At the age of 16, Tasha Bishop was diagnosed with MRKH, a condition that affects one in every 5,000 women. It means you are born without a vagina, cervix and uterus. Formally known as Mayer Rokitansky Küster Hauser syndrome, those who are affected never get periods or give birth to their own children, and without invasive treatment, can’t have penetrative sex. Although life-changing, Tasha’s diagnosis led her to start vital conversations surrounding fertility, with the 22-year-old creating her own charity The Pants Project and most recently a podcast called Body Language. Here she talks to Refinery29 about her extraordinary life...
How did you first come to find out about your condition?
When I was 16, I broke my hand playing hockey at school. My mum took me to hospital for it to be X-rayed and have a cast put on it and I was sitting on a bench outside when a woman in labour was wheeled past me on a bed. Up until that day, I hadn’t really given my lack of periods too much thought – I just sort of assumed they would arrive sometime soon. When I was 12, I fabricated a lie using some red food colouring from my mum’s cooking cupboard, pouring the whole bottle all over my whitest pair of pants so I could show my friends that I was like them, too. I was the last girl in my year at school who hadn’t started her period, and I felt so obtuse and odd that I just wanted to be part of the period club. I wanted to be grown-up and sit on the side of the pool with the other period girls while they watched the boys swim during PE lessons. I wanted to complain and eat crap for a week every month. Since I fake-perioded myself into society at 12 years old though, I hadn’t really given my period a second thought…until seeing that woman in the hospital. It was almost like a premonition: I knew if I didn’t get my period, I would never be pregnant. I couldn’t face the waiting game any longer, so I went to my GP, who told me there was nothing wrong and "a watched kettle never boils". I went back a month or so later and demanded some tests. After many, MANY doctor’s appointments, ultrasounds, tears and statements like "There's probably nothing wrong with you, I’m sure you’re just a late bloomer," I was finally diagnosed.
I went to my GP, who told me there was nothing wrong and 'a watched kettle never boils'.
What did your diagnosis mean for your plans to have children?
I often joke that I’m a really bad feminist because all I wanted growing up was to be a mother. I wanted the white picket fence life, with babies to look after and children to laugh with. Since my diagnosis, I would say that I’ve become so much more aware of how the 'mum dream' is literally tied up in a perfect happy ribbon and sold to young girls. I always had dolls growing up and Baby Annabell was my prize possession… There was never a point when anyone sat me down and said: Children do not magically appear from your body, you might very well not have children, and actually you are capable of so much more than being a mother.
Did the diagnosis affect your relationships?
Inside, I felt my relationships with my female friends sour. I was jealous of everything their bodies could do, and annoyed that they didn’t really sympathise. They tried to rationalise everything and told me that science would be so advanced by the time we were all 30, it wouldn’t matter anyway, and I was lucky I didn’t have a period every month. I know they were trying to be supportive in a carefree 16-year-old way, but I’d had to grow up about 10 years in two weeks, and no longer felt carefree in any way. Romantic relationships-wise, my diagnosis changed everything. I didn’t want to be anywhere near boys. I didn’t want them to touch me or know anything about me or my body. I was seeing a guy for a month or so before I met my current boyfriend, and fell for him pretty hard. I trusted him and tried to tell him about my MRKH syndrome. He dumped me the next day, on Christmas Eve. Then, out of nowhere, the guy I’ve been with for nearly six years walked into my life. I told him about MRKH and the ways it would affect me and us as a couple, and obviously I was terrified. He took it like I was telling him the weather – completely unflinchingly, which was perfect. The treatment to have sex is different for different MRKH women, but generally it means you go into hospital for a week for the treatment and they tell you it’s best if you’re in a relationship where you’re having sex regularly. Since I was pretty busy with important exams from 16 to 18, it wasn’t until I was 19 that I could have the treatment that would enable me to have sex. I’m very lucky that my boyfriend loved me and was patient enough to wait nearly two years, but I can’t imagine it’s that 'easy' for a lot of other MRKH women. It’s also not something that then goes away. Every time we have sex or I try to masturbate or anything like that, it’s either physically painful or psychologically jarring. Instead of enjoying myself, my mind goes right back to lying on a hospital bed, having doctors help me create a clinical vagina.
How did the diagnosis make you feel about being a woman?
When I was first diagnosed, at 16, I felt totally body dysmorphic. One of the last post-diagnosis MRKH tests I had to do was a hormone test. The (male) doctor looked at my breasts and said, "Looking at you, I’m sure everything’s fine, but we’re just going to run a hormone test to check you’re 100% female." I’d gone from assuming I was a normal girl for 16 years of my life to suddenly being told I have this undefinable body that’s missing things that identify it as female. Suddenly, I didn’t know what it meant to be feminine. I didn’t know what was socially or scientifically thought of as feminine. I had to invent my own definition and convince myself that how I felt inside my own mind – a heterosexual biological female – is how I should define my gender, femininity and sexuality. That convincing took a long time. I took a lot of inspiration from the trans community; they so bravely trust their instincts, despite the battering ram of bullying they face from society in regards to their own definition as humans. It really inspired me to take control of my own mind, body and 'definition'. Nowadays, I don’t believe in binary definitions or definitions in any shape or form really. I hope the children I one day adopt will be able to grow up in a world that allows them to be whoever they choose to be.
How does it affect your life now?
It affects me differently on different days. On the bad days, it rules everything: how I react to female friends (rightfully) complaining about period pain, how I feel about seeing a pregnant woman or random children in the street, how much I enjoy sex, how I feel about my body, how I feel about feminism – pretty much how I feel about everything. On the good days, it’s easier to put it into a box in my mind and separate it from the rest of the world.
Do you ever feel left out of conversations with friends regarding sex or having children?
I used to. My friends at school would name their children and discuss future lives where they’d all be godmother to each other’s children. I would hate that, I’d shrink into my mind and sit there in stony silence wishing I could scream at them all to wake up and realise how unsympathetic they were being. Now, I’m in a much better place and have accepted that there will be conversations I can’t relate to but that doesn’t mean that motherhood is a pie I can’t have a slice of. I will be a mother in my own way. I also now have very close female friends who involve me in all children conversations in an empathetic way. They sit with me in the hole of misery during bad days, and have the difficult conversations that other people feel too awkward to broach. Conversations about sex are different. I am very happy in my relationship and don’t want to be single or sleeping with anyone else, but I found university especially difficult when friends would come back in the morning after a one-night stand and I’d feel a strange pang of jealously that even if I were single, I could never really have carefree, one-night stand sex. My body just isn’t really capable of it. On a different tack, I feel particularly left out of online feminist community conversations when women talk about their bodies being divine because they are fertile and create life etc. I think if we are centring feminism in the fertile, biologically female body, we have a big problem.
How do you feel about having children now?
I have looked into various options and I think I will make a decision about children with my partner when I’m ready, on my own terms. I know there will be children in my life one way or another – motherhood is just a part of who I am as a person – but until I’ve made that decision, I don’t feel I have to share it with the world. I share so much of my body, story and intimate life decisions with the world through The Pants Project, I want children – whenever and however they come about – to be a life entity that stays personal to me.