It is no secret that throughout history, women’s voices have been systemically silenced and disregarded in all corners of society. While marginalized muting is unacceptable across the board, one of its most palpable manifestations courses through the field of medicine, where the beliefs and observations of men dominate the lived experience of women. Even in the centuries following formal medicalization, the legacy of gendered specialization persists as an internalized force in hospitals, clinics and doctors’ offices the world over.
Catalyzed by her frustration with biased medical conduct, Dublin-based artist Róisín White started researching the history of women’s mistreatment and misdiagnosis. Her resulting project, Lay Her Down Upon Her Back, is a mixed-media exploration of the Rest Cure: a nineteenth-century treatment prescribed to women to remedy a range of gender-specific ‘problems’, including depression and ‘nervousness’. The Cure required the isolation of women for up to six months—in bed, without stimulus or company, accompanied by a force-fed high fat diet. In order to make this forgotten history tangible, White explores its many facets through intensive research, her personal collection of found photographs, and contemporary prints that embody her own visceral analysis of the treatment.
In this interview for LensCulture, White speaks about her research and collecting processes, why she incorporates her own contemporary work with archival photographs, and the emotional impact of immersing herself in such a taxing topic.
LensCulture: You work with a lot of different mediums, but when did you realize photography could be an important extension of the internal things you want to express? Was it something you always felt connected to?
Róisín White: My connection with photography feels like it’s been endless. Both of my parents are photographers, so I grew up around cameras, photographs and wonderful photobooks. My dad lectured in photography until recently retiring, and that’s actually how he met my Mum, so there’s a strong tradition of the medium within our family.
But it wasn’t something I wanted to pursue directly until I was about 17 years old. I was hell-bent on doing fine art—painting and collage work—and then something switched in me. I went to university and did my degree focusing on photography. Both of my parents have very mixed practices as well, but photography is the root for all three of us.
LC: That actually explains a lot when it comes to your work. It’s so fluid, like a language rather than a static project. In addition to combining contemporary mediums, you also work with a lot of archival materials. How did your interest in the ephemeral, tactile qualities of photographs and history begin?
RW: I think it was always there. My parents are both the keepers of the family archive of photographs for both sides of our family. We have rooms full of boxes of photographs, so I’ve always been intrigued by the family album. But I’ve also always collected scraps, little bits of paper, or interesting things that I find on the street. I used to live around the corner from an embassy, and I would find passport photos on the ground all the time. They would be soaking wet, and I kept them and dried them out. I wouldn’t do anything in particular with them—I was just happy that I had them. When I was a teenager, I used to do a ton of work with collage, so that step into using found photography just came naturally to me.
LC: How do you think your work in other mediums affects how you make photographs?
RW: Drawing has been the constant in my life since I was able to hold a pencil, and photography came later, so I’ve always tried to make them overlap. Now that I work in sculpture as well, I’m trying to navigate how I can bring them together without it being something as superficial as a photograph on a sculpture. But trying to work out these relationships is what I find exciting about my practice.
LC: Lay Her Down Upon Her Back has so many different components, but I want to start at the beginning. How did you hear about the Rest Cure, and how did you decide that you wanted to create a project about it?
RW: It was a really important moment for me in my practice, because after university you end up being quite isolated, not sharing your research or your projects because you don’t have that peer group anymore. I was abstractly working on this project about the expectation of women to be submissive, and how when we talk about pain or illness we are expected to just ‘grin and bear it’, lay down or ‘take to bed’—that traditional language and misinterpretation of how women’s bodies work.
So I was having coffee with my cousin, telling him about this research, and he immediately said, “Oh, like The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.” I hadn’t heard of the story before that point, which is about a woman who is given the Rest Cure, and the madness that may or may not have been caused by that treatment. That conversation opened the door to the dark history of the medical mistreatment of women and the man who invented this alleged cure, and I was able to find one of his first edition texts on how to administer the cure on eBay. It was really fascinating once I worked out what it was.
LC: I think people forget that heavy research into terrible things starts to affect your everyday life in a pretty significant way. How did researching and immersing yourself in this history affect you on a personal level? What emotions bubbled to the surface? Did they change over time?
