Glamour Shots#HospitalGlam Pulls Back the Curtain on Disability and Beauty

Self-Portraits by Karolyn Gehrig

This article was published in Glamour Issue #84 | Fall 2019

Doctor’s offices and hospital rooms aren’t the first locations that come to mind when we think about “glamour.” After all, glamour is often associated with both beauty and health, and there has long been a disconnect between these concepts and medical offices, ongoing treatment, and disability. Los Angeles–based artist Karolyn Gehrig is working to change the relationship between glamour and disability through her hashtag #HospitalGlam. In 2014, as Gehrig navigated a downturn in her health—as well as Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a genetic disorder that targets connective tissue—she began taking striking photos of herself during medical appointments. Gehrig uses her phone’s camera, carefully chosen outfits, items found in the medical space, and poses influenced by fashion photography to capture unglamorous moments.

By providing a way for people with disabilities and chronic illnesses to represent themselves within what Gehrig terms “an often alienating medical environment,” #HospitalGlam encourages chronically ill and disabled people to reclaim a photographic gaze that has often been used against us. Any person with a chronic illness or disability can contribute to #HospitalGlam, as long as they abide by the rules that Gehrig has created for the project. For instance, the photo must show the person in a clinical environment—a doctor’s office or medical office—not in the bathroom or in the car on the way to an appointment. #HospitalGlam has become a rallying cry over the past five years as other chronically ill and disabled people have used the hashtag to share their own images. Currently, there are more than 8,000 posts on Instagram that use the hashtag. I spoke with Gehrig about how #HospitalGlam takes glamour in a much-needed direction.

Why did you create #HospitalGlam?

It’s hard to point to one thing, aside from getting sicker and knowing I’d be in the hospital more. My diagnoses were complicated, and it was extraordinarily difficult to assemble a team of doctors to work on these issues. I was aware, due to my Ehlers-Danlos syndrome diagnosis 11 years prior, that as a white femme my experiences would be influenced by my appearance. I was heading into my new challenge with a considerable amount of privilege. Selfies began flourishing online [around 2014]. I’d lost my studio, and I was watching many disability-rights activists die. It felt like every death was sending [the disability-rights community] backward, and we had to fight harder to regain ground. I created the #HospitalGlam project because I didn’t know if my health was going to stabilize, and I wanted to make something with a specific set of rules that could act as a springboard for other projects.

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You’ve said that #HospitalGlam uses “the conventions of fashion photography” to reclaim the medical treatment space. When did you become interested in fashion photography, and what’s been the biggest challenge in putting the two together?

Fashion has a fascination with medicine, so it [has] never felt like a stretch. #HospitalGlam refers to both healthcare’s status as a luxury good, and the way traditional poses of illness are used to sell health and beauty back to us. Reclining bodies, models hunched forward with limp arms, slicked hair, and physicality that mimics disease—these images both distort the image [of] disability and give both doctors and patients an idea of what they should look for in a patient, while the patient is stuck in a feedback loop of media images. When I had a health complication at the beginning of 2014, I lost weight and my physicality was closer to a conventional ideal. I thought I might lose my hair as well, so I bleached it blond to skew even closer.

The biggest challenge is getting a shot with lighting [in the exam room] in under two minutes without referring to a screen between frames. Influencers use external lighting setups, outside photographers, and check their shots. People think my shots take a long time to set up or [that they] interrupt procedures, but my focus is on my care. The photographs are done very quickly. Once I put the phone down, I don’t look at it again and use the rest of that time to focus on my body and the space around me. I use a silent repeating timer on a phone [to take the photos]. It’s all very difficult to pull off from a technical standpoint, which is why it’s so cool when people participate. A social-media researcher came to a gynecologist appointment with me without having read up on the project in advance, and she said she was amazed at the flow and control I had over the entire room, including the nurses, once the [camera] timer began. She said she came from a medical family and had never seen anything like it. It really works.

