How Art Sets Women Free
Let’s begin by taking a moment to view this image.
What is your first thought when you see it? Do you know what it is?
This is the (in)visible organ of the female body, the cervix. Each of us entered this world through the strength and capacity of the body, and the portal of life - the cervix.
Even when all of us came into this world through a cervix, why, then, is women’s health so stigmatized? Why do we often react in fear or disgust when we see reproductive organs represented?
This is an overarching theme in many women’s lives around the world. For some, it starts at the earliest of ages, when puberty hits. Many girls can recall awkwardly digging in their backpack and quickly shoving a menstrual product in their pocket to take to the bathroom in middle school. Alternatively, when a girl menstruates for the first time, many do not even know what is happening, some are so ashamed that they feel they cannot ask for help. Why are we ashamed of our bodies? Why are the organs that give the capacity to reproduce the human race so stigmatized that we refuse to even look at them?
Each woman’s experience with her body is different. We all have different stories to tell, different struggles, and different ways of dealing with societal shame and pressures placed on our bodies. Not every woman has a cervix and not every person with a cervix identifies as a woman.
What would happen if everyone knew what a cervix looked like?
How would the conversation change if women were able to look at their (in)visible organ?
In 2018, we started to think outside of the STEM “box” to launch creative ways of initiating and prolonging conversations about women’s health. In most, if not all, cultures worldwide, women’s health can be a shameful and stigmatized topic. Vital care like HPV vaccinations and pap smears are sometimes avoided because of these social mores. We want to disrupt this culturally accepted shame and stigma by reshaping how people think about women’s sexual and reproductive health.
One of the ways The Center for Global Women’s Health Technologies is confronting this shame and stigma and allowing women to tell their stories is through art. The Calla Campaign was an artistic campaign aimed at reducing shame and stigma associated with women’s sexual and reproductive health through creative expression. We believe that through this grassroots type of community engagement, we can abolish the “otherness” of women and women’s health. The Center’s own Libby Dotson curated the final exhibit for the campaign, titled “The (In)visible Organ”, which was held at the Rubenstein Arts Center at Duke University in the spring of 2019.
The (In)Visible Organ Art Exhibit was birthed from the combination of technology and art.
In 2017, The Center developed the Callascope, a low-cost device designed to assist women in viewing their cervix. This device circumvents the need for traditional visualization tools like the speculum which is alarmingly similar to devices used in the earliest ages of gynecology.
Developed over 150 years ago by James Marion Sims, this device was originally tested on slave women without the use of anesthesia. In 2020, an all-too-similar version of this device is still used and can be a traumatic experience for many women. One of our Center members recalls her recent pap smear and the insertion of the speculum as “incredibly traumatic, painful and something I want to avoid for as long as possible.” Another woman added “I was hit with a wave of nausea when it was opened. This is not an experience I ever look forward to.”
When asked about the possibility of using the Callascope, these women stated that it might redeem the experience from traumatic to eye-opening.
While the Callascope is currently not available for all women and physicians to use, the art exhibit provided the general public with the opportunity to see the (in)visible organ in a different way.
The (In)Visible Organ exhibit featured pieces inspired by women’s experiences with the Callascope. A home-study was performed where women were asked to use the device to image their cervix, then reflect on the experience. The results of this study were then used, with permission, to inspire local Durham artists as well as a call for artists.
That call for artists received an unexpected response rate. We received applications from women around the globe from Nigeria to California to Puerto Rico. It was then that we realized we had really struck a chord. Women across the globe resonated with the idea of self-exploration and debunking myths of fear and shame associated with their bodies.
Women across the globe resonated with the idea of self-exploration and debunking myths of fear and shame associated with themselves.
A participant who was able to self-explore with the Callascope shares about the power of storytelling:
“When I think of female reproductive anatomy, I think that it is enigmatic, hidden from us physically…this was an eye-opening experience to be able to visualize something that is so intrinsically a part of me that I have never seen in this way before.”
We learned that art is a powerful tool to bring light to traditionally shamed and stigmatized topics. We believe that art, in tandem with technology, is the starting point for altering the conversation around sexual and reproductive health. These are social issues which cannot be solved by an easy formula. Instead, they require a creative approach in order to shift the narrative from shame to empowerment.
The art exhibit and prominent display of cervices and women’s reproductive health is not over for The Center. The Calla Campaign has evolved past a one-time art exhibit and into the creation of a feature-length documentary: The (In)Visible Organ. Young filmmaker and recent Duke University alumna, Andrea Kim, will release the film later this year. As Kim puts it “…we want to bring all women into conversations that involve their own bodies. It is time to make the invisible organ visible, and change cultural perceptions of the female body from the inside out.” In addition to the documentary, the entire exhibit is being digitized and will soon be available on the web for viewing. Sign up for our newsletter for more information!
Reaching from exhibit spaces into the classroom, a Duke University Bass Connections course was born. Students in this course carry on the inspiration of the (In)Visible Organ by investigating the power of art and storytelling to educate and empower women about reproductive health.
Art is a very vulnerable act— when an artist creates, they are sharing a piece of themselves with the world. Through the Calla Campaign and (In)Visible Organ documentary, our collective creatives have shown their willingness and excitement to engage their communities through vulnerability and art.
This is how vulnerability can change hearts and minds.
This is how you lead a cultural revolution.