This is To Be Seen and Unseen, a monthly column by Morgan Jerkins on the praise, backlash, and challenges experienced as a writer for the web.
The first and only time my mother was apprehensive about my online presence was when I was deliberating on whether or not I should write about my vagina. Bruised and stitched, I had just completed an hour-long labiaplasty procedure in a plush Long Island office and I felt as though my identity as a cisgender woman was beginning to unravel even though I was being held together. When I first began to take writing seriously, as a high school freshman, I used words to hide from my daily harassment in school. Fiction was my entry point. Although I began to invest in nonfiction several years later, I always carried two cognitively dissonant thoughts about who I was and what I did as a writer for the web: I am writing to an audience and I am being honest yet I am obscuring detail. The detail in itself is my body. As long as I am figuratively weightless, and thus more expansive, I have more power. However, people were drawn to my work because I was in fact human and therefore relatable. Reconciling all of these thoughts demanded work on my part, especially when I believed that a part of my psychological healing post-surgery would have to be writing about the experience, since writing has and will always be therapeutic for me, byline or not.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” my mom warned me while wincing.
“Why? Plenty of women have labiaplasties and so there’s a good chance that some of them will read it and be able to relate.”
“Yeah but they won’t be the only ones who’ll read it. You don’t control your audience. What if a future employer sees it? Your future husband? Don’t you think they’ll be turned off by that?”
We were driving in the car on our way to one of our favorite restaurants and I could see how her facial expression went from content to mortified: her eyes shifty and her jaw tight. I was partially relieved that because her hands had to be on the steering wheel, she couldn’t slap me on the back of the head. On the other hand, I felt bad because it was only she and I who were together for my surgery and now I wanted to break that specialness by letting the whole world into that experience.
I wanted to tell my mother that any future employer I had would most likely be through my writing and if I crafted said piece with enough delicateness then he or she would be impressed, irrespective of topic. I also wanted to tell her that I don’t want to attract and marry any man who would consider me writing about my own personal surgery as a turn-off, but this assertion wasn’t necessarily true. Once I fully placed myself in my body and wrote through the pain that was pulsating from my vulva and extending outward, I felt I could no longer hide. Writing about my “down there” was as real as it gets because the area is so politicized. If I had burnt my elbow, sprained my ankle, or had a head injury, neither my mother nor I would have trepidation about me penning an essay on any of the aforementioned afflicted spots.
Because the vagina can bring forth life, any of its other workings, such as menstruation for example, is stigmatized. Despite many political discussions deciding what to do about the vagina—abortion, reproductive rights, sex workers’ rights—it remains taboo, visible and unseen. As a writer, I faced the same paradox. Writing about intra-communal issues or the men I dated , in comparison, now seemed like a cakewalk. My selfhood could easily fold into those bigger narratives. When writing about my labiaplasty, however, I had to remain present and expose every bloody detail.
This is pain. I chose to honor it by giving voice to that pain because so much thought about labiaplasty is surrounded by this notion that any person who undergoes the procedure does it because we want to look attractive for men. When I wake up or return to my bedroom, I am my only concern, not men. To assume that I invite the male gaze every time I look between my legs is reinforcing the superiority of men and takes away the power of my own eyes, my own perception of who I am. I didn’t want the perfect-looking vulva. I just wanted one that didn’t hurt me on a hot, summer day, when I wore stockings or shorts, or when I wore clothes in general.
One writer in particular inspired me to write about my body. Lara Parker is a BuzzFeed staff writer who wrote a heartbreaking and thoughtful essay on her vaginismus and how it affected her dating life. Unlike me, Parker’s parents did not voice their concerns about her writing so candidly and vulnerably about her body. Despite this familial support, Parker was nervous about the consequences of her decision, particularly when it came to her dating options: “At the time that I wrote the first piece, I was at a point in my life where I had almost accepted that I just wasn’t going to seriously date anyone. It sounds very dramatic in retrospect, but I had never had a positive dating experience up to that point and figured I never would as you do when you’re in your early ’20s I suppose.
“Once it was out and I became interested in different men, I almost felt bad for them. I feel a sense of duty in a way to use my platform to talk about these conditions so that other women don’t have to. Hopefully someday it will just be understood that these conditions happen and it won’t be so taboo. Until then, I’ll continue to talk about it. It doesn’t feel taboo to me anymore. Saying ‘my vagina hurts’ almost feels the same as saying, ‘I have a headache.’ It’s taken me a long time to get there, and anyone who is in my life—romantic or otherwise—has to accept that.”
My essay went up on Fusion’s website early one morning before I had a chance to emotionally prepare myself. “I used to call it my second tongue” is how I began the essay. The editor-in-chief of the site tweeted the link to the piece with that particular quote. Well it’s out there , I thought. Can’t take it back now. I watched as my notifications in my mentions grew bigger and bigger, and then I logged off, made myself breakfast, and took my medication.
As I gritted my teeth and tried not to worry about when the stitches would disappear on their own and I’d be back to feeling normal once more, I questioned if because I wrote about what was so sacred to me that I had lost some enigma in the process. Maybe I was more captivating not talking about and centering on my body as my own community and relationship. But soon I realized my body of work was widening, becoming more of an extension of my own flesh and not a resistance to it.
Because I do not see my mind and body as adversaries in regard to my writing, I am a part of a legacy of black women who reclaim their bodies through art. In Roxane Gay’s bestselling memoir Hunger , she writes, “The story of my body is not a story of triumph.” When the South African artist Zanele Muholi had a cancer scare, she turned the camera on herself, creating autobiographical portraits. In a profile by Jenna Wortham of The New York Times , Muholi tells Wortham that photography is her form of therapy, an exploration of her personality, and a way through which she can suck the “troubled history in her marrow.” Although Gay and Muholi are artists of two different mediums, I consider their words to interact with one another.
Yes, our bodies have gone through hardships, especially with how the world disrupts our living, but we cannot forget that history. Maybe, each part of my body, from my coily hair to the calluses on the soles of my feet, is imprinted with a memory that will inform me about myself and in turn assist me in creating art. To ignore the biggest proof I have of my own history and existence in this messy world would place me at a great disadvantage of evolving as a person and writer. Maybe I should confront both the triumph and pain with equal consideration and attention. After all, history never promises beauty, but it does deliver with substance.
It’s been about eighteen months since my original labiaplasty essay. Both my writing and body have changed. The stitches have disappeared. My smaller labia still feels weird to touch. Those moments when I do decide to touch it, I worry that the pain is going to resurface and incapacitate me. As a writer, I feel that now that I have written about the most sensitive part of my body, I can write about literally anything else. But what has been the most liberating part of this journey is that although I wrote about my vagina, I don’t feel like my privacy was violated because unknown people read it. Nothing was taken from me. Rather, I gave something—my story of pain and body modification—and in return, I received strength that I can put myself out there and still be whole. Looking back on when I felt like disparate parts, I needed to write to smooth any side of me that felt compromised. Because of this steadfastness, I feel proud of myself for trusting that my body was more powerful than I ever thought it could be.