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The uterus: a mystery organ

A deep-dive into the uterus

Text: Marie Voerman

Images: Islay Kilgannon and Rozan Snoek

Every month, I lie on my couch with a heat pack on my stomach and a blood-filled pad stuck on my period panties. On the second day of my period, as I’m drugged up on the most painkillers I’m medically allowed to take, some questions race through my mind. How can a tiny, ten by two centimetres, pouch of flesh in my body wreak so much havoc? And what is that uterus even up to all the time?

A place of life, a place of legislation and a place sometimes avoided like the plague. About half of the population houses, within their bodies, an organ both most and least spoken about: the uterus. But there is a lot about the uterus that we do not know. Despite there being a lot of debate surrounding the uterus in pregnancy, its undesired functions are often swept under the rug. This causes us to often forget that in and of itself, the uterus is ‘just’ an organ that we should study and try to understand, both biologically and socially.

The (Occasionally) Generous Host To understand what the uterus does, and why, it’s important to understand what its function is as an organ. Unfortunately this is sometimes not covered properly in class, or even skipped due to educators being uncomfortable with the subject matter. So here’s a brief synopsis of what we are, supposed to be, taught about the uterus. In essence, the uterus functions as a part of the reproductive system, alongside the fallopian tubes, the ovaries and the vagina. It’s a place where a fertilized egg can nestle itself into the endometrium, the gooey walls of the uterus, and where it can then be protected and nourished as it forms into a foetus. Sounds simple enough, right? Except what we are taught only covers the way the uterus functions when the person with the uterus is pregnant. That other huge part of their life, the uterus is still inside the body and going through the cycle of becoming fertile every month. For the first three weeks of the month, it’s busy cleaning itself and its surroundings with PH-levels and moving out all unwanted materials through discharge. Alongside that, it works hard to create the perfect, cosy conditions of soft walls and warmth to welcome a fertilized egg with open arms. But most of the time, the desired fertilized guest does not visit and the uterus has to kick out any unfertilized, unwanted visitors. This means, every month, we as ‘uterus carriers’ get to enjoy the feeling of the endometrium being torn down and having to push all the unwanted contents out during week-long mini-births. Oh, joy.

The (Gender) Marker Being aware of what the uterus is up to, however, does not entirely mean understanding the uterus entirely yet. The uterus has become much more than its functionality. Symbolically, the uterus has become an enigma with much more importance than it is often given when it comes to its literal functions. An aspect of this is that the uterus has been considered an inherently ‘female’ organ for a long time. Biologically, a person is labelled as ‘female’ when a vagina can be externally observed and a uterus internally identified. However, not only is a person only labelled ‘female’ when they have a uterus, that uterus also has to function. The satirical show South Park aired an episode dedicated to the importance of a functioning uterus to consider someone as truly ‘female’. When character Mr. Garrison goes through a sex change to get her physical appearance to match her gender, she finds out her sex change does not mean she will be able to carry a child. She then goes on to announce to everyone in the town that anyone who does not have a working uterus should still be considered a man. Though this is a satirical show, there is a strong core of truth in this idea. Not only the uterus, but also the functioning of the uterus is necessary for someone to be labelled as a true ‘female’.

The (Un)Spoken Horrors Besides the position of the uterus in the gender debate; there are quite a few controversial aspects central to the uterus. One of which is the early termination of a pregnancy, or, abortion. Every time a person with a uterus decides to think about abortion, there are about twenty people weighing in on the topic and investigating it, or legislating it, in detail. At the same time, however, once a person has decided to have an abortion, it should never be spoken of or brought up ever again. The same controversy goes for everything else that comes from the uterus that is not a fully-formed baby. For instance, period blood. Though periods are essential for a cycle of a functioning uterus, they are not supposed to be talked about. In high school, I remember us passing around pads and tampons like drugs, hidden in sleeves or hastily stuffed in pockets. When in pain, people on their periods have to muscle through it and not complain. In commercials about period products, red-coloured liquids are avoided like the plague while simultaneously trying to show that these products can prevent blood leakage. This shows that not only are periods not to be discussed, but they are also to be hidden. This is only worse when it comes to discharge. Though, like mentioned earlier, discharge is necessary to keep the uterus healthy and happy, merely the mentioning of the cloudy, acid-smelling liquid gets most people cringing away from conversation. All these examples showcase a few simple facts. As long as people with uteruses only discuss things such as pregnancy, then the uterus is one of the most sacred and important organs of the so-called ‘female’ body. But once that same uterus bleeds, expels discharge or aborts; it’s to be discussed as little as possible.

The Reality (Check) Now that we have gone over what the uterus does and why it has become so important, it is time to look at a final, serious issue. Due to the lack of basic knowledge about the uterus and the uterus’ social ‘grossness’ controversy, we often have to deal with the dangerous consequences of misinformation and ignorance. As someone with a uterus, there was so much I didn’t know due to queasiness regarding the topic. I thought discharge was weird, I thought PH-levels discolouring my panties meant I was sick, but I also thought that excruciating pain during my period was normal and should be ignored. Many people with uteruses don’t know if something is off with their uterus because we aren’t taught what it’s supposed to do in everyday life. And even when something is off, it’s often blamed on issues such as stress or even just plain exaggeration. So, with these issues in mind, and now that you and I know what the uterus does, I say it’s time to delve into the uterus for real. Let’s throw our bloodied, discoloured or discharge-covered panties on the table and talk about it. Let’s delve into the discomfort surrounding the uterus and all the things society has made of that tiny, fleshy pouch until we’ve learned to deal with it. And then let’s give the uterus the attention it deserves, the same way every other organ does.

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