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One Year Later, A Different Vagina Dialogue

July 15, 2009

Hey, friends. Today I’m going to do something a little unusual.

Over a year ago, on another blog, I wrote a piece about my transforming body. A number of people responded to it in heartwarming and wonderful ways, for which I’m still very grateful. In the many months since then, far more than I’ve thought about my particular physical change, I’ve often thought about the way I immediately accepted its arrival.

At the time, I recognized this acceptance as so extraordinary, so unexpected, and so profoundly bad-ass that it could not have come from just “me.” I, alone, was not strong enough to understand such an event so deeply and so quickly. My insight, as I said, owed itself to many teachers and inspirations in trans and feminist communities.

Now, though, there’s a new angle. Looking back on what I wrote, in addition to transfeminism I recognize another perspective: a budding consciousness of dhamma — the teaching of the Buddha. Nothing is permanent. Everything changes. So it’s best to accept the change, and learn to let go of the appearance of things. Learn directly.

This is probably one of the most powerful examples, in my own life experience, of the practical benefits of dhammic wisdom. In Pali, bhavanamayapanya — the wisdom gained by one’s own direct experience. Not because I heard it; not because I puzzled it out; but because, at the level of the body, I felt it. And it helped me.

So here, re-posted, is the piece I wrote. Offered in hopes that it might continue to help! And offered with thanks to more teachers, probably, than I even remember.

* * * * *

Trans Feminism And My Vagina: A Love Story

Today at 1pm, the hearing for HB1722, “An Act Relative to Gender-Based Discrimination and Hate Crimes,” is going down at the State House. As always, Quench is on top of it. The following is a highly untheoretical, personal expression of tremendous, joyous gratitude to everyone who struggles against transphobia. Oversharing for a greater purpose, you might call it.

Reclining, legs stiffly spread, during my routine Pap test a couple of months previous, the nurse had neared the end of her business, and I’d asked, with as much nonchalance as one can muster in such a position, whether she’d happened to notice that thing in there…kind of like a swelling?

Trundling out of UHS into another icy December afternoon, I couldn’t remember the medical term she used. Just that it sounded a lot like “cyst.”

And now here I was, back at my laptop, staring at the blank white Google Search box. What did she call it? I knew “cyst” was off — it wasn’t going to help my search. Instead, hesitantly, I typed in a few related words: “bulging bladder vagina.”

Bingo.

It was called a “cystocele.” “SIST-oh-seal.” Despite its ominous first syllable, the name as a whole sounded kind of silly. Fun to say aloud.

After an hour’s worth of Googling images, articles, and discussion forums, though, I had become much better acquainted with my cystocele, and its quirky charm faded. The picture was rather grim, in fact. A type of vaginal prolapse, a cystocele is the result of a failing in the pelvic floor muscles that usually support the bladder. If they tear, weaken, or give way, gravity takes over and the bladder slips down, down, down and out. Mild cystoceles may go undetected; moderate ones peek out of the vaginal opening, and severe prolapses protrude significantly outside the vagina. The eighteenth-century medical sketch, above, depicts a headless, legless, yet sexualized female torso with something resembling a large water balloon dangling between her zaftig thighs.

Cystoceles, I learned, are amenable to only a few kinds of treatment. The most low-key involves contracting the pelvic floor muscles: a practice I learned through yoga, but which is better known in the U.S. as Kegel exercises. (As one yoga instructor at the MAC jokes, once Americans learn it’s good for sex, they’re all over it. Props, Cosmo.) On the equipment side, there’s a device called a pessary, sort of like a diaphragm, that can boost things into place. Finally, of course, there’s a surgical option. As far as I gathered, they use tissue to construct a kind of sturdy shelf that supports the bladder. I think I saw the word “amputation” in there somewhere, but I skipped over that part, assuming it applied to the advanced condition represented in the burlesque drawing.

The more I read, the stranger my situation seemed. Generally speaking, there appear to be two main causes of cystoceles: giving birth, and growing old. Both processes may cause pelvic floor muscles to weaken and sag. I remembered that the nurse had been surprised to see the condition in someone my age. Now I understood her bewilderment.

At barely legal drinking age, I had an old, sagging vagina.

To make matters worse, I didn’t even have an infant to show for it. Vaginal prolapses are evidently somewhat common among new mothers, and some women’s health websites feature cystocele support forums. To hear these women tell it, varicose veins and morning sickness are godsends in comparison. They talk about their cystoceles like some women talk about their cancer. They cherish and despise their pessaries as one might a wig or prosthetic breast. They commiserate, encourage, remind themselves that it’s worth all this and more for “the new little guy.” And besides, there’s hope: some sufferers have been known to recover in as little as 14 months.

If I hadn’t surmised from these postpartum confessionals that my cystocele was something to be reviled, the medical literature confirmed it. Cystoceles and other prolapses, according to the information I found, are “deformities” that cause embarrassment among women. Many avoid sexual interaction as a result of their shame. Treatment and surgical “correction” should be pursued, unless it may interfere with vaginal delivery capacities, in which case it should be avoided even if the patient does not plan on birthing children. To prevent a prolapse from worsening, women should avoid heavy lifting, strenuous exercise, and other physical activity that may exacerbate it.