Working with my body under such limited constraints forces me to focus on what is happening in the space around me, and gives me an ownership of the frame. I don’t have time to check the images before my doctors come in; they’re entering my workspace, and we start working on the shared task of my health. If it’s a procedure or some other testing, I think of the images as simultaneous imaging of my body or an autopathography. Taking photos is always a lower priority than what’s happening in the doctor’s office. In procedures, I often photograph the process of medical imaging. Creating this alternate record supplements my medical history in an intimate way that gives me agency.

Karolyn Gehrig, the creator of #HospitalGlam (Photo credit: Karolyn Gehrig)

Can you talk about your life with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome? How that has influenced your art?

I had a hard time getting what I needed and developing relationships with doctors; I felt like I needed to look sicker for my appointments. I wore clothes I hated to appointments and I felt like I was lying. The anxiety involved in misrepresenting yourself to try to be seen is not helpful in getting doctors to understand what is happening. When I began dressing like myself for appointments and started being very honest about my body, my care improved drastically. #HospitalGlam was born in part out of needing to make work without [having] access to a traditional studio. I used to make abstract drawings and installations with faulty genetic structures, water patterns, paintings, and monoprints when my dexterity allowed. My subluxations have progressed to a point where creating something with my hands [feels like] a learning process. I can’t rule out other physical mediums; discovery and practice are where a lot of the joy in making anything reside. You can’t really stop being an artist.

What is your favorite image that you’ve taken?

My favorites tend to be the accidental ones where I am caught in a small motion that looks bigger and more grandiose. The timer once caught a frame of me putting on the paper gown in a gynecologist’s office that rendered it as a sculptural object, playing off the shapes in the curtain hanging in the room. I was not doing well; I wasn’t wearing a lot of makeup and I hadn’t brushed my hair that day. The only posing effort was trying to avoid an accidental nude. It’s a reminder that you can make a compelling image without contorting yourself into the confines of conventional beauty. Other favorites include when I flipped my hair in my neuro’s office and it looked like that of a ballet dancer and when I struggled to take my jacket off while on a medical bed and somehow got caught in a classical pose.

Have there been any responses to the project that you have found particularly interesting or challenging? Have you received any pushback?

When it first went viral, I compiled every comment or response that hit me in a funny way in a Microsoft Word doc. I then separated them into categories: [this response] reinforces the need for the project, reinforces the thesis of the project, wishes I looked different. Then I focused on supporting other people participating in the project and looking for ways to push their projects forward. That was much more rewarding.

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How has the communal aspect of #HospitalGlam influenced the project? How has the community response influenced your artistic process?

A year after I was diagnosed [with Ehlers-Danlos], Christine Miserandino wrote “The Spoon Theory.” In the years since, I’ve watched the Spoonie community develop, evolve, and become commodified by people outside the community. When I started #HospitalGlam, I was conscious of the way Spoonie had become a catch-all for invisible illnesses, and issued a clear set of boundaries for the project, so #HospitalGlam would not be an all-purpose label or spiral into a tag for anytime someone felt attractive. I also trademarked the hashtag to stop people from using it to capitalize on patient labor. In art school, we went through freshman foundation. Part of that included these intensely restrictive legacy projects that teachers issued for years with the same instructions, never getting the same solution. The #HospitalGlam process is structured similarly. If the project is restrictive enough, people will create more projects and tags to boost visibility and move toward depicting our lives in a more complete way. There is always room for more of us.

Could you talk more about how people outside of the chronic illness and disability justice movement(s) have co-opted patient identities and labor, and some of the consequences of that co-optation?

People have used patient-generated ideas and material to market pharmaceuticals and basic consumer goods, but what really stuck with me was the way #CripplePunk was separated from its very defined values, adopted as an aesthetic, and then used to market products. At the same time, Tai—the very young disabled trans activist and creator who helmed the #CripplePunk community—struggled physically, financially, and emotionally. When disabled people are working to create things for the rest of our community, that labor should not financially benefit people who haven’t contributed to the health and growth of those projects. I have no problem telling people who don’t participate in #HospitalGlam that they can’t sell or promote goods using the tag, which mocks capitalist desire.

