Monthly Archives: August 2015

The Real Estate Of The Body: I Don’t Understand Why Gender Is A Part Of Identity

I stiffened when I saw this scene. Natalie Figueroa is not a likeable character. But I found myself relating to her words. I really don’t understand transgender women.

I have never been truly content being a woman. This does not mean that I want to live in a man’s body. I hear transwomen make references to being able to dress prettily and gossip with girlfriends as experiences they’ve missed. I guess the transmale counterpart to that would be to shave and have boys’ nights out. I have not felt incomplete for not having had those experiences.

For me, bodies are just real estate for our actions, our minds and our intentions and I’m sitting inside a physical space that has less currency and less value than the real estate of a man’s body. I am fairly certain that who I am, would not change depending on the kind of body I’m in. But the world treats this body with less respect and power than I’d like.

I am not saying I don’t enjoy the nice things about living in a woman’s body. I love dressing up and I enjoy the natural grace that comes from being in a smaller, curvier body. But these are fringe benefits that I can perfectly well live without. They are my way of making peace with inhabiting a physical space that I’m not happy about, compensation prizes if you will. I cannot think of anything that I would miss deeply about being a woman, were I to wake up as a man tomorrow. Because who I am, has nothing to do with the body I live in.

This is also not about who I am attracted to. My physical/sexual side has been drawn to men, so far. But the only reason it has stopped there is because there hasn’t been a pressing need to go beyond. As a woman, there are enough of opportunities available to me to engage with men. The heavy social/emotional burdens of exploring sexuality with a woman haven’t felt worth the effort to me. In that hypothetical world where I’d wake up as a man, I can’t really imagine that flipping over to the equivalent model (being a man drawn to women) would be particularly difficult. That should tell you that my sexuality doesn’t drive my body identity either.

Anybody who possesses a man’s body, to me, is someone who won the luck of birth, similar to babies born to affluent parentage rather than poor families. I really don’t understand why someone would want to give all that up to live permanently in the squalor, the permanent fear and the degradation that a woman’s body is subjected to.

I think about Nadika. We’ve been friends for years and I’ve related to her as a cisman. Then she came out as a transgender person. I don’t relate to her any differently since then, except trying to figure out the right language to encompass her life. I feel empathy for her unhappiness and her struggles, I really do. But I feel it without truly understanding, in the way some men are sympathetic about period pains. Nadika’s freedom story gave me some insight but not really understanding. It made me think that maybe how relevant gender/sexuality is to our identity, differs for us all.

I am not a man trapped in a woman’s body. I’m a person trapped in a woman’s body.

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The Menstrual Cup Month: There Will Be Blood

I’ve received and given a few strange gifts in my time but the most unusual one was Reema’s birthday present to me this year. For context, Reema showers me with gifts of books, food, makeup and pretty objects year round so she managed to take it up a notch even further for the special birthday gift. She gave me my first menstrual cup.

So what’s a menstrual cup? It falls under what our world likes to call ‘feminine hygiene products’. In a nutshell (or a silicon cup), it collects period blood. Menstrual cups fit inside the vaginal passage, somewhat the way tampons do. Except tampons absorb the blood while menstrual cups collect it so you can take it out and empty it.

The benefits of this method are multifold. Tampons end up being blood soaked fabric bolts, which lend themselves to infections. The menstrual cup is made of silicon which as we all know gets put into people to enhance their curves (so presumably, it doesn’t react negatively with the body internally). Tampons are thought to contain bleach and other chemicals which could irritate the sensitive insides of the vaginal tract. No such issues with the menstrual cup. Of course all of this is academic, because I’ve never used a tampon, having been cautioned by the doctor who detected me (as a foetus) to avoid them for fear of infection.