Ok. By now I knew the score. Whether or not my condition was painful (it wasn’t), or interfered with orgasm or intercourse (it didn’t), it was weird, and clearly something had to be done. Surgery didn’t sound too appealing, but neither did the prospect of wearing a shoe horn in my cervix for the rest of my damn life. I closed my laptop and sat on the edge of the bed for a minute, furiously doing Kegels and trying to envision my cystocele being squeezed out of existence. A few minutes later, mirror check. Any progress?

No, looks the same. But as I struggled to balance, one leg high on the wall, in front of my full-length mirror, I noticed something about my sagging, bulging vagina.

It wasn’t repulsive.

Frankly, it was kind of cute.

I appeared to be laying a smooth, pink egg. Or my vagina was a little furry Monsters, Inc. creature, sticking out its tongue. Maybe I was growing my own shivalingam. Instead of being scared or disgusted, I was intrigued, almost in spite of myself. My body was changing. Great! Why not?

Believe me, I was as shocked at my reaction as you are. How could I be so calm? My vagina — my anatomical synecdoche! — was being invaded by my innards! I was abnormal! Had this happened to me three years ago, I would have felt myself a complete freak — ugly and undesirable.

What intervened in those three years, though, and ultimately saved me from despair, was feminism. Trans feminism, and the amazing trans people in my life, have taught me that bodies of all kinds can be sexy. Bodies don’t just automatically ‘have’ certain meanings and not others: people give them meaning, and people see beauty in them. What to a doctor is “ambiguous genitalia” might not seem so ambiguous to the person who’s got it. When we categorize some bodies as “normal” and others as “abnormal,” “deviant,” or necessitating medical scrutiny and correction, we enforce arbitrary standards that paint differences as defects. Then, when we encounter something new or unexpected, rather than exciting curiosity or pleasure, it strikes us as frightening, degenerate, disordered. Queer theory and trans feminism break this cycle by exposing the cultural, historical, and political roots of medical bodily classification systems. And in everyday life, queer and trans people create exquisite alternatives to sex and gender norms.

I’ve grown significantly thanks to trans theory, and I try to be a trans ally. But in social solidarity, allyship can be tricky. It sometimes takes on the feeling of charity. The ally (whether white, male-privileged, hetero, nonpoor, etc.) opposes Oppression X, but only out of a sense of obligation, a desire to be “down,” or a recognition that others expend more than their share of energy fighting it all the time.

Occasionally, though, we feel the profound truth of interdependence, as in the words of Lila Watson:

If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time.

But if you have come because your liberation is bound up in mine,

then let us struggle together.

I have never been the victim of a transphobic assault. Unlike many trans individuals, my everyday existence is not under threat of violence. Yet, transphobia hurts me as a female-bodied woman. Any social justice work I do is incomplete without a trans feminist analysis. And once the analysis goes deep enough, thanks to extraordinary, caring queer friends and role models in my life, I don’t even have to fire off a logical critique in my brain, deconstructing my way to freedom. The feeling does it for me.

Trans folks taught me how to love my body.

No small feat in this society. As one hit on my Google search showed, ever-evolving consumer trends reflect an unrelenting pressure to make my junk conform to nebulous standards of fuckability. To wit, the Detroit Metro Times reports that elite women seeking “designer vaginas,” a recent twist on the cosmetic surgery craze, “can end up paying more than $10,000 for newer, tighter, prettier genitals.”

Yeah, I’ll stick with my ‘cele, thanks.

* * * * *

Thank you Tessa, Lori, Lydia, Bea, Nicole, Lorde, Halberstam, Bernstein, the Trans Task Force, and my many, many courageous feminist friends at Harvard.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 15, 2009 8:59 am

    Also, reading over this again, I’m surprised that I never went into the links between transphobia, sexism, colonialism, and racism — like, for example, the life of Saartjie “Sarah” Baartman, an 18th-century Khoikhoi woman of modern-day South Africa, who was displayed as part of a racist “Venus Hottentot” sideshow attraction in Britain and France. After her death, a Parisian museum put her genitals — which Europeans considered notable for their elongated labia minora — on display until the mid-1970s.

    When we categorize some bodies as “normal” and others as “abnormal,” “deviant,” or necessitating medical scrutiny and correction, we enforce arbitrary standards that paint differences as defects. Then, when we encounter something new or unexpected, rather than exciting curiosity or pleasure, it strikes us as frightening, degenerate, disordered.

    So yeah, to this list of typical reactions we could add “titillating” and “bankable” — as long as the body in question belongs to an Other.

    And when the body belongs to us, anything “new or unexpected” will always be bound up with overlaying and intersecting concepts of race, sex, gender, ability, age…In the original thread on CC, finluiniel sums this up nicely:

    loving your body is only badass when the world tells you not to love it.

  2. bohemiankitsch permalink
    July 16, 2009 5:01 am

    Right On.

    and i DEFINITELY needed to read this. that was an amazing quote from Lila Watson. for all of my best intentions, it hits home as a flaw in much of my feminist advocacy for years. distance. abstraction. false consciousness.

    and never confronting MY OWN issues with my body image, the very issues that have prevented me from posting videos of myself.

    this piece of yours really does help to free me.

    i thank you.

    *hugs*

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