25 January 2010

Is Prometheus What Pandora Would Have Been Had She Been A Man?

Last night the drizzle turned into rain. It became a torrent that raged, with the stiff winds, against my windows. At least I didn't have to go anywhere today. Even so, I did my laundry when the rain let up a while: the laundromat is only half a block from my apartment. The only other person there was the owner, who was fixing something and chatting me up. He is kinda cute.

Anyway...I'm thinking now about a comment "Jeanne Genet" (I love the tag!) made on my posting about my new vagina. She said I overestimate "how comfortable women who were born with the stuff feel about it." Fair enough: There's still so much I am learning, must learn and will probably never learn about being a woman, or at least being a woman as most women experience it. One of the things I just learned, courtesy of "Jeanne," that "women in general are more detached from their 'stuff' than men are, less aware of how it feels to/in them." I may not know much, but I know enough to agree with her when she says she finds that situation "bizarre."

That, by the way, is one of the points Eve Ensler was making with The Vagina Monologues. I guess that's one of the reasons why the play was meaningful to me even before I started my transition, much less my surgery. Even then, I could see that so much was at stake with a woman's knowledge, or lack thereof, about her body. One reason, of course, is that most women are capable of bearing children and the majority will do so. That means that a woman's health affects not only her life, but the life of someone she hasn't seen face-to-face but knows intimately even before he or she arrives in this world.

But even for those women who have no capacity or desire to reproduce, the stakes in knowing or not knowing about their bodies are, in some ways, even greater than they are for men's familiarity or ignorance of their bodies. Perhaps I am saying that now because I have had to pay attention to not only what I have, but what has been created and what has been developing. For one thing, there is the possibility of infections and other issues that women experience but men don't.

Even more important, though, is the way an external factor such as the cleanliness of my bathtub or towels can turn into an internal matter in ways that never could have happened when I had male genitalia. I'm talking, of course, about infections and such that can develop down there. They can retard or even stop the further development of my new organs. That is not merely a cosmetic issue; it can also affect my health in other ways.

I'm guessing that other women experience parallel, if not similar, problems. But knowing one's body is not just a matter of preventative medicine, as important as that is. Rather, I think it is also a way of learning about one's self. I mean, really, how can you not be interested in learning about yourself? Perhaps my perspective is colored by the fact that I have a vagina, and to a great degree, the body I now have, by choice. But I feel that knowing what one's body can do, and respecting its limitations, is a very important way to learn about one's capabilities, or simply to feel more confident and happy. That's really the reason why a lot of people take martial arts classes: Yes, they want to defend themselves. But they also feel so much more confident when they truly understand their bodies' capabilities.

It's funny that when I was in as good condition as some professional athletes--and in better shape than about 95 percent of men my age--I didn't know very much about my body at all. I just pushed it as hard as I could and gave it the nourishment it needed. Tammy once remarked that for someone who was in as good physical condition as I was, I had surprisingly little self-confidence and even less self-esteem.

Now that I think of it, I realize that lack of self-esteem may well be, if not the reason, then at least an important reason, why I didn't accomplish more than I did, given my status at the time as a white male.

But I've digressed a bit. Why is it that women are "more detached from their stuff"? Something tells me that it isn't a lack of desire to know more; I know enough to know it isn't that women are less intelligent (!) than men.

The short answer is, of course, is that most anatomical and medical knowledge comes from a male point of view; even the ways of learning about them are male-centered. The male-centeredness of medical education has been alluded to for decades; it seems that although things are changing, male is still seen as the "default" gender in medicine and that women's medical issues still receive much less attention than those of men. Also, Freudian psychology is notorious for thinking of women as unfinished men, which means, by extension, that a clitoris is an undeveloped penis. (Aside: I'm a living argument against his notion of "penis envy!") It seems to me that the resulting lack of information about women as women can only exacerbate whatever other inducements not to learn, or disincentives to learn, women seem to absorb from their schools, families and cultures.

I grew up with none of that discouragement to learn about my body, much less the prohibitions some religions place on women gaining knowledge about themselves in any way. In other words, I did not grow up with, or carry into my adult life, the idea that I am auxiliary, or an accessory to, some man. That, ironically enough, gave me the means and permission to learn about my body, but it also gave me the luxury of not having to know too much about it. After all, whatever I didn't know, some man--whether or not he was a medical professional--would know.

Plus, I didn't want to know too much about my body because, well, it never felt like my body. Or, at least, it wasn't the body I felt I was supposed to have, much less wanted.

Now I have, at least after some fashion, the kind of body I wanted, and was meant, to have. That, of course, makes me more interested in it. But I also feel, in some way, more protective of her--I'm talking about Ms. V, of course!--than I might otherwise feel because I had to wait until I entered middle age to find her. And now I am experiencing, in some way, another kind of puberty as my vagina and clitoris develop, and the tissues and hair develop around her.

Now I understand, a little bit, why people like Eve Ensler believe that knowledge of their bodies is a political issue. In Western democracies (actual or so-called), women still have less access to knowledge of their bodies than men have about theirs. And we also have less status, overall, than men have. In some countries, such as conservative theocracies (I'm not talking about Muslim ones, now.), women have even less access to such knowledge and to the care we need. Some countries, such as Afghanistan under the Taliban and Saudi Arabia (which exists courtesy of the American taxpayer), take things even further by mandating that women be completely enshrouded and by keeping them out of public life. When you can see the world only through a grille around your eyes, nobody can see--or hear--you. To my admittedly Western and bourgeois eyes, that's a form of living interment. It's no wonder that when such repressive laws were enacted, the state of women's health, not to mention their education and overall well-being, plummeted.

In the so-called advanced countries, most women don't have dominion over much besides their bodies. And even that ownership is tenuous because most of what little information women have about their bodies is from a male point of view. So I can only imagine what life has been like for Afghani or Saudi women, or even women in countries like Ireland until fairly recently.

Anyway...I didn't mean for this to be a treatise or a call to arms. But "Jeanne Genet" made me aware of at least one way in which my experience as a woman is, and most likely always will be, different from that of other women.