Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Vagina A Re-Education - Lynn Enright

This post is probably going to send the spam I get about gynaecology clinics in Hanoi into overdrive. So be it.

I've more or less read this book twice now, it's looking distinctly battered after weeks of being carted around, and the margins are full of notes. It's a long time since I read something that felt so important and life changing. Better yet, it looks like there are a few nooks about vaginas and vulvas in the offing.

I'm in my mid 40's,  have had pcos and period related issues since my late teens, and thought I was reasonably knowledgeable - turns out there's a lot I didn't know I didn't know. I really wish a book like this had been available 30 years ago, not even for the questions it answers, but for the ones it asks, the language it gives you, and the conversations it encourages.

The language is the first, and maybe most important, thing here. My family isn't noticibly prudish, neither are my friends but vagina or vulva are seldom used words - it's always euphemisms. But if you're not comfortable using the correct terms it makes it so much harder to have a conversation with your GP if something seems off, and so much easier to have concerns brushed aside. Enright normalises the vocabulary and that alone is a gift.

So is her repeated, and very sensible, advice to see a doctor if you have concerns about periods, pain, or changes - my experience is that women are not told this enough or generally given much idea of what might be a cause for concern. I had 20 years of being brushed off by GP's before being lucky enough to get an appointment with a gynaecologist who was so indignant on my behalf that thinking about it still makes me cry (mostly with gratitude, a bit of anger). I hope that things are getting better, but chances are they're not changing that quickly, and we need all the information we can get.

I also really appreciate how open Enright has been about her own experiences. There's a lot of personal information in here of the sort that people don't generally share even with the closest of friends, again maybe because we don't always have the language to do it. Not particularly wanting to talk about something is okay, but not knowing how to, or feeling you can't is another thing altogether. The discussions I've had about this book with friends have led to a ridiculous amount of penny dropping moments (a lot of people are going to get a copy as a present this year).

The amount of discussion reading this has sparked has been enlightening as well. The chapters cover biology and geography (for want of a better word), orgasms, appearances, periods, fertility,
menopause, pregnancy, and more. Feminism is central, but it's not an easily definable book. It's more or less an overview of a whole lot of things, and if it's specifically pitched at anyone I'd guess it's girls in their teens - who in many ways would be the demographic most in need of a lot of this information.

Really though a book like this should be a household staple, if you have a vagina, or know someone who does there's going to be useful stuff for you in here. It's not a perfect book - I think the chapter on fertility or the lack of it could have had something about women who choose not to have, or accept that they cannot have children, and how society views that. But then each chapter could be expanded into a book of its own, and at least this book is a conversation opener.

What it does brilliantly is underline the range of experience that falls under normal. Again, when I was hitting puberty the books available described periods as something easy that you would sail through (descriptions like The Curse, or A Woman's Monthly Duty, suggested differently) with no real acknowledgment of how painful or limiting they can be. It's the same when we talk about pregnancy, we don't talk about miscarriage much at all for something so common. It's only because I have a friend who has been vocal about it that I now know ante natal depression is a thing.

Menopause isn't mentioned much either apart from not very funny jokes. Maybe because to acknowledge it would be to admit that we ought to be making more effort, especially in the workplace, to accommodate women going through it. To be able to read about all of these things in a way that feels honest, and points you in the direction of more information, is huge.


  1. I think it would probably be post-natal depression rather than ante. I know I suffered greatly after the birth of my daughter but was quite excited beforehand.

    All of that is very far behind me now, I am very pleased to say. I am glad that you have found a book which resonates with you.

    1. Antenatal depression is estimated to affect between 7 - 20% of women, and is often a precursor to postnatal depression. I doubt I'd ever have heard about it all if it wasn't for the friend who is dealing with it at the moment. It's not something that's mentioned in this book either (or at least not that I remember) but is another indicator of how badly informed we still are about women's health generally

      Some of the conversations I've had with my mother and close friends about this book have been really illuminating. Things we have all experienced, have been a bit worried about, but which turn out to be quite normal, or things that some GP's have dismissed which others have taken much more seriously. But most of all things that we just hadn't thought to talk about before because generally you just don't.

      There seems to be quite a bit being published at the moment about women's health so hopefully these conversations will become more natural. I certainly think it would helip a lot of women if they were, especially when it comes to things like smear tests, menopause, endometriosis- the list goes on...

  2. I will look out for this book - I read The Wonder Down Under last year (which was eye opening) but it stopped before perimenopause, which was very frustrating for me. But the rest of the book was fabulous and I learnt a lot.
    I also have not heard about ante-natal depression before either.

    1. I'll look out for that. Menopause is discusses, but not in particular detail, and paartly focusing on attitudes towards it (a not very funny joke, and something that women are just expected to cope with). she does talk about some of the physical changes though. I don't know how good doctors are about peri menopause- though I'm not far away from finding out. Altogether though I have found this book incredibly useful.