Saturday, June 17, 2006

biological destiny

The other day, for the first time in many years, I had a pap smear. What a terrible name for a procedure. It sounds obscene, and while it is not exactly a rollicking good time, it is a simple diagnostic option for women who may have concerns about some aspects of their reproductive health. But, since it is a procedure that is reserved exclusively for women and it also pertains to our mysterious internal organs, I think there is a lot of mystique and misunderstanding around it, and I believe that is one of the reasons why it has such an atrocious name. Like much medical terminology, it was named by the physician (usually male) who invented it or discovered it; that is why many parts of women's bodies, aspects of pregnancy, and methods of managing childbirth have ridiculous and non-descriptive names like fallopian tubes, braxton-hicks contractions and robert's maneuver. George Papanicolaou, in case you did not know, was the inventor of the "pap" smear, hence the name.

The smear is the part of the procedure that involves literally smearing cervical cells onto a slide to be viewed under a microscope. There are many, many diagnostic procedures that involve the smearing of some manner of cells or other onto a slide, but off the top of your head how many do you know that actually use the word "smear" in the name of the procedure? Personally I cannot think of any. It's a bit of a smear campaign made to create even more uncertainty and discomfort about that natural oddity, the female body. Don't you think?

Well, I do. But I guess that is where I get my reputation as a nasty feminist. Many people still to this day do not believe or understand that the patriarchal social system in which we live considers woman other, lesser, incomprehensible and perhaps even dangerous in her difference. Society loves conformity, likes it when everyone plays by the rules society has established. So when the society, the politicians and the scientists and the clergy are all men, then men are the status quo, and woman, her brain, her body, her ways, by default are different. Granted, in the last fifty years women have made great strides toward inundating those realms of social influence, but are still not seen in equal numbers in any of the most influential aspects of modern society, and are definitely still swimming upstream against the tide of 2000 plus years of complete and total male dominance and patriarchal definition of normal.

So, while I sat in the Planned Parenthood office yesterday it was a rare and interesting moment when I realized there were only women there. I was in woman's territory, and that is pretty rare. Women exclusively comprised the patients, the practitioners, the administrators, and the staff. Wow. And though I was not exactly looking forward to having my cervix swabbed for tissue to be examined under microscope, I suddenly felt right at home. I felt like I was in an exclusive clubhouse, and then I realized that I was. Of all the many men I know, I know for sure that none of them have ever had the experience of waiting in a gender specific clinic for care that was necessary exclusively for their sex. We as women do have something men don't, and I was again reminded that that is probably why and how patriarchy took a stronghold over our culture in the first place.

Women have internal sex organs that until the last century could never be seen by the human eye (at least while the woman is alive, which is a very important part of this story). And not only are our organs inside of our bodies, furthermore the continuance of our species is contingent upon the fact that healthy human replicas periodically emerge from within those mysterious confines. And since men cannot have what our bodies have or do what our bodies do, despite the fact that the reproductive process is certainly lost without them, at some point in the deep annals of history enough men were philosophically or emotionally uncomfortable enough with that idea that they begin to place restrictions- physical, psychological, and eventually legal, on the women around them.

Yesterday I sat at the girls club surrounded by other women taking care of their bodies, controlling their destiny, exercising their reproductive choice. In that setting they felt like my sisters; I felt the bond that we share in that we alone bleed, or don't bleed, and then bear children. And with the honor and privilege of the ability to carry life in one's womb comes great responsibility. Because of the nature of our internal organs and their capacity to give life and sustain it, women are physically at greater risk for a host of infections, STD's and unique cancers. Women are also more likely to be physically, emotionally, practically, and financially burdened with pregnancy, wanted or not, and therefore have also had to assume greater responsibility for birth control, which has many of its own tolls, to assure we do not become pregnant when we wish not to become parents. And I certainly hope I do not have to mention that how, in reality, even simply through the nature of our biology as mammals, that women carry much, much more of the responsibility of the rearing of the children they may bear once that child has left her body.

But ultimately what do we get for all of this additional responsibility we must take to care for ourselves so we may bring future generations to the planet? We get vilified. We are mocked, we are looked down upon, and we are abused. Not always viciously and not by every living person, but please have no confusion about this, women are still harmed daily by the presumptions of our otherness in patriarchal society. This is called sexism, and it is still very much an active social construct in our world.

How might it look different? To me, it would make a lot more sense for men and women to work together more closely to insure that all aspects of women's (and men's!) reproductive health is maintained and fortified. This cooperation would encompass everything from the mundane and daily aspects of care to the grand ramifications that public environmental and healthcare policy have on us all.

For starters, eat together, men and women. Eat well and healthfully together. Take care of your bodies on the most basic level. Together.

Appreciate the marvel of the menstrual cycle. Yes, it can be annoying, it can be painful, it can cause emotional challenges for women and the men involved with them. But so what? It's not going anywhere. Hopefully healthy menstrual cycles will continue to be present in women's lives for many, many generations to come. Only when that phenomenon ceases will we realize how incredibly valuable it is to us all. So when she is tired or in pain or bitchy because she is about to bleed or bleeding, support her. Nurture her. Her body is doing work, fellows, that your body cannot, and that work is vital to the future of your children. And even if neither of you want children, so what? Be grateful that we as a species function effectively, and take care of that function.