RW: Definitely. It brought up a lot of anger and frustration that this treatment was used so heavily for about 45 years. Sure, it was discredited in the 1930s, but it still has a legacy. I made this work between 2017 and 2018, and in Ireland at the time, there was a very powerful grassroots movement to legalize abortion services in the country. There were strong women and allies working creatively to change hearts and minds across the country about legal access to these services, because they were illegal and a criminal offence up until the summer of 2018.
So, across Ireland, this rumbling anger was a constant presence, in parallel to all of this research. And while I never meant for this work to be a tool for protest or part of that campaign, those feelings of anger and frustration were constantly there. Thinking about the historical aspect of this research was almost a distraction from what was happening in the day-to-day.
LC: There’s something empowering about collecting all this ephemera and research—like the first edition book you mentioned—and reclaiming that information to exist within a critical context. This terrible thing did happen, but you’re bringing these pieces together and uprooting them from their singular existence as hard scientific or reference records. Tell me more about the found photographs, and how these work together with the contemporary ones you made yourself.
RW: I have always collected photographs, but one of my main collections is made up of medical textbooks. I had a big bank of photographs of women in medical situations, which acted as my jump-off point for this work. I knew I had them, and when I looked at them, they served as inspiration. In my own photographs, I wanted to focus on the routines of the diagnosed women—the different things that they were expected to do, and the positions they were expected to conform to. I wanted to embody that feeling of being in an impossible situation.
LC: What sorts of impossible situations?
RW: I researched the reasons behind why women were given this treatment, and often their husbands would send them in for examination—anything from a change in their personality, or a claim that they were being hysterical, or even because they couldn’t get pregnant. I also discovered that, for middle class women, it was fashionable to have this treatment, which is a really strange, warped way of thinking—the idea that this was a great thing to happen to you.
LC: Internalized misogyny is present in all people, not just men.
RW: Exactly. Then I started researching some of the objects, learning about the history of the speculum examination device, which was designed 120 years ago and still hasn’t changed. While women have made the case that it’s uncomfortable despite its functionality, and while many medical device students have designed instruments that are more comfortable for the woman, no hospital wants to be the one to make the big bulk order to change over to a new device. So women just continue to have these uncomfortable instruments used on them, even today.
LC: One of my closest friends has endometriosis, and it went undiagnosed for twelve years, until finally someone recognized it and suggested surgery. It was supposed to be a mild recovery, but when the team operated, they realized she had so much scar tissue built up in her body that her organs were literally fused together. This was happening inside her body for over a decade, all while she was being patted on the head and told to take some Advil.
RW: Imagine if, even eight years ago, someone had said, “Oh, why don’t we listen and have a look.”
LC: It’s horrifying. I think what people also don’t understand is the rehabilitation that’s required afterwards for the perception of pain in these women. You actually need to recalibrate how you process pain within your own body, because you’re constantly being told it’s minor even though it’s debilitating. You internalize the gaslighting in a way that truly affects your biology.
RW: Exactly. And that impossible feeling directly ties into the Rest Cure, the misunderstanding and misinterpretation of how women’s bodies work, and how male doctors perceive female pain. That misunderstanding lasts so much longer than the actual Rest Cure did. In the UK, the average time for a diagnosis of endometriosis is about seven years. People are living with excruciating pain for an average of seven years, and doctors just look at them and say, “Oh no, it’s just period cramps. Take some Nurofen, you’ll be fine.” Those are the feelings that I tried to bring to the work that I was making—these impossible situations that women find themselves in, where the only option is the status quo, even if it’s extremely uncomfortable.
LC: Who is the subject used to portray this discomfort in your contemporary photographs, and why was it important for you to make this decision?
RW: In all of the contemporary works, the subject is me. I don’t want to call them self-portraits because they’re not about me—I’m just the useful body in the room. By using myself in the photographs, I feel more comfortable about the work because I am not asking another woman to put themselves in a position that they might not feel comfortable with. I know what my limits are, and I know what I am happy to share.
LC: And who are the subjects in the archival photographs?
