My Body Isn’t a Rotten Fruit: How a Conversation With My Grandmother Changed My Perspective on Endometriosis
Last updated: March 2023
If you’ve ever menstruated, you may have accepted your pain as an unfortunate inevitability. Women are often encouraged to keep silent about their menstrual complications. This gender bias is rooted in a deeper history where women’s bodies have been portrayed as consumable and disposable. For example, the scripture about Eve is sometimes used to justify painful periods. But when we speak out about menstruation, we can imagine a better future for endometriosis patients.
Eve ate her fruit, so I ate my words
From the time I was young, I was taught that menstrual pain was all about consumption. When I was a preteen, an older girl in my Sunday school class asked for pain pills or an ice pack. The teacher asked the girl what was ailing her, and the teenager said that her menstrual cramps were hurting her back and stomach. The teacher said, “Periods are supposed to hurt every woman. When Eve ate the fruit in the Garden of Eden, she brought sin to all humanity. Now it’s our punishment, as women descended from Eve, to have painful periods. Each month is our chance to repent, so it’s cowardly to try to numb that pain.”
I never heard that teenager complain about her periods again.
When my blood flowed heavy and unpredictable, I scrubbed the leaks out of my panties. I wonder if Eve even got to taste that fruit. I hope that the core got stuck in her throat like a horse pill, I remember thinking.
Because I spent a childhood conditioned to accept pain as a woman’s fate, I thought that clots and vomit-inducing cramps were normal. But when I started using a menstrual cup several years ago, I couldn’t ignore that I had to empty the cup far more often than the 12 hours advertised on the package. If my heavy bleeding wasn’t normal, then what was a normal period supposed to feel like?
Naming the illness in my womb
My womb is not a rotten fruit. By definition, this statement is true -- but my doctor didn’t seem to get the memo. When I first sought medical advice about what I suspected could be endometriosis, the physician shrugged off my concerns. She said, “There’s not much point in trying to diagnose you. If you have endometriosis, your uterus has already gone rotten. Do you know what it looks like if you crack open an apple and see that a worm has burrowed through? With endometriosis, the bad tissue is like a hungry worm that keeps eating up your body.”
During my period, cramps make me feel too sick to eat; however, authors have long described the uterus as something to be eaten.1 Classic literature like Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God and Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market depict reproductive organs as pears or other juicy fruit. A woman’s worth and identity shouldn’t be limited to her ability (or disability) to reproduce. But according to these stereotypes, when a patient has a reproductive illness, her body is not a fertile harvest; It’s a wasteland.
These ideologies have also impacted how doctors have perceived women’s bodies. My doctor wasn’t the first person to compare a womb to food. In 1860, a German pathologist named Carl von Rokitansky identified abnormal irritation and inflammation in and around cadavers' uteruses.2 Over time, researchers noticed a pattern where some women with chronic menstrual pain also had cysts. When these growths rupture, they sometimes leak brown blood. They are nicknamed “chocolate cysts” because they may resemble melted chocolate chips. This naming seems cruelly ironic: a sweet title for a cyst that can cause such bitter pain.
Unfortunately, countless other menstruating people have also heard doctors discredit their pain and devalue their bodies as “rotten.” These biases are rooted in a long medical history.3 For hundreds of years, women with chronic pain, mental illness, and menstrual problems were misdiagnosed with hysteria. These conditions were often lumped together and discredited as “women’s disorders,” hence why hysteria was named after the Greek word for uterus, hystera. Hysteria remained in the DMS until 1980. But even still, these misunderstandings about women’s health cause detrimental health consequences. Many patients suffer from endometriosis for seven to ten years before they’re diagnosed.4 In the meantime, a patient’s pain may be discredited as normal menstrual cramps. But over that decade, the endometriosis gets worse. During every period, endometriosis irritates tissue. In time, this repeated inflammation causes scar tissue that can result in lasting damage to that woman’s uterus and intestines.
As I reflect on these stubborn generational gender biases, I think about women like my grandmother who spent years cursing Eve’s sinful appetite as a chronic illness ate through their bodies.
From silence to solidarity
After my first discouraging doctor’s visit, I called my grandmother to seek her advice. I explained how my cramps felt like jaws gnawing my thighs and my abdomen from the inside out. I was surprised when she said, “Is that a condition? I had those same problems when I was your age.” For decades, my grandmother struggled with endometriosis-type symptoms.
“When did you get better?” I asked. “When the periods eventually stopped after my menopause, I stopped hurting.”
When I asked my grandmother why she never sought treatment, she was quiet for a moment. She said, “I guess that I didn’t think that anybody would take me seriously. I convinced myself that nothing was really wrong.”
I learned about endometriosis when I began to listen to the people who had stopped choking down their valid medical concerns about their irregular and painful periods. Menstrual pain has passed down, silently, through the generations. But after I spoke with my grandmother about her undiagnosed complications, I swore to stop biting down my discomfort and instead bite back against period stigma. Period stigma encourages women to keep silent about their symptoms. This same silence feeds the cycle of endometriosis pain and misinformation. When I learned that my grandmother shared my symptoms, even though she was never formally diagnosed, I could take that information to my doctor to indicate a potential family history of the disease. These honest, intergenerational conversations about menstruation are revolutionary because we can subvert the burden that many women bear as they silently accept their pain.
If Eve eating a fruit supposedly cursed women to painful periods, we can reclaim this metaphor to find healing. When doctors haven’t taken women’s pain seriously, some women have turned to home remedies like herbs, roots, and fruits. Lemon, turmeric, and ginger have served as ancient anti-inflammatory treatments. Now, health advocates are studying endometriosis not as a result of women’s sin or a blight on our fertility, but as a chronic illness. While there’s currently no cure, we can prevent the disease from progressing. Women who are diagnosed and treated earlier have better health results and fewer complications. Birth control can stop periods and interrupt the monthly irritation that causes dangerous scar tissue. Patients who have advanced cases of endometriosis may undergo surgery to remove some of the damage.
While women like me may feel like we’re fighting an uphill battle, we no longer have to bite back our pain. By speaking out about our symptoms, we can encourage other people to fight against the medical misinformation that has consumed women’s healthcare for generations.
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