Why menstrual cups over sanitary napkins then? After all, sanitary napkins have evolved (barring the ‘Have a Happy Period’ glitches). They’re more absorbent, don’t require itchy elastic belts, don’t slide out of your panty and have even gotten flatter (no unsightly bulges on the back of your pants). But any woman who has used them, knows about rashes and chafing, the inconvenience of having to find a place to change every three-four hours, the trouble of discarding used napkins in a private as well as hygienic and environmentally-conscious manner (don’t flush them down the toilet, yo!). Not to mention they’re an ongoing cost, EVERY DAMN MONTH. Anybody who thinks this is a trivial matter has never bought a sanitary napkin in their entire life. Menstrual cups are supposed to last for about 10 years.

None of this however, prepared me for the thought of sticking a strange foreign object into my body, especially in the time of cramps, low blood pressure, nausea and fainting. Oh Reema, the things you push me to do! But in Reema we trust and nothing she has introduced me to so far, has ever been regrettable. I did some reading up on menstrual cups online myself. I also asked my gynecologist about them. She didn’t seem too keen on the idea but she didn’t give me a firm no either.

“Maybe not because you’re putting a foreign body into yourself, you know?”

were her exact words.

As circumstantial luck would have it, for the first time ever in my perioding history, I fell short of sanitary napkins this month. My period arrived early, I was busy and then too exhausted to go down and buy some. Otherwise, I probably might have delayed the trial infinitely and the little silicon cup would have lain unused for years. Nothing to be done about it, I reached for the silicon cup.

120px-Coupe-menstruelleThe next three days were rich with experience and learning of all sorts. I’m going to condense it all into what I learnt.

  • You may not be able to sterilise it by boiling the cup in your kitchen, owing to social/cultural norms. My mother won’t even let me stand in the kitchen while she’s doing her puja and I’m on my period. I doubt my ‘dirty’ menstrual things would find any place in the kitchen. I got around this by using a face steamer. The basic plastic variety you get for 100 bucks at the chemist, that lets you steam your pores or sinuses. Silicon bends easily so it flattened into a corner of the steamer cup.
  • Inserting the cup is THE BIG CHALLENGE. I followed the instructions to fold it into a ‘C’ and I struggled for over 45 minutes before giving up. Then I tried again after I’d had lunch and this time I managed to get it in. The next time I put it in was difficult too but it took me 20 minutes. I imagine at that rate, I’ll be able to slip it in easy-peasy in another two periods or so.
  • Figuring out how to position yourself during insertion is part of the challenge (I wonder if reading the Kamasutra would help). I tried squatting over a toilet or just the floor, as they recommended but nada. The only way I could get it in both times was when I sat on the floor, one leg splayed out and the other raised so the foot was resting on a chair or the toilet seat and slouched back about 45 degrees from the ground.
  • On my second trial, I realised it slid it much easier when I angled it slightly to the left. I guess that’s just my body structure but it’s important to remember that our bodies are all different and none of them conform strictly to biological diagrams. A couple of degrees to the right to correct, made it very painful so I moved it back and it went right in.
  • I put in the menstrual cup twice during the period, the first time for about 3 hours and the next time for about 5 hours. The instructions say that you can easily go 12 hours before having to empty the cup out. The first time I was freaking out worried that it would get lost in there. So I yanked it out in the early evening. Just in case it didn’t budge and I had to see my gynecologist, I wanted to ensure I’d be able to catch her. You might want to do this as well. All the literature assures you that the cup can’t possibly get lost inside you. But this is an intimate, big thing you’re doing and you need to do it at your own pace and with whatever support (emotional and otherwise) you need.
  • The second time was sort of funny. The first time, I had put the cup in and sat in one place working. The second time, I decided to walk around to see how it felt. It was strange, very strange. After about 15 minutes, I had a sudden feeling like I needed to shit. But it passed in a few minutes. I guess the cup may have been resting on one of my internal organs and shifted slightly. Does that make you a bit sick? Yes, well, you’ll have to deal with it to go through this. A little later, I felt the urge to pee. When I went into the toilet though, nothing would come out. It was the strangest unpee I’ve ever had. It wasn’t like having a urinary infection where you burn as the urine passes through you. It was just as if I had a full bladder but nowhere to let it out from. I stood up and jiggled the cup around a bit and it started to come out. And immediately after that I was able to pee right. The stem of the cup must have been resting against the urethra blocking off the pee passage. Gross I know, but such a relief. I thought my urinary passage had closed up and I might have to pee through my mouth or something.
  • There was no pain really but inserting the cup was an arduous process. If you’ve ever had a gynecological examination, you’ll know that the vagina isn’t like a straight tube where stuff just slides in and out. It has all sorts of angles, it’s bumpy and it expands and contracts. And finally it’s all soft flesh with hundreds of nerve endings so you feel every little poke and pinch. Taking out the cup was not painful either, just very awkward. Squat a little, tug on the stem of the cup hoping it doesn’t break in your hands, rotate or jiggle a little all the while feeling that strange tickly-rubby feeling that isn’t altogether pleasant and then WHOOOSH suddenly it’s like you sneezed and you can breathe again.
  • The literature actually said to insert it so even the ‘stem’ was inside but I didn’t dare shove it up that deep and risk losing it to the vast unknown (isn’t it interesting how the insides of our own bodies are as scary and unknown as outer space?). So both days I had a little vagitail. But it’s not long enough to get in the way or even irritate your skin. Only you know it’s there because, well you know and not because it causes pain or discomfort.
  • All the literature warns that it will be messy. I’m not sure why since it wasn’t more or less messy than changing a sanitary napkin after a hard day. You can’t really do it without getting some blood on your fingers. And if you’re on a heavy flow time, there’ll probably be a splotch or two of blood on the floor in the time it takes you to change. Get over your grossed-outness if that scares you. It’s your body, it’s natural. And finally, menstrual fluid is not shit or urine. It’s not really ‘dirty’ in the same way. The vagina is self-cleaning so you’re really not going to catch any germs from getting some stuff on your hands. Wash well with soap and water afterwards and that’s quite enough.
  • I used a sanitary napkin along with the menstrual cup both times I tried it. I think both times and especially the first, the cup didn’t really unfold all the way, leaving a little way for leakage. It was better the second time, which might be because it fit better but also because my flow had reduced. But Reema suggests using a pad along with the cup for the first few times. I guess I’ll figure out a comfort level with going pad-free after a few months.
  • And finally, a good intimate wash is worth investing in – to clean yourself and the menstrual cup. I used V Wash, which is available at all chemists. Regular soap irritates the skin so get the special one for yourself.