RW: None of them are family photographs—they were all found. I can project situations on them and make my own assumptions. I can’t make up stories, but I can make up a past for the people who are in the images. But this does make me feel uncomfortable, so when I use the photographs to imply a heavy narrative, I often do something to obscure the face of the subject.
A lot of the photographs are over 100 years old, but they still depict a real person, and it’s important to remember that. If I am using a photographic print, I preserve the real one, and if I am going to work in collage or with ink, I make reproductions and work on those, because even though I am sure nobody is going to come up to me and go, “Oh, can I have a copy of this? That is my grandmother in that photograph,” there is still a part of me that thinks about these objects as the last prints of a family. They are something I should keep safe, even though I am doing my own thing with them.
LC: I definitely understand that—it’s something I think about constantly with contemporary artists who use archives. Tell me, when you present this work, how do you incorporate all the different elements? What does it look like in an exhibition setting?
RW: I always describe an exhibition as an extension of my research notebooks. It’s predominantly photography—my own photographs as well as the found objects I cull from old medical textbooks, flea markets, eBay, or literally find on the street—but there are also drawings. Some of them are quite small, and some of them are large-scale murals I draw on the wall—very free drawings. I see them as my body’s response to the work, exploring the female form, but definitely not as a realistic rendering of the body.
The other major element is wallpaper. I managed to rescue loads of really wild floral wallpaper from our old house when we moved, and I also bought a lot of wallpaper samples while researching the project, because The Yellow Wallpaper was so important for the research. I also learned that huge numbers of people were driven to madness because people in the UK were using arsenic in their wallpaper pigments to make the colors brighter. And this was a time when people didn’t have well-ventilated homes; they wanted to keep the heat in, so they kept the doors closed. So it slowly poisoned the people who were living with this incredibly ornate wallpaper.
Even though The Yellow Wallpaper was written on the other side of the Atlantic, in the UK, people were also being driven mad by wallpaper. For me, it’s another tactile layer to the project, and I always try to use real wallpaper when I install the work. All of the collage works are also done by hand, as well as the ink in some of the photographs—I don’t do anything in Photoshop. For me, doing it by hand is really important, and wallpaper has such a nostalgic attachment to it. We can all remember touching the textured wallpaper in our grandparents’ house or somewhere similar, going up the stairs and running our fingers along its bumpy surface.
LC: Throughout this entire process of researching and expanding your own knowledge and understanding of this very disturbing topic, what is one of the things that stays with you the most? Was there something you read or came across that continues to come up in flashes?
RW: In a book I read on how to implement the Rest Cure, the author wrote about how other doctors need to be very strict with their patients. He talked about the temperament of the doctor around the women, and how this was crucial for the success of the treatment. It wasn’t a duty of care, and it wasn’t a sympathetic voice at the side of the bed; it was more: You need to be strict with these women because they are trying to play you. You need to make sure that the family nurse is not involved with the care, because she will be too soft with them. That really horrified me. It was such an aggressive way to speak about something that was supposed to help people.
LC: It was perceived to be so important that he had to sit down and write out a guide for how to speak with them.
RW: Yeah, and he even said strange things like: “Women spoil their nervous system like they spoil their children.” It’s this transparent, utter distaste for women—he really didn’t trust them. The fact that he said the treatment wouldn’t work unless you were strict and the woman was isolated with absolutely no stimulants—not even reading—is jarring. You couldn’t even roll over. You had to wait until it was your scheduled roll-over time and someone would roll you over for you.
LC: Moving forward, what do you hope your audience takes away from this work?
RW: I like making the audience work a little bit, so they have to interact with it to understand everything. While this is a piece of history that has been discredited, and isn’t a part of our current medical practice, it’s really about mistrusting women’s pain and not listening to our complaints when they are said so clearly. I want to make that issue a point of discussion, and I would love if these habits could change. I think this project can be the starting point for a lot of those conversations.
We spoke about the diagnosis time for endometriosis being tragically slow, and the book Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez just came out a few weeks ago. It talks about how across almost every industry, sex-specific data is not being collected. Men are still the default in medical research when we know that women’s bodies are very different. I would like it if this project could spark more of those conversations about women’s bodies being different and worthy of attention.