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 take 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.

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13 responses to “Trans Feminism and My Vagina: A Love Story

  1. this is so awesome, katie. thank you so much for sharing, and i 100 million times agree — thinking about trans rights (and any group’s rights, for that matter), as expanding *every*one’s abilities to live fulfilled lives is not only a transformative way to think about social change, but also, for me, can be so much more productive in trying to get anything done.

    thanks again.
    much love,
    vanessa

  2. thinking about trans rights (and any group’s rights, for that matter), as expanding *every*one’s abilities to live fulfilled lives is not only a transformative way to think about social change, but also, for me, can be so much more productive in trying to get anything done.

    Beautifully said. :)

    Thanks for your support, and for the awesome, important work you do!

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

    the more “normal/normative” a body a person has…the less compelled i am to heed hir words when that person says “i love my body and you should too!” or worse: “what’s wrong with all those anorexic people!?!” or “fat people could be thin if they tried hard enough.”

    that’s why the most badass form of rebellion is to say, flat out, “fuck this hierarchy”!! i actually *like* my round stomach, my flat nose, my bulging vagina, my kinky hair, my small breasts, my lopsided breasts, my hairy upper lip, my thigh dimples, my scars, my crooked teeth, my dark skin, my long labia, my body hair, my large muscles, my unibrow, my wrinkles, my tallness, my shortness, my gray hair, my spider veins, my huge ass, my flat ass, my small lips, my big lips etc. ad infinitum.”

    spread the good word k8e! isn’t it a happy fuckin feeling? i love loving my body so much that i feel like no one could make me not love it. if they tried, i’d just say, “you’re just sad you can’t tap this shit.”

    let’s work on infiltrating and undermining the following sites:

    http://www.labiaenhancement.com/

    “Photo A. Represents normal female genitalia. The inner lips do not portrude past the outer lips and the outer lips are well defined giving a pretty look.

    Photo B. Represents abnormal female genitalia. The inner lips protrude past the outer lips making the genital look ugly and unappealing. ”

    http://www.vaginaenhancement.com/

    ” Say NO to
    • Embarrassing size
    • Poor sexual performance
    • Inadequacy in bed
    • Loss of relationships due to your size
    • Ugliness appearance associated with a BIG vagina”

    http://www.vaginalscent.com/

    “Say NO! to vaginal odors. Free fresh, clean and odor free all day long! You’ll feel better, comfortable, clean and feminine when you are fresh down there!

    Welcome to
    Vaginal Scent

    Just say no! To vaginal odors. As all women know, vaginal odors can become quite an embarrassing problem when you are getting intimate with someone or just an annoyance when you’d rather not have odors emitting from your vagina. Vaginal Scent offers the natural solution to eliminate and prevent vaginal odors from occurring.”

  4. Thanks for writing this! You’re amazing…as a transguy who loves his testosterone changed vagina, I’m saddened to hear that there is so much policing over what is a “desirable” vagina.

    “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?”

    That made me smile, well put.

  5. Hey Jake — from one Northern Californian to another (I’m from Sacramento), welcome, and thanks.

    “Policing” is a perfect word for what goes on around vaginas, breasts, collarbones, etc. in the commercial beauty industry. Lots of folks at ‘liberal’ Harvard would balk at it: according to them, claiming that women are in any way coerced by cultural norms robs them of agency. (And “women” are usually the only people mentioned in this kind of discussion.) Over and over, I hear this kind of facile argument. But as writers from Fanon to Foucault have described (and as many of us have confirmed through experience), the most effective policing doesn’t happen at gunpoint, but when we internalize the rules.

    Anyway, glad you liked the post, and best of luck with your post-top-op healing!

  6. thank you for this, k8e. and thanks finluiniel, vanessa, and jake.
    i think another powerful thing we can do, above self loving (which is the deepest, most transgressive action in this hegemony that builds itself around devaluing, objectifying and making ugly our bodies and beings) is loving each other: loving the non- normative beauty and bodies of the people around us. i for one love you and your cute, pink vagina egg. and i love the selves and bodies of non-normatively bodied, gendered, sized, shaped, dressed, politicized lovers and friends who i am so very lucky to have in my life. let’s love ourselves. let’s love each other.
    and if we find ourselves struggling to do this, let’s point our anger and frustration at them and not at ourselves. we are not fully responsible for our critique of our bodies and selves in a society that floods us with criticism. it’s ok. let’s just talk together about how we feel, and do our best to focus our energy on the hot, sexy, beautiful, soft, rad bodies in our company- and to remind each other how we feel about each other’s non- normative beauty in being.

    you are beautiful.

  7. Hey, Katie – thanks for this, and for your kind words over at Quench. Rock your little pink egg! :)

  8. This may have actually changed my life a little. I have been feeling lately like the most ridiculous, cheap, and fraudulent ally and like someone who does not get it. Somehow this reminded me about the reasons for all of the work we do. I am not very articulate at this moment, and I don’t really know you, but suffice it to say this was so important.

    Thanks. <3

  9. Just linked to your post on Quench (sorry for the delayed response). :-)

  10. Thanks! And no problem — I understand getting backed up on blogging. ;)

  11. Pingback: A Word About de Blog: Or, A Reality-Based Community « Kloncke

  12. Pingback: One Year Later, A Different Vagina Dialogue « Kloncke

  13. Picked up your website via google the other day and absolutely liked it so much. Carry on the truly great work.

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