And before I knew it, the period was over! One article I read, said that using a menstrual cup actually reduced cramps for some obscure biology-based reason. Reema says it also reduces the period cycle by a full day. Apparently menstrual discharge takes a full day to seep down from the uterus to the vagina. If you know your dates, you can insert the cup even before you see blood and it’ll catch it all midstream. Ergo, you’ve saved time on the externally bleeding cycle.

If I have anything else to report on my next few period cycles, I’ll write more. If you’re looking for a menstrual cup, here are some places you can buy it online for India: Amazon, PrivyShop, ShyCart, Mooncart, SilkyCup

Write to me at ideasmithy at gmail dot com, if you have anything to share or ask about menstrual cups and I will answer your question if I’m able to. I’m not a doctor or qualified to give any kind of medical advice but I’m happy to share my experience and listen to yours.

What An Old Boyfriend Taught Me About Respect

Thank you for the picture, Lechon Kirb/Unsplash.

We met for coffee recently. He was my first boyfriend and I, his first girlfriend. We were both 19 when we met and it was instant him-and-me at first sight. We’ve kept in touch and we catch up for a coffee and a chat on each other’s lives every couple of years. We’re exactly the same age, just a day apart. Each time we meet, we have a few more life milestones to talk about. So each conversation marks a checkpoint for me, on how far I’ve come, how my life has diverged and turned but stayed true to who I am (which I continue to discover with each turn).

He is charming but in an easy, non-agenda based way. And it’s easy to be around him. Each time we speak, I feel like he sees me as who I really am, beneath all the trappings and notions I’ve acquired over the years, because that core essence never really changes. It would probably seem more sensible to call him an old friend rather than an ex-boyfriend since he has been more of the former than the latter. And given that the term ‘ex-boyfriend’ comes loaded (especially in my recent experience) with associations of angst and pain and unpleasantness, it doesn’t seem like it fits on him.

