Tuesday, February 28, 2006

The born again feminist

I'll admit it. I'd never really thought about feminism much.

Not that I haven't known that I'm only able to not think about it because of the sacrifices many women before me have made. When I went to visit my great-grandmother before leaving to go to my freshman year of college, she grabbed my hands and remarked wistfully about how I have opportunities she never did. I can tell you at that moment I tingled with gratitude from my toenails to my split-ends.

Yet, those days of discrimination and oppression were over, right? I was never told I couldn't be anything I wanted to be because I was a woman. I was never treated any differently by my professors. I was accepted to top graduate programs in my field (Middle East/Arab Studies). The only time gender ever came into anything was when I was having my period or got the unsolicited lecture about "don't you know how they treat women over there?" when I would state what my research field was (because, you know, though I've studied three Middle Eastern languages as well as visited the region, I wouldn't know ANYTHING about that...).

Sure, I was aware that women were still significantly underrepresented in the academy. That the same struggle to gain tenure that our male colleagues faced also just happened to coincide with the time we were most fertile. And they were points I argued with those same male colleagues who would try to assert that they had to make the same choices about family during that time too.

But was I a feminist? Well, perhaps in a vague sort of way. It certainly wasn't the first label I'd give myself. I mean, feminists were those bra-burning, abortion-obsessed, Ms. Magazine-writing man-haters from the 1970s.

So I had to laugh with Germaine Greer when a Vatican letter in 2004 excoriated feminism. Seriously, had Ratzinger not left the Vatican in thirty years?

And then several months back I was surprised when, during an email exchange with a guy from a Usenet group that I participate in he described himself as a feminist. People still called themselves that? Yet that time I also felt rather sheepish. If a guy was taking feminism seriously, why the hell wasn't I?

Now that I'm no longer on the academic fast track and instead spend my days painfully aware of how little control I've had over my body for a very long time, feminism has begun to make a lot more sense to me.

My feminist awakening has come via my study of Orientalism, something all good little grad students in Middle East Studies do their first year. We trudged our way through Edward Said's fifty-word sentences and learned that the Orient was a concept created by elite Europeans in order to dominate them politically, militarily, and economically. These elites then became the authorities on the Orient, rather than those who actually lived there. Indeed, Orientals couldn't possibly be experts on the Orient because, well, they were Orientals and therefore weak, emotional, misogynist, sensual, and violent. In other words, incapable of being experts. At best they could be taught, like little children, how to have democracy and a market economy.

While I struggled to make enough sense of Said to write my paper in grad school, I suddenly understood Orientalism as a patient. If you've ever been in the hospital when residents are doing their rounds, you know what it's like to be imagined and objectified. You are simply there for them to learn about. They are the experts about you. Indeed, you can't possibly be the expert because you are the patient, the constructed.

One might argue that there isn't the same political agenda behind what doctors do. They are not out to colonize their patients and use them to further their empires. They are there to help people. And it's very true that a lot of doctors go into medicine to help people. But patients are the means for their, often large, incomes. And indeed, sometimes even empires -- academic or otherwise.

I keep replaying my experiences over the last several months with the urologist I was seeing for these persistent urinary tract infections. He'd always walk in and call me "kiddo." At first there was an appeal about that. It made me feel sort of young and vibrant at a time when I felt anything but. At the third appointment he slapped the chart shut and said, "alright, I gotta get in there." So, his medical assistant came and prepped some instruments and then I undressed from the waist down and took my position on the table with my feet in stirrups. Then Dr. P came in and stuck something up my urethra. Now, I've felt a catheter in the past and it was uncomfortable, but this was excruciating. I could feel liquid going in and out and when it went out it hurt even more. "Ah, see, that's a sign of Interstitial Cystitis." He left for a moment and came back. "I'm going to do something called a DMSO wash," he said as he inserted something up the tube in my urethra. "Now you won't have to keep going to the bathroom all the time." But...I didn't have to go to the bathroom all the time and had never even said that I did. "And you won't keep having to get up all night to pee." But...I rarely get up at night to pee.

Was he even listening to me?

As some of you may remember, two hours later I was in the ER having to be catheterized because I couldn't pee at all. You are not more aware of how much control over your life you lack than when you're peeing unconsciously into a bag strapped to your leg.

The next morning when he decided to leave the catheter in for a few days, he gave me a sample bottle of Flomax. "This will help things calm down a bit," he said with such certainty, despite the fact that just three minutes earlier in response to my ER visit, he exclaimed, "I don't know what's wrong. I've never had that happen before."