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Portrait of Karolyn Gehrig lying on an exam table with her blonde ponytail vertical splayed underneath her head

Karolyn Gehrig (Photo credit: Courtesy of Karolyn Gehrig)

How has this project shifted your thoughts about disability and media representation?

I started #HospitalGlam in 2014, the same year Alice Wong started the Disability Visibility Project and Tai—who died in 2017—created #CripplePunk. Since then, we’ve had a lot of appearance-focused hashtags, such as #UpAndDressed, #ChronicallyFabulous, #DisabodyPosi, #DisabledAndCute, and #DisabledPeopleAreHot. The social-media landscape has changed, and while disabled people are not as prevalent in traditional media as we should be, we’ve made some gains. There are a few TV shows written by and starring disabled people [and] visibly disabled people are also starting to appear in major marketing campaigns. The more we’re seen and [the more] our work is read, the more nondisabled people understand our lives are well worth representation.

How are people with chronic illnesses and diseases left out of conversations about glamour?

The greatest illusion is that we are left out. Sick and disabled people are responsible for our conceptions of glamour. We work ourselves to the bone, and then erase what we’ve gone through to get there. Nobody wants to be a supercrip. Everybody wants to be David Bowie or Prince. The removal of illness from their bios is itself a glamour.

How do you define “glamour” for yourself and other people with disabilities or chronic illness? What does it look like?

Glamour is an illusion for everybody. For people with disabilities and chronic illnesses, the glamour is that we have not achieved anything extraordinary through our continued existence.

Glamour is an illusion for everybody. For people with disabilities and chronic illnesses, the glamour is that we have not achieved anything extraordinary through our continued existence.

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Does #HospitalGlam aim to remove the shame that’s often associated with spending so much time in the hospital or in medical environments?

It questions why that shame exists in the first place, [especially] when we’re participating in our lives in an active way [that’s similar] to [how] other active people are involved with their bodies.

How has your relationship to fashion and glamour changed in the years since you launched #HospitalGlam?

I enjoy the fashion industry as an outsider and use garments as survival mechanisms. New tactics for this arise and become obsolete as soon as I make them known, so I’m going to hold onto my secrets while I can.

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Karolyn Gehrig standing in an exam room in with a pink paper exam robe unfurling in front of her

Karolyn Gehrig (Photo credit: Karolyn Gehrig)

When I first saw your #HospitalGlam images in 2014, I was immediately struck that your project really flips the script on/subverts art historian John Berger’s assertion (from Ways of Seeing) that “men act and women appear” in classical art. It’s clear that you and other #HospitalGlam participants are taking action by claiming and working in various medical spaces. Can you expand on how photography has been used against people with disabilities, and why subversion of that history is important?

I think about action and passivity in clinical images when I see needle-in-arm point-of-view shots, which are specifically excluded from the project. Those are usually taken surreptitiously, as though to reify the trauma of the experience for both the patient and the viewer. Raising an arm and photographing oneself instead is an action that asserts ownership over that space. By photographing ourselves, working as patients, we are the subjects of our own gaze. This viewpoint is not easily won by disabled people, as our points of view are co-opted and rewritten by nondisabled viewers who wish us to have a different set of experiences and emotions—closer to those that they can imagine.

As disabled people and activists, what can we do to subvert the images of disability that have been created and forwarded by abled people?

We can make and disseminate our own images as well as boost the work of other disabled people.

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by Anna Hamilton
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Anna Hamilton is a writer who has contributed articles, cartoons, and more to publications such as Teen Vogue, Bitch, The Daily Dot, Rooted in Rights, and Shondaland. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her partner, and Noodle, their supremely spoiled Yorkshire Terrier. You can visit her website at http://annaham.net, or follow her on Twitter at @annaham360