But perhaps for that very reason, I choose to hold on to that label for him. It makes me feel a little soothed from the toxicity of my love life — the manipulation, confusion, betrayal and mayhem that ‘love’ brought me, since him. It’s always pleasant to remember that I did have — do have — one man in my life with whom romance happened minus poison.

One of the things we spoke about was the way our love lives shaped up. I guess that’s part of turning 35 (since we didn’t meet last year), this stock-taking of life. In between laughs and onion rings, I told him that I had at some time, dated two classmates. Usually I pause for effect and then clarify that both men knew and each time the guy asked me out. This time, I just said, “Not together.”

He said, “I know. You’re not capable of doing that. It’s just not possible for you. You would be in much more pain than either guy in that situation. That’s how I know you’d never do that.”

This pleased me so much. It still pleases me. I love having someone in my life who knows and believes this about me and it makes me realise what a thorny, paranoid world I live in. I also know that loyalty and fidelity are very important to him and it makes me feel very good that he respects me, on that account.

This pleasant sensation felt unfamiliar till I realised that I haven’t cared about a man’s respect in a very long time. I would feel pained if I thought he didn’t trust or respect me. His opinion of me, matters to me. And I haven’t felt that way about a man, a romantic partner in a very long time.

Along with this came the realisation that respect has no currency in my relationships now. The people I went out with after him, did not care whether I respected them or not. It did not bother them that I thought badly of them afterwards, unless it caused problems in their daily lives. And since I have never really been the vindictive sort, my low opinions of them stayed just that — inconveniences that they shrugged off. That disregard and complete indifference to my respect really hurt. I realised that my respect held no value for the men I was around. They literally didn’t give a damn whether I thought of them as good people or bad.

For many years it was very important to me that the people in my life, even those who were once a part of it and not anymore, knew that I did right by them. In recent times, I’ve come to not care about it. I don’t think my last ex (the one I was engaged to) cares a bit about whether I cheated, whether I lied or whether I maliciously did harm by him or not. Would it matter to me if I discovered he had done any of these? I know already that there was lying and there may have been some semantic cheating. Simply for my own peace of mind, I will myself to not care. This means I must also stop caring about who he thinks I am. And that is how respect loses currency in relationships between people.

The magnitude of this realisation was staggering. Now, I approach men, especially those with whom there is even the slightest romantic context, by first putting respect out of the equation. I will myself to not care about what they think of me with such platitudes like ‘there’s only one thing they’re all thinking about and I’m covered on that front’. I don’t allow a man the right to assess me on things other than appearance or frivolous things like achievement, success and vivacity. But on character, I don’t let it even come into the conversation.

And in turn, I am quick to throw my own respect out of the situation. I practically pore over a man’s character in a bid to find flaws and reasons to not respect him, the person, anymore. It feels easier to not respect a person at all than to respect them and be disappointed — and worse, realise they don’t care.

I don’t really know where I go with this insight. Knowledge of what is, doesn’t give you the ability to change what is. There is plenty to prove that my way of doing things keeps me safe. After all, a staggering majority of men I know see me as a collection of visually appealing bits & bobs that could give them something they want. The minute the possibility of that diminishes, most of them lose interest and don’t care to even pursue a conversation, let alone treat me with courtesy or respect. Why should my respect even be allowed to them, when they don’t care either way?

But then I put my onion ring down and I look at the man across the table from me. Once I thought I loved him and that he loved me. I’ve known love to be cruel, selfish, controlling and untrustworthy and he has been none of those things. But in a single conversation with him, I feel the kind of peaceful serenity that I have never felt with the other men who have been in my life. Mutual respect must have something to do with that. It’s very tiring holding it back and having it withheld. I don’t know whether it’s better to be exhausted and safe or whatever the alternative to that is.

Talia Cohen

Thank you for the picture, Talia Cohen/Unsplash.

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