producer and feminist-about-town has made much of her ongoing struggles with the condition that makes a routine bathroom trip feel “like pissing porcupines,” turning everyday interviews and writing projects into teachable moments for bladders and urethras everywhere.

Just Tuesday, in her twice-weekly Lenny newsletter, Dunham ended her Q-and-A with Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards with a one-line bio: “Lena Dunham is a bleeding-heart liberal with a near-constant urinary-tract infection.” Near-constant! Because I am a mystical woodland sprite with a urinary tract made of dragon scales, I have never experienced the acute torture of a UTI. (Though after typing that sentence, I’m pretty sure I feel the first vengeful pangs of a jinxed urinary tract coming on.) However, my research reveals that UTIs can be excruciating, causing a burning sensation, aches, and interminable trips to the toilet with little relief. Dunham’s many accomplishments, achieved through such “near-constant” agony, just became even more impressive.

Dunham has brought the goings-on of her urinary tract on screen, where she spent an entire episode of Girls dealing with a UTI in season 2. “My urine feels so daggery,” Hannah complained, peeing by a set of railroad tracks in pain. Slate’s Girls critics wondered if her UTI was a symbol of wisdom through suffering, the consequences of sex, or the realization that “some pain comes with no reward.” In the episode, Jemima Kirke as Jessa suggested Hannah put a garlic clove up her vagina—a natural remedy actually intended for yeast infections.

Real-world Dunham has espoused more traditional cures for her ailments. She spoke on Jimmy Kimmel Live about getting a UTI while filming Girls in Japan, where she said she got “the best medical care I have ever received” and a doctor gave her probiotics along with her antibiotics. “I’ve had UTIs all over the world,” Dunham said, and she usually brings her own medication while traveling. “The worst place was Germany,” where she couldn’t communicate to her doctor that she’d already taken the urinary-tract pain pill that turned her pee bright orange. Valuable medical knowledge, delivered free to your door via late-night TV:

Friends and social-media acquaintances have benefited equally from Dunham’s open-book policy about her reproductive health. In a 2012 New Yorker essay, she admitted to sharing lots of little details about her life on Facebook, which may have prompted her ex-boyfriend’s mother to block her. One example: “It’s Christmas day and I have a raging UTI—do you think I got it from watching 9½ Weeks?” But she doesn’t let the frequent pain get in the way of her best life. Kirke has painted a nude portrait of Dunham while Dunham had a UTI, though Kirke says, “She was bitching and whining the whole time, which touched me, because she sat through it anyway for the sake of the painting.”

In an email Dunham surrendered to Miranda July in 2013 for the latter’s We Think Alone project, Dunham projected her UTI tendency onto her dog, Lamby, who developed a habit of drinking his own pee. “I thought perhaps his constant urinating (and drinking of that urine) was UTI based,” Dunham wrote, “but the vet checked him out and he was fine in that department—she suggested prozac.”

Dunham’s public health education has expanded past UTIs in recent weeks—in November, she wrote an essay about her years-long suffering due to undiagnosed endometriosis, which caused “urinary-tract pain even when tests indicated nothing was wrong.” From the urethra to the uterus, Lena Dunham has become the abdominal pain mentor of our time. Each one teach one, Dunham. Keep it up, and pack some cranberry juice on your next jaunt to Germany.