Share in the responsibility of birth control. Even if you mutually decide to utilize a method of birth control in which the primary responsibility and consequences are with her, get involved. Pay for her birth control pills or her IUD or her hormone therapy. She is paying enough by altering her body and creating possible health risks so that you may benefit from methods of birth control which do not require you to wear a condom. Furthermore, pay for her yearly check ups that help insure that she is tolerating your method of birth control well, and research ways to maximize her health picture, i.e. what supplements or food or herbs or exercises will benefit her, and then provide her with those also. Please be aware, also, that methods of natural family planning that involve fertility awareness cause no harm to a woman's health, and can be extremely reliable but do require an intense level of commitment and education from BOTH partners. Keep in mind, too, that every month she is not pregnant she is bleeding which requires her to spend additional money on menstrual care products and ibuprofen and chocolate bars. Pitch in.

Respect that it is not fun to have yearly cervical exams and pap smears. Offer to come with her to her appointments and hold her hand and pet her head while some stranger sticks their instruments and their hands into her sacred body. Take time to make her feel appreciated for all she must go through. And that holds true if she needs to have diagnostics done for her breast care as well. (I recommend sonogram and/or thermogram over mammogram, just so you know.)

Certainly if your female partner actually becomes pregnant by you it is tantamount to providing unwavering support whether or not you choose to keep the pregnancy. If you opt for termination, I assure you that the emotional and possibly even the physical consequences of that procedure will be with your lady friend for many years to come. The very least you can do is to pay for the procedure, escort her to her clinic and doctor visits, and be very, very patient and understanding and supportive in the days and weeks and months to come. Help her afford a few days off work to recuperate. Do some stuff around the house so she doesn't feel pressured to resume all of her responsibilities. Give her time. Cook her a high protein meal. Brew her nourishing teas. Hold her when she cries, and hold her even if she doesn't cry and you both feel fully comfortable this was the right choice for you. Furthermore thank her for enduring the challenges of maintaining your reproductive agenda. Whether you want to believe it or not, this is harder on her than it is you.

And if you choose parenthood together, all the previous suggestions hold true, but multiply your involvement by the number of years you would like your child to thrive on the planet, and plan on carrying out your commitment to your child's mother that long as well.

Furthermore, work toward social and environmental changes that will do things like allot monies for healthcare so none are forced to pay so much to be well and to control and eventually eliminate gross environmental pollution to our air, soil and water that have caused a grave increase in infertility, miscarriage, birth defects, cancer, and the general health of us all.

Women's reproductive health is part of your life, guys. Seriously. And take care of yourselves, too. Learn what your reproductive system looks like on the inside, 'cause I know you done looked at that shit that hangs on the outside. What is your prostate gland, where is it, and what can you do to make sure it's healthy? It's worth figuring out. And eat well. Research and incorporate into your life beneficial herbs and supplements for your well-being. Get whatever routine check ups may be necessary for you. By no means am I a big proponent of going to the doctor just for the hell of it, in fact I usually recommend avoiding them, but seek out practitioners in whatever modalities seem supportive to you to assure that your hearts and circulatory systems are strong, your reproductive organs are thriving, and your emotional health is peak. It takes a strong man to stand by a strong woman, no shit. It takes a lot of patience and inner strength to excel in the challenges that relationships and parenthood can bring. And make sure that your exercise routine is a little more comprehensive than walking up a flight of stairs to work or pounding 40's and shaking your booty a little on Saturday nights. Yoga is not just for chicks and SNAG's, and there are a host of martial arts option that are cool, tough, and extremely beneficial to you physically and emotionally. And even just taking a walk with your sweetie gets that blood a-pumping enough to be good for you. Making love often is a great way to exercise together, too.

I'd like to rename the pap smear. Maybe we could call it the "Gentle View" procedure or the "Sacred Cellular Study." I could see that really changing everyone's attitude about routine gynecological care. As I once ranted in the Vagina Monologues, maybe we can also get some velvety covers for the metal stirrups so our feet don't freeze while they're flung up in the air, and definitely let's adopt a policy of ALWAYS warming the speculum prior to inserting it into anybody's warm, cozy yoni. And the next time you need to see a doc or nurse or midwife or clinic for routine care or even more so if you have a health concern, bring a friend. Bring a friend that is the same sex or not, bring your lover, your boyfriend, your girlfriend or partner. You ARE allowed supportive care in the exam room, remember it is YOUR body and YOUR experience, and you DO have autonomy over what happens to it. Having loving, caring support during a health check can help you cope with stress, help you remember to ask all the important questions, give you strength to refuse unnecessary or undesired treatments, and can ultimately help you heal better if you are ailing. We all deserve that care and support. Guys and girls, let's start giving that support to ourselves and to each other.

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