In 2014, artist and writer Karolyn Gehrig launched #HospitalGlam, a movement to “take the shame out of being in treatment one selfie at a time.” Using the hashtag, individuals share pictures taken in clinical environments to emphasize their agency, power, and sexiness in those settings. This movement builds on Gehrig’s efforts to chronicle her own hospital visits since her diagnosis with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome back in 2003. Here, she chats with the editor of Pens & Needles about the impact and evolution of the project.
AF: You began taking these photos to feel powerful in a space in which you felt powerless. Now that you’ve been doing this for a few years, do you feel differently in clinical settings—and, more broadly, as a person with chronic medical needs?
KG: That reason was ascribed by a journalist to simplify the project and make it more digestible to a large scale audience. It’s always been about increasing agency, but it’s hard for me to say that I’ve felt powerless, anywhere. This is partly being a white woman and partly being a queer survivor of violence. For as long as I can remember, I’ve tried to reframe situations where I’ve had less control than I should for the sake of my own survival. Part of that has been conferring more power onto myself in the moment than I’ve actually had. Part of it is knowing how I present, and that I carry my whole self at all times regardless of what others can see.
Now I’m more resolute in every clinical setting, because I know every rule, and everything that can and cannot be done, through research for the project. I know when providers break the rules, even when they don’t know. When they challenge me on their own rules, I know they are doing it to wield power in the moment, and that it’s an unnecessary show of bravado over someone who is physically disadvantaged. I know that they’re doing it because they don’t know that I know what I do and because they believe in institutional power over patient’s emotional health. So when they do that, even if I’m mostly naked and strapped up, I go to the mat. Because I am not, and have never been, powerless.
I am not, and have never been, powerless.
AF: #HospitalGlam has gained a lot of followers and participants. From the looks of it, these are primarily women. Why do you suppose this is?
KG: The tag winks at the way health and beauty are marketed towards us, using bodies and poses from illness, which naturally appeal more to women and queer people. A few straight men use it in defiance of masculine norms, which is also cool! While I began the project as something to obfuscate spatial politics, I recognize its layered value as a tool to reclaim agency over the physical body and don’t want to take it away from people who use it when they feel good about how they look even in the hospital and when not at their best.
AF: You advise patients, “Bring the parts of you that you love into that office.” This is very powerful advice. Have other participants inspired or surprised you by the ways in which they answer this call?
KG: I’m inspired whenever somebody participates in the project without making a disclaimer about how “not hospitalglam” they are, because it is genuinely hard to do. It’s a difficult process to undertake. To do it is to claim your space and also declare the risks that come with doing so. The risks multiply with every marginalized identity, because society does not course-correct within hospital walls. My favorite photos are usually ones that show the person working with it in a way that pushes their thought process to the forefront. I’ve yelped “YES!” when scrolling a lot.
AF: #HospitalGlam images often invoke items from the news cycle—David Bowie’s death, Beyonce’s album cover, messages about believing survivors. These cultural references send the message that patients are still present and participating in public dialogue while in treatment. How or why else do you make an effort to connect to popular culture?
KG: Disability and illness have always been deeply embedded within the fabric of pop culture, whether or not it’s explicitly included in mainstream discourse. We spend a lot of time arguing for inclusion without recognizing the contributions our community has always made. This is an inexcusable glitch in our movement.
AF: How have healthcare providers responded to your work? I imagine that doctors would not be happy to walk in and see someone using technology—blood pressure cuffs, bed paper, exam lights—as props in a photo shoot!
KG: Most of my regular providers love it! They’re into self-advocacy, and all for patient agency. It’s part of why I work with the doctors I do and have stuck with the same ones for so long. The staff in one office is incredible, and through hanging around them before and after appointments I’ve learned a lot about the seemingly minor things that make or break levels of care. Administration is a big deal, and office staff are the people you end up spending a lot of time with between appointments, in all the other aspects that go into coordinating your health. If they’re into what you’re doing, you’re set.
AF: You also paint pictures of dilapidated houses. Is there a common theme between this and #HospitalGlam? Do the different forms of visual art that you create influence each other in any way?
KG: Here’s the story of that house: The year after I was diagnosed was easily the worst year of my life. If my biography were laid bare, you might understand the magnitude of that statement, and also why even with the amount of community resources now available, I still believe one needs a full five years to acclimate to their diagnosis. The house in those paintings was on Long Island near a house where my parents lived for awhile. I drove past it when I visited them, and it burned down the year I was diagnosed. Its remains stayed intact through extreme weather, and I photographed it every chance I got because it became a personal monument to my own diagnosis, though it didn’t belong to me and ultimately, I’m not a burned out house. I painted it because I loved it when I had trouble loving myself, until I realized that I am not a burned house or its bulldozed remains. So those paintings are all self portraits.