By Rachel Neha Shaw

When I hear the word “story,” my mind often travels to my book-filled childhood, in which I immersed myself in worlds of secret missions, talking animals, dangerous quests, and, somehow, relatable characters. What drew me into these stories each time I cracked open the spine of a new book was the feeling that I, too, could embark on my own special adventures, tackle the goals I set before me, and make many friends along the way, just as the heroes of my storybooks did.

As I grew older and expanded my tastes in reading material beyond kid’s fantasy, the appeal of relating in any way to the characters in stories remained. I have realized that one of the primary reasons that we eagerly devour stories, in books, films, art, news, and even personal anecdotes, is that we desire connection with the players in the story. This connection does not necessarily mean that we want to have a relationship with the person propelling the story, but we instead feel a compelling need for our own stories to be seen and heard through the story of the character.

Beyond the storybook world, while we all forge our own unique paths as we navigate our lives and the world around us, our experiences are often shared by at least one other person. To illustrate, if a busy student struggles with balancing a heavy workload and maintaining their physical, mental, and emotional health, the student will find that consulting a mentor or another trusted adult will usually yield a connection over a common experience and some good advice from the adult. The story of the adult’s experience thus better aids the young student in their own quest to implement balance in their life.

You may wonder how stories and relatable people within them (fictional or not) play a role in women’s health, the focus of GWHT. Why is it so important to examine personal reproductive health through the lens of storytelling, as GWHT has done during the month of August? How does our human desire for connection through stories relate to health care at all? Work-life balance is a typical topic of conversation and thought among people of many ages and backgrounds, and it is often discussed openly and candidly. Reproductive health, on the other hand, is a topic nearly always avoided when dialogue veers too closely to it.

Stories, like those showcased in GWHT’s Summer of Storytellers Exhibit, demonstrate how crucial the experiences of others are in connecting people within shared experiences as women and in terms of reproductive health.

Alicia Collins’s photography series Home displays the intricacies of family, community, mental health, and identity through the complex relationship between Collins and her mother, and her portrait series Study of Mama shares the journey of Collins’s mother through physical changes, self-healing, and self-image. Her photos tell stories of immense trust and the strength that comes with finding comfort and healing in one’s own skin.

“Mama Moments After the Death of Kimmy,” an image from the “Home” collection

“The Flow: 0.0,” a zine created by Nikki Mahendru, delves deeply into the societal concealing of evidence of menstruation, breaking down barriers that keep periods out of the public eye and creating a forum for women to discuss “the flow” without feeling the stigma often associated with their health.

A page from “The Flow 0.0”

Namratha Potharaj put together a series of canvases, one displaying a painted image and the other presenting a poem written by Potharaj. The painting showcases the face of a woman as flowing colors and the large, bolded message, “SPEAK YOUR TRUTH,” spring forth from her lips. The poem vocalizes the intentions and thoughts behind the painting, expressing the necessity of speaking up and showing up as the fullest form of one’s identity without asking permission to do so. This diverse array of artistic pieces exhibited the scope of the female experience, not only in terms of health, but in terms of identity and self-perception as well.

A screenshot of Potharaj’s Instagram, showcasing her canvas paintings

Verbal stories additionally contributed to the shared experiences in this variety of submissions. Nadia Bey, a Duke undergraduate, wrote about her experience with a fibroadenoma, a benign breast fibroid tumor, and navigating her healthcare experience during the COVID-19 pandemic. She presented observations about both finding a way to receive necessary care during a pandemic and dealing with an unexpected breast lump.

Kelly Thompson shared an audio reflection on her stage 4 endometriosis, new understanding of what the cervix was, and her many questions stemming from her diagnosis. As she grappled with her partial hysterectomy and the idea of losing the organs she felt composed her feminine self, she realized that she had to reimagine and relearn her sense of self after the surgery.

From written or spoken words to visual art, the stories of these women and the collective groups they represent bring the idea of reproductive health to the table as a viable and important topic of conversation. Women sharing their own experiences with their reproductive health, perceptions of their bodies, and finding their place within a world unaccustomed to discussing women’s needs brings these “taboo” topics out of the shadows and empowers other women to share their own stories and feel more comfortable in their own bodies. Just as I enjoyed relating to the voyagers of my childhood novels, and just as we all eagerly invest our attention in the characters of the stories we seek, women can view these stories and the stories of others everywhere and feel seen, heard, and less alone in their own struggles through health issues, self-image, or just trying to make their voice heard too.

Innovate with passion, deliver with compassion. www.DukeGWHT.org