Book Review: Invisible

invisibleInvisible: How Young Women With Serious Health Issues Navigate Work, Relationships, and the Pressure to Seem Just Fine
by Michele Lent Hirsch
Nonfiction – Health
230 pages
Published February 2018

I’ve been reading a lot of fiction lately, so it’s about time to sprinkle in a nonfiction volume! As soon as I learned this book existed, I knew I needed to get my hands on it. I’ve been living with two autoimmune disease most of my adult life, and in the past three or four years their impact on my life has grown quite a lot. I struggle with fatigue, with my weight, with muscle pain, with migraines, with intestinal issues if I eat the wrong thing. Some days it’s just hard to function like a normal person when my brain is full of fog and every movement hurts. So this book? This is my life.

The author of this book did a LOT of research. She’s not only disabled herself, but she interviewed SO MANY PEOPLE, with all kinds of different disabilities, diseases, and experiences. Mostly patients, but she also interviewed a few doctors.

The book is divided into six chapters: “Could Someone Love This Body of Mine,” “The (Foggy) Glass Ceiling and the Wall,” “It’s Cool Guys I’m Totally Fine,” “Why Don’t They Believe Me? or the Case of the Lady Lab Rat,” “To Raise Small Humans – Or Not,” and “Sick Like Miss America.” I really enjoyed her divisions here. The first chapter is about romantic relationships, the second about work, the third about friendships. “Why Don’t They Believe Me” covers women’s relationships with their doctors, the next chapter is obviously about fertility and parenting, and the last chapter is about society’s expectations of beauty and how to be sick.

“Could Someone Love This Body of Mine” touched on some of my personal insecurities, as one of my autoimmune diseases leaves pretty ugly scar tissue on my skin. It talks about how men tend to leave women with disabilities or chronic illness, but women don’t. (The book has extensive footnotes detailing sources and studies to back up claims like this one.)

I think the only chapter in this book that I didn’t really directly relate to was about raising children. I was child-free before being diagnosed, and it hasn’t changed my mind. We don’t want kids.

If you or someone you know has a chronic illness, I’d recommend reading this book. There’s valuable information and insight here, even if all you get out of it is “I’m not alone in this!”

Now I’m off to take a nap.

From the cover of Invisible:

Though young women with serious illness tend to be seen as outliers, young female patients are in fact the primary demographic for many illnesses. They are also one of the most ignored groups in our medical system—a system where young women, especially women of color and trans women, are invisible.

Michele Lent Hirsch knew she couldn’t be the only woman who’s faced serious health issues at a young age, as well as the resulting effects on her career, her relationships, and her sense of self. What she found while researching Invisible was a surprisingly large and overlooked population with important stories to tell. Miriam’s doctor didn’t believe she had breast cancer; she did. Sophie navigates being the only black scientist in her lab while studying the very disease, HIV, that she hides from her coworkers. For Victoria, coming out as a transgender woman was less difficult than coming out as bipolar. 

And because of expectations about gender and age, young women with health issues must often deal with bias in their careers and personal lives. Not only do they feel pressured to seem perfect and youthful, they also find themselves amid labyrinthine obstacles in a culture that has one narrow idea of womanhood.

Lent Hirsch weaves her own harrowing experiences together with stories from other women, perspectives from sociologists on structural inequality, and insights from neuroscientists on misogyny in health research. She shows how health issues and disabilities amplify what women in general already confront: warped beauty standards, workplace sexism, worries about romantic partners, and mistrust of their own bodies. By shining a light on this hidden demographic, Lent Hirsch explores the challenges that all women face.

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