Behind the scenesHow the “In Sickness” series changed our work

Illustration by Panteha Abareshi

We all know someone with a chronic illness. Given that 117 million people in the United States live with one or more chronic illnesses, we’re more than likely encountering someone in our workplaces, our homes, and our everyday lives who is navigating the ins and outs of sickness and the pain that accompanies it. Chronic illnesses are especially pervasive among women, and thanks to medicine’s long history of paternalism and ambient sexism, doctors regularly dismiss or disbelieve women who suffer with unexplained pain.

“In Sickness” is a weeklong series about chronic illness—and what the misdiagnosis, disdain, and marginalizing of people with chronic illnesses reveals about our culture. 

The first time Bitch Media ran a story about women’s pain as a feminist issue was in the summer of 2005, just nine years after we’d started publishing Bitch magazine. The Truth & Consequences issue featured all kinds of critical analysis on the choices we make as individuals and how institutions interpret those choices, but the circumstances and analysis in Paula Kamen’s “Our Bodies, Our Hells: Why Isn’t Pain a Feminist Issue?” are as relevant now as they were 13 years ago. In fact, her work so endured that current editor-in-chief, Evette Dionne, chose to include Kamen’s piece in our 13-part series, In Sickness

As you likely know by now, In Sickness, published over the course of a week in early June, is an in-depth series about chronic illness—and what the misdiagnosis, disdain, and marginalizing of people with chronic illnesses reveals about our culture. We knew the series would be enormously important, but what we didn’t know was just how many readers would be so moved by our commitment to highlighting and hiring people with chronic illnesses. As of today, more than 30,000 people have read In Sickness, and thousands more have shared and connected with the series across social media. We’ve seen such critical engagement over the last five weeks—from those living with chronic illness to medical personnel wishing they were assigned this series in school—that we’re already thinking about how we’ll extend In Sickness beyond the bounds of digital media, and beyond the bounds of Bitch. 

There are all kinds of reasons why you haven’t come across a series confronting this topic before, and each and every one has to do with profitability. Diving deep into the intricacies and devastating impact of misogyny and racism in the medical industry isn’t exactly a money-maker. No corporate advertiser wants their product propping up work that tears down some of the biggest brands in the world. People ask all the time why financial independence is so important when it comes to producing feminist media, and the process by which we created and published the In Sickness series offers an extraordinary example. 

Today, we’re offering you a glimpse behind the scenes, into the minds and processes of the editors, art directors, and staff responsible for developing and publishing In Sickness. As a Bitch reader, we already know that you value thoughtful, nuanced, independent feminist analysis. Our work—this series included—is made possible by contributions from our members and subscribers. 

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From Our Editor-In-Chief

What makes publishing a digital series on women, pain, and chronic illness uniquely difficult?

Chronic illness is such an expansive topic. It includes invisible illnesses and mental illnesses, as well as illnesses that the common reader has never heard of, so deciding on the stories was the most difficult part of publishing this series. There are so many stories that are still untold, so limiting it to five new stories was a unique challenge. Digital series can be as big as you’d like them to, but they need a throughline and an overarching narrative. Doing that online is hard.

Why did you decide that now was the time to publish this series?

Bitch has never published a series in this fashion. While we’ve had past series, including Bani Amor’s essays about climate change and our series about fragility, we’ve never had one artist design a series that has its own landing page, and has been shared across one week. It was time for us to try something new and innovative. Also, the medical mistreatment of people with chronic illnesses is an issue that publishing is paying a lot of attention to right now. As Caroline Reilly highlights in her story, there have been four books released that deal directly with chronic illnesses. With such renewed interest on this issue, it made sense to shine a light on something that’s impacting so many people.

How has your approach to this work changed since publishing In Sickness?

As we said in the intro to the series, our focus on chronic illnesses isn’t ending just because the series has. We are still seeking writers who have chronic illnesses, whether or not they want to write about their specific experiences. We want to give people with chronic illnesses the space to write about anything that piques their interest.

From Our Art Directors

What did you learn about our industry when curating or assigning artwork for this series? 

Honestly, we had prepared for the fact that our industry’s sometimes tight deadlines would be an automatic no-go when hiring folks with chronic illness. But we realized that was a totally false pre-conceived notion that must be dismissed. Just because someone has chronic illness doesn’t mean they will be less flexible or less game to tackle a project, in fact we would argue the opposite is true. Working smarter, faster, better, in spite of whatever’s going on. That and also media is such a fast-paced industry, which we love, but sometimes we wish we could all just chill like 10 percent.

How has your approach to the work changed since publishing series?

In the mix of all the perspectives of artists and photographers that we work with, it’s more important than ever that we solicit work from people with chronic illnesses regularly. Which isn’t something we were as focused on before. With the 400+ and counting submissions for the In Sickness project, we have an excellent pool to start from. We also want to offer a heartfelt thank you to everyone who offered up such incredibly moving insights into their lives, stories, and work. Each and every individual made an impact on us and it’s been an honor to receive that.

Just because someone has chronic illness doesn’t mean they will be less flexible or less game to tackle a project. We would argue the opposite is true.

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From Our Director of Community

Bitch first connected with Panteha Abareshi, who illustrated In Sickness, through an open call on social media seeking illustrators and designers living with chronic illness. Our call was fairly casual and meant for one specific, relatively narrow project. We figured we’d get a few names, a couple of portfolios.

We were so wrong: We got more than 400 submissions. And we learned a few things in the process:

Open calls do not replace research and labor. If you haven’t cultivated relationships with a particular community and now need someone from that community, Twitter is not a personal recruiter. Do the work first. Then use social media to amplify.

Consider turnaround time. Sure, there are time-sensitive articles and breaking news stories that need to be addressed and published within 24 hours. But if you’re looking to cultivate relationships with creatives from a marginalized community, imposing the same rules that have kept them out will only continue to keep them out. Our original call specified a one-week deadline for submissions; folks who live and work with chronic illness let us know right away that they would need more time to submit. We dropped the deadline. Thanks to those who spoke up, the open call is now a standing invitation to pitch to Bitch, on any topic, for any project, year-round.

When you get a lot more responses than you expected? Check your ego: Chances are it’s not about how popular your outlet is. An outsized response to an open call usually means there’s a gap in opportunities across the board. What are you doing to help fill that gap outside of the one assignment you set up the open call for?

Everything we’ve presented here isn’t—or shouldn’t be—news. But we have to name and interrogate damaging and unspoken practices that our industry—and at times, we ourselves—perpetuate. When it comes to developing a pitch process that works for creatives from all backgrounds, we’ve learned our lesson. And we’ll keep learning.

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