01 August 2009

Looking At My Vagina

Three times a day, I have to locate my vagina. I do that with a small mirror I hold in my left hand as I lie down. Then, I gently probe the area under my pubic bone with the stent I hold in my right hand, and begin my dilation. Come October, I will have to do that only twice a day; during the second week of the new year, I will be down to once a day.

Although I now have a little more than two weeks' worth of practice, the procedure still seems as odd as it seems exhiliarating. As I was telling Dr. Jennifer the other day, I never had to pay so much attention to my body as I do now. I'm not complaining; that's actually a good thing. Back when I was in the best condition of my life, I was merely pushing my body to its limits and pounding it into submission. Looking back, I realize that although I was in what most people would call "really good shape," I really wasn't very healthy even though I rarely even caught colds, much less had more significant illnesses.

And now I not only have to locate my vagina, I need--and want--to look at it. Even though it's a new organ, I feel that it was always there: I have a hard time imagining or even recalling that a penis was there for 50 years.

I feel a bit like that woman in The Vagina Monologues who said she'd never seen her vagina. Of course, for 50 years, I had no way of physically seeing mine, either, even though I could always sense one within me.

If my first steps as a woman felt as momentous to me as Neil Armstrong's first steps on the moon felt to so many people, my first examination of my vagina was the inverse of that. Rather than conquering and leaving an imprint on some place outside myself, I was exploring a space within me. It was scary at first: I thought that my clumsy fingers would touch the wrong place the wrong way and ruin everything. What "ruining everything" would mean, I didn't know.

Of course, nothing got ruined or even damaged. Rather, the folds of my labia and the moist strands of flesh in varying shades of pink inside them suggested, to me, the complexity and emotional intricacy of undulating hills and rivers or a winding seashore. Somehow, those qualities made me feel, if not simple, at least innocent in the way of a young girl stepping for the first time down a winding path in a primrose garden.

I know that I am merely describing first impressions, and I have absolutely no idea of what I will encounter among, or beyond, those curves and folds and turns. And that is exactly the reason why I want and need to continue from this first exploration.

Nurse Phyllis was neither boasting nor exaggerating when she told me that I would leave Trinidad knowing more about my vagina than many cisgender women know about theirs. In many cultures, women are forbidden from knowing about their own bodies; in other cultures--including, some might argue (and I might agree), the one in which I live--women are discouraged from learning about what distinguishes them from, rather than accepting that they are inferior versions of, men.

When I say what I'm about to say, I hope that no-one thinks that I'm implying that we're somehow superior to men. But now I do know that when a woman examines her own body, she has to look inward in ways that are never necessary for men. I say that knowing that I have only begun this exploration, and in spite of all the discouragement they receive, many women have gone much, much deeper than I have, or possibly ever will.

For many women, such exploration is painful--emotionally as well as physically. In My Vagina Was A Village, one of The Vagina Monologues, a Bosnian Muslim woman recounts a brutal gang rape she suffered. After being probed, prodded and invaded with everything from surgical instruments to bottles, "Pieces of my vagina came off in my hand." I have seen VM three times, and I never saw a dry eye in the audience at the end of that particular monologue.

In light of it, and my own experience, the newness of my own vagina is startling. While I have nothing that even remotely compares to the expereince of that Bosnian woman, as a child I was molested by three different men: a close family friend, a neighbor and a priest in the church in which I was an altar boy. Bad as those experiences were, they was not the cause of my gender identity conflict: the knowledge that I am a female preceded my physical violation by years. But I can't help but to wonder what it would have been like to have been penetrated vaginally, not only with those men's penises, but also with sticks or other objects, rather than being made to stroke and suck their cocks.

I also can't help but to wonder whether my new female organs, on which most of the surgical scars have healed and over which hair is growing, will be--or is--somehow marked by the sexual violation I expereinced when my vagina was still within me, and which I tried to bury in my closet.

After I finish this entry, I will dilate one more time, take an epsom salt bath and go to bed. Tomorrow morning I will look at my vagina again.

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