“Now at 30 years old I can safely say pretending to be ‘normal’ has one big problem – there is no such thing!”
The day after my diagnosis it was as if my identity was upturned and pieces scattered everywhere. The first question I asked myself was ‘am I female?’ I didn’t ponder whether I felt female, but rather whether this lack of organs made me un-female. De-gendered. Almost-female.
I thought back to sex-education at school, where girls would confide if they had started their period. Conversations in my 20s with friends who were complaining about the annoyance of buying sanitary items. Or my grandmother lamenting that in her 80s, getting a hysterectomy felt like she was giving up an essential part of herself. My mum and sister had started menstruating when young. All the signs told me that if all the women around me had it, what did it mean being the odd one out?
As an anthropologist I explore the diverse ways and practices that make cultures unique and also similar to one another. Some cultures deem menstruating to be ‘natural’, a part of the body's processes. Others pathologise and medicalise it, particularly in the West where PMS is about suffering the monthly ‘curse’. It becomes a taboo. And yet, here I am from the other side of the glass, peering into a world where I would be further stigmatised beyond what those who can have a period experience.
I didn’t know then that there is no singular way to conceptualise this bodily process. I was a 17 year old who had just been told she had no reproductive system and such a short vagina that it was non-existent. Closed. And not going to open unless there was medical intervention. Since that day, I have thought about what being a woman is about so often that I not only embody my condition, I intellectualise it. I analyse it. I even research surrogacy as a PhD student. I have tried to conquer what was lacking. To be proud. And yet, in the past, I would lie when in the company of a group of women, nodding about how terrible ‘the time of month’ is.
Having MRKH is a constant negotiation and some days the battle is too hard to fight. Appear normal, and maybe you’ll feel it, right? But, now at 30 years old I can safely say pretending to be ‘normal’ has one big problem – there is no such thing. No such thing as identical bodies (let’s discount identical twins here, and I wonder if their vulvas are identical?), vaginas, and vulvas. Somehow, we have been fooled into thinking that there is a blueprint to what makes a woman ‘a woman’. And it was a friend who recently pointed out ‘Hannah, you’re a woman if you feel like a woman’. Which brings me back to where I began with this piece of writing. Vaginas.
I disclose my missing reproductive system before I would even breathe the word ‘vagina’ to anyone. Even now writing it feels a bit taboo. I had an operation in 2011 in Australia that was successful and minimally invasive after vaginal dilatation didn’t work for me. So, I spent more than half my life without a vagina, and now it could be a non-issue. I could stop saying I don’t have one because we ‘fixed’ the only part that is possible to treat with this condition. Fix the body and the mind might follow right?
Wrong. I’m loathe to admit this because I don’t want newly diagnosed young women thinking that they’ll never achieve a sense of acceptance with having MRKH. But I’m writing this for them. For everyone who has sat in a clinic or hospital where a doctor has informed them that they are without a reproductive system and vagina. And I want to be totally honest.
So here’s the truth:
Some days I still feel like I don’t have a vagina even though it has been years since I had the operation and my gynaecologist chastises me for thinking this way. Sometimes I still have to remind myself, because those facts that I was given at 17 still reside inside of me. However the difference between then and now is that I no longer let it define me.
At diagnosis, it looms large. It is suffocating, scary, unknown, a land of limbo and you’re isolated by a diagnosis that most people around you neither have nor have heard of it. Doctors google it in front of you. People are uncomfortable with things that they cannot put into categories or define easily. We are, as anthropologists would say, a cultural anomaly in that our bodies don’t fit what society might class as ‘the norm’. Surrogacy is a cultural anomaly, an alternative way to create families. Our journey in life will be different, but as someone who has been through years of adjusting to this, I want to share some things I’ve learnt, particularly in regards to the vagina, or lack of.
1) Although our gender is not defined by whether we have lack of certain organs or not, that doesn’t mean that it won’t confuse and upset you when you’re diagnosed.
2) It’s okay to take your time to make the decision about whether you want to have a vagina created or not. Your womanhood does not rely on a solitary tunnel. But I get that it might feel that way.
3) Pick and choose who you listen to.
4) Your vagina is not the only way to have pleasure during sex.
5) If you, like I was, are worried that you won’t find someone who will accept you for you – there are men and women out there that will not treat you as the person you have already defined yourself as. In other words, love is not dependant on what you have but who you are.
6) If you decide you want a vagina, then that’s okay. It’s also okay if you decide you don’t want to have a vagina.
7) Be kind to yourself. Loving your body is about acceptance and it doesn’t necessarily become easier to love with a vagina. And I truly believe this. For me, I wanted to have sexual pleasure through penetration. Or at least see what it felt like. However, I also acknowledge that there is an element of wanting to ‘feel normal’. I might spend my days critiquing the way our beliefs and attitudes are influenced by the society and culture we live in, but in the end having a vagina was important to me. Another friend aptly said to me ‘anytime you have a bad day I want you to remember that you grew your vagina’. I swear that’s going on my tombstone one day, even if it is just to make mourners cringe or feel embarrassed as they walk past and read it.
Celebrities are air-brushed to perfection, and porn magazines show women without any inner labia showing. Bare skin and contained. So, please take heart when I say that you are not alone. Or solely defined by anything you don’t choose to be defined by.