When I got home I looked up the drug to make sure it wasn't going to interact with any of my other medications and found that Flomax is a drug for prostatitis. Um, he is aware that I don't have a prostate, isn't he?

He removed the catheter a few days later and had me come in every couple of weeks to check my pee for infection. I had told him that I usually don't show leukocytes in my urine. You have to culture it to find the infection. He did the first time, though assumed it was clean when he did the DMSO wash only to find out three days later when the results came back that I did indeed have an infection. But after that he never bothered with culturing. And when my urinanalyses were clean twice in a row, he sent me home with a "good girl" and "nice to see you again, kiddo" and a promise that he'd do a biopsy if I had another infection.

I knew something was still wrong. I mean, I was still in a hell of a lot of pain. But all I could think of at the time was what the hell is wrong with my body? Why wouldn't it just show leukocytes like it was supposed to? Why wouldn't the pain just go away now that nothing was apparently wrong with it? Why wouldn't it just be a good girl?

Yet there was also a part of me that kept feeling like the problem wasn't with my body but with him. Was all the "kiddo" and "good girl" a way of reinforcing the patriarchal dynamic in medicine? A way to remind me of my place?

So when the inevitable infection came (this time two separate bacteria at the same time!), I decided I needed to go in there remembering that I'm not a child but a woman with a serious health problem that needs to be adequately addressed. I wore my hair up to try and look as "grown-up" as possible. My appointment was first thing when the office opened. And though he may have double-booked the appointment so that this guy also had an appointment first thing, he saw the thirty something male lawyer wanting a vasectomy first. And though none of my appointments with Dr. P have ever lasted more than five minutes save for that disastrous DMSO wash, he spent 40 minutes shooting the breeze with this guy (I could hear because neither of our doors was closed). When he finally did come into my room, I stated that the infection had come back, and that I was returning to him as he had instructed and that my doctor said I needed to have a cystoscopy. He nodded curtly, slapped the chart shut and summoned the medical assistant to prep for the cystoscopy.

Huh? Everything I'd read about cystoscopies said that they took place under a general or local anesthetic, usually in a hospital OR. When I mentioned this to the medical assistant, she snapped that they weren't doing that today.

I undressed, but kept thinking, with memories of that awful pain from before, Michelle, you can't let him to do this do you.

When he came in, I lied and said that my doctor told me this was supposed to be done under anesthetic. He stopped for a second, then nodded and said, "yeah, let's do it in the hospital."

On the one hand, I was horrified that this guy was going to do a surgical procedure (minor though it was) without any consideration of my discomfort. Yet, on the other hand, it was the first time in my life I think I ever stood up for myself with a doctor. But even then, I did it by appealing to another doctor's expertise, not mine.

A few weeks after the cystoscopy, (which was normal), the anniversary of Roe v. Wade approached and Nate, my fellow editor at SRS, wanted to have an editorial post on abortion. He put together a nice post about consistent ethic of life and social justice and all, but ultimately I found myself uncomfortable with my earlier ambivalence about abortion. With all that I had been through with my body, with doctors making assumptions about it that have left me in the ER with a pulmonary embolism or my knee joint hemorrhaging or unable to pee, I could no longer privilege what might be a life over what is definitely a life. I couldn't agree with men in Washington or the Vatican deciding what should happen to my body. With them not trusting me enough to make the decisions I need to make for my body at any given moment. For the first time, I so got that old pro-choice slogan my body, my choice.

And a few weeks after that as I read through the posts in the Big Fat Carnival, I thought even more about how doctors and lawmakers and insurance executives and ad agencies are telling me what my body should look like and be like and feel like.

After years and years of being bullied for being fat or ignored because my illness doesn't fit a recognized medical narrative, I found myself wanting to scream at those who have for so long controlled my body, ENOUGH! It's my body, not yours. I have to actually live in this damn thing. I have live with whatever assumptions and decisions you make about it. I have to make choices that feel best for me, and I shouldn't be made to feel guilty about it. I shouldn't be shamed into doing what others, who don't personally have to live with the consequences of said choices, believe I should do. I'm the expert on it, not you. I know every little thing it does or doesn't do, even if I can't explain it with whatever terminology you hide behind.

And ultimately, I'm not the first to insist on a right to decide about what happens to me. That's what feminism is for. Why it's still here for me to connect to.

We'd come a long way, baby, indeed in the 70s, but feminism is hardly passe. I'm grateful for it here, right now.


Anonymous said...

Very good, you have something there, those are healthy thoughts. Continue to cultivate them and spread your reality to others by beeing real and true.

Michelle said...

Thanks! I'm working learning to do what my grandpa told me: be your own person. I suppose this post chronicles one way I'm trying to do that. :)