Medical Examiner

The Best Thing About That Lena Dunham Profile? It Takes Female Pain Seriously.

It’s refreshing to see endometriosis treated as the legitimate medical problem it is.

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 29:  Actress Lena Dunham speaks onstage during Lincoln Center's American Songbook Gala at Alice Tully Hall on May 29, 2018 in New York City.  (Photo by Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images for Lincoln Center)
Actress Lena Dunham speaks onstage during Lincoln Center’s American Songbook Gala in May.
Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images

I’ve never thought much about what a uterus actually looks like, but now I know how Lena Dunham’s looks. In the process of profiling her for New York magazine, Allison P. Davis saw a picture of it. She describes Dunham’s uterus as: “a bloody, swollen crimson orb resting casually on industrial-blue surgical cloth,” with fallopian tubes that “looked like little outstretched arms.”

That a description of her removed uterus was included in the profile may not surprise anyone familiar with Dunham. The actor/director has long been known for gazing at her own problems, often through a somewhat frustrating lens. In so many cases, her privilege causes her to woefully miscalculate their severity, her intense self-focus distracting from whatever larger truths may be buried in her work. She’s insecure about her looks, but she’s fairly conventionally attractive and has access to spendy clothes. Girls featured a struggling artist, while Dunham’s own roster of mentors is filled with journalism and comedy elites. Like many people, I suspect, I don’t so much actively dislike Dunham as I am just exhausted of hearing from her, and feel vaguely concerned about her former dog.

But this profile was different. It details Dunham’s illness at length, taking seriously her medical issue in a way that women’s medical issues seldom are, especially in celebrity profiles. Davis observes in the piece that Dunham, texting her increasingly intimate shots of her life and hospital stay, might be “the director of her own candid, sympathy-generating magazine story.” And, surprisingly, it works.

At age 31, Dunham had a hysterectomy, a possibly-extreme and definitely non-cure-all measure to deal with her endometriosis, a condition which made hers misshapen. Endometriosis causes uterine lining to grow beyond the bounds of the uterus. It may affect more than 10 percent of women in the United States and yet is commonly dismissed as simply being a painful period (it took Dunham until 2014, when she was nearly 30, to be diagnosed).

Seemingly as naturally as she details her breakup with superstar music producer Jack Antonoff, or squeezes blackheads from one of her hairless cat’s chins, Dunham shares the uterus photo with Davis and describes the sheer emotional toll of illness. “Physical pain is really isolating,” she tells Davis of what she was experiencing toward the end of Girls. ”I was lonely and medicated.” She worries that her surgeon will think she is a “hypochondriac psycho.” She takes Davis on a tour of her pill bottles: no pricey Hollywood concoctions on display, just regular, medically necessary stuff.

The main image I have in my head of a uterus, besides that of a flat sex-ed cartoon, is of a knife stabbing around my insides. Dunham, via Davis, provides a more fleshed out image, both literally of her organ and how it entwines with her existence. And while Dunham can afford a $1,600 “status heating pad” for pain relief, the denial of women’s suffering still comes for her in many of the same ways it can come for the rest of us. She describes worrying that her doctors still might not believe there is a physical cause when she announces pain. She talks about the unpredictability and judgement surrounding her reproductive health choices, the way looking at a baby post-hysterectomy can give her the feeling of “a little catch in the throat” so much so that she was relieved to learn you can mute the Instagram stories of new moms.

Dunham has invested in her own work on this topic—her recent spate of Instagram posts on her illness are certainly worthwhile, for example. Thanks to the personal essay economy which Dunham has bolstered with her own filterless dispatches, we are hearing a lot more about women’s pain, the weird things our bodies can do and produce. It’s rarer that our experiences are validated by a third party. Dispensed by Davis, the facts feel freshly sharp—for better or worse, accompanied by a byline other than Dunham’s, they are harder to shrug off. For once, Dunham is not a narrator donning blinders, but a woman with a real problem being taken seriously.