photo: Reuters

Lena Dunham was criticized online earlier this week for canceling a book signing at an indie bookstore in Los Angeles after falling ill. Rather than just brush off the (needless) hate, though, she used it as an opportunity to point out a major way women are prone to hurting each other professionally. And it's scarily accurate.

Dunham tweeted her apologies for having to cancel the Small Business Saturday book signing. But to one fan, at least, that wasn't going to cut it.

Dunham had planned to sign copies of her bestselling memoir, "Not That Kind of Girl," as a guest author at the event.

A woman, whose name Dunham blurred out, criticized the "Girls" creator on Twitter for calling out sick, implying that it was a weak move. And Dunham had none of it.

A photo posted by Lena Dunham (@lenadunham) on

In the caption Dunham shared to her Instagram page, she pointed out what exactly was wrong with the woman's shaming message. 

"At first it made me laugh a lot — like, oh, I'm sorry, I left your award in the car," she wrote. "But then I really contemplated how dark it is that our culture prizes these speedy recovery narratives, because guess what? They're actually ways to keep women from feeling fucking pissed that they don't have proper maternity leave or medical and family care resources."

She added that while we "may not have an imminent policy change" in the works, we can still "change the way we talk about this stuff, and treat childbirth (or fatherhood! Or illness!) as the serious and personal journeys they are."

Dunham's clap back speaks to a painful truth about the pressures and expectations working women often put on each other. And in the end, it hurts all of us.

A photo posted by Lena Dunham (@lenadunham) on

Women are not only forbidding themselves to be sick and/or focus energy on self-care — they're also preventing other women from doing the same. And the problem is two-fold.

On the one hand, as a national culture, Americans have a major problem with overworking themselves, as well as an inherent fear of perceived weakness, something that's been proven in countless studies. As a professor of social work at Florida Atlantic University, LeaAnne DeRigne, summarized, "No one's allowed to be sick. Sickness is weakness." 

And as that relates to the workplace, DeRigne continued, the attitude is "'I'm irreplaceable — if I don't show up, my job won't get done.' Some of it is also concern about how you are viewed as an employee — whether you can be counted on or not. Whether by having too many sick days, too many absences, you are not seen as reliable."

It's largely for that reason that Americans refuse to take time off, even when they're sick. According to one national survey taken by the public health agency NSF in 2014, more than a quarter of workers said they always still go to work when they're sick. The craziest part? Those sick workers are actually perceived positively by the significant majority of their peers. According to the same survey, a whopping 67 percent of respondents said they viewed coworkers willingness to come in sick as proof of how hard working they were. 

And while this expectation to "power through" negatively affects all genders, there may be an added element of internalized misogyny causing women to especially hold their female coworkers to it.  

Women shaming their women colleagues for perceived weakness is a classic example of textbook tokenism. Historically, it's no secret that women, propelled by internalized misogyny and a socially learned trait of viewing other women as competition, have often become each other's worst critics. 

When a woman exhibits what's understood to be "weakness" in this country by calling out sick, other women (like Dunham's criticizer) may shame her out of a desire to separate themselves from being grouped into that perceived weakness — i.e. "She might not be able to handle a little illness, but I can take on that and more." This can cause women to stifle illnesses or issues they're working through — be it physical, mental, or emotional — for the sake of being spared that judgement, and out of a desire to always appear strong. And, as a life approach, it's totally unsustainable.

What that line of thinking contributes to is the idea that women must always "power through" and work — no matter what.

photo: Getty

Recall the media frenzy that occurred when Hillary Clinton, after pushing herself tirelessly on the campaign trail, was finally forced to leave a September 11th event early due to illness. She was soon after diagnosed with pneumonia, adding fodder to the public's field day asserting that her "poor health" disqualified her as a viable presidential candidate. Donald Trump capitalized on the opportunity to question Clinton's "stamina," while her defenders took the approach of claiming that of course Clinton had continued to work while sick — she is, after all, a woman, as one headline put it.

But there's a serious problem with both of these approaches — the first, claiming she worked while ill because she's weak, and the other claiming she worked while ill because she's strong. She became ill because she's a human being, and unfortunately these flesh sacks we were born with aren't infallible. As women, it's time we stopped furthering the idea that powering through illness is a sign of strength, because self care is not weakness. 

In truth, it's like Audre Lorde said: "(Self care) is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare." And we should be supporting not only ourselves in that right to self-preservation, but our female coworkers, too.