Twenty years ago, I don’t think I really knew who I was. I had a lot of ideas about titles I wanted to take on — poet, professor, mother, genius — but very little idea about how I wanted to be in the world.
One of the things I’ve figured out in the past two decades is that I want to be The Person Who. In my head I even run a mythical business, offering such services as The Person Who Starts the Buffet Line, The Person Who Takes the Last Donut, The Only Person in the Audience Laughing.
A colleague in poet school already knew I might go in a different direction.
K. taught English to adults from other countries who worked for a company in downtown Seattle. She learned that many if not all of the women had not had a gynecological exam with an English-speaking doctor, if ever, and she decided she would escort each woman to the doctor and act as a translator.
This was not a natural and comfortable position for her, but it was something she felt strongly about doing. To make herself feel more able to handle the situation, she pretended she was me.
Forty-eight-year-old me hears this very differently from twenty-eight-year-old me. At the time, I wasn’t sure how to take it. I probably made a joke out of it. You make me think I’m capable of taking non-English-speaking women to the gynecologist! She didn’t even know my history of seeing a non-English-speaking doctor when I had a UTI in Mexico, a challenging but necessary experience.
But somewhere away from the surface discomfort and giggles of that conversation, I wanted to be that woman. I still do. I’d love to be a woman who inspires other women to be more open about their bodies, to talk more honestly and comfortably about the containers we love with and hate with, not just love and hate.
I spent several hours in the company of people who care about bodies, especially women’s bodies, over the past two days. Yesterday, I was a breast-exam model for medical students, and today I learned how to be a pelvic-exam model. I’ll get my first med-school exam next week, and I’m going to get a lot of pelvics over the next couple weeks.
From the outside and in the abstract, there’s an oddness about signing up for this kind of work. Most of the people I told about this job have said, “Good for you / Someone’s gotta do that, but I never would / I never thought about it being necessary to have practice models for MDs, but it makes sense.” Most of the people I’ve told have been women, with the exception of my husband, and he’s the only one I’ve really joked about with it.
It’s not that I’m particularly reverent about such things, but I remember a woman who was in the Vagina Monologues with me who said she wouldn’t want to be around a room full of people playing with speculums. In my recent and limited experience with speculums, they are the subject of discomfort and joking on film sets but in a clinical setting, the discussion focuses on practical issues, and everyone who is handling one treats it as a tool with design benefits and limitations and proper and improper use.
In fact, that might be said about vulvas and their layers. So much of my orientation focused on how to help med students help women my giving appropriate exams, and everybody was rooting for the whole thing to go well, to be as comfortable as possible for all parties, and not to get too flustered by the oddness of a room full of strangers sharing a very private view.
Suddenly, I’m remembering the last time I underwent multiple pelvic exams by large groups of med students. I went to the E/R in the middle of the night at the end of my second-to-last quarter in college with severe abdominal pain. Since pain is one of the body’s modes of communication, they didn’t give me anything for it as they tried to figure out what was causing my pain. It could have been appendicitis, it could have been something uterine or fallopian, and so my abdomen and my pelvis was poked and prodded repeatedly. At the time, I was so focused on getting help that every time I was offered the opportunity to be a live model for a squad of students, I said fine. Fucking fine, just figure out the source of my pain and get me out of here.
So maybe I started being The Person Who a lot longer ago than I thought. I know now I’m a member of a group of women who, for various reasons, sign up to be pelvic and breast models because somebody has to do it, and it might as well be someone who is pretty calm about the whole thing.
And though I might be pretty calm about the whole thing, I did notice a tendency coming forward to be quiet, attentive, and intently focused during the whole process. How to quiet a Pearl: Put her in a new situation where she’ll want to do the best job possible using innate or easily accessed skills that might be intuitive but need to be employed carefully.
So I listened, and I learned, and I liked it, and I’ll be back next week and probably next year. I am just that kind of person.