When Natasha Bishop was 13 she poured red food colouring on her knickers because she didn’t want to be “found out” as the only girl in her friendship group not to have started her period.
It was another three years before she decided to tell her mates – and her mum – that she still didn’t have periods, because for a long time, she didn’t realise that a lack of blood could be a sign of an underlying medical condition. “Even during GCSE biology you’re never really taught about the other side of fertility – you’re never taught about infertility and how that occurs,” Bishop, now 22 says.
After breaking her wrist while playing hockey at 16, she saw a pregnant woman in hospital – “it was almost an epiphany moment,” she explains. “I realised that was never going to be me unless I had a period. I started doing my own research and googled every possibility for why I might not have had one,” she says.
But while Bishop wanted to find out more about what was happening with her body, several doctors seemed keen to dismiss her concerns. “It will come,” they told her, as she tried to convince them to run tests.
“I think doctors underestimate how much intuition a 16-year-old has about their own body,” she says. “People saw me as still a child, but I always knew that there was something that was amiss. I think if I’d been taken more seriously, I would have felt like less of a freak when I got my diagnosis.”
Finally, after months of doctors appointments and tests, she was diagnosed with Mayer-Rokitansky-Kuster-Hauser syndrome (MRKH), a condition affecting one in 5,000 cisgender women. She had been born without a womb and would be unable to biologically have children.
MRKH causes the internal vagina and uterus/womb to be underdeveloped or absent, despite the external vulva appearing “normal”. The diagnosis was a shock: “The weirdest thing was knowing that I’d lived my entire life up until that point with it, but never knowing about it,” Bishop says. “It’s really strange to learn this brand new thing about yourself at the age of 16 when you’re already trying to figure out a lot about yourself.”
The insensitivity of some doctors only made the situation more difficult. At one appointment, a male doctor looked directly at the teenager’s chest and recommend a hormone test to check she was “100% female”.
Even after dealing with these challenges, Bishop had to grapple with knowing she would not be able to have children biologically. “Being told that I couldn’t have children was like losing a child I hadn’t had yet,” she reflects. ”Dealing with that felt like dealing with the loss of someone I knew.” She’s still learning to navigate that grief, but hopes to adopt in the future.
She began to come to terms with her diagnosis after being referred to MRKH experts at Queen Charlotte’s and Chelsea Hospital in London. With the help of supportive nurses and doctors, at 18 she had treatment to allow her to have sex with her boyfriend.
Skin graft surgery adjusted the underdeveloped vagina, and then Bishop had to use dilators three times a day to stretch the vagina, at first under the supervision of nurses and then at home. It was physically painful, but the mental challenges were worse. “There’s a big stigma around female masturbation in society anyway and that was basically my first introduction to it,” Bishop reflects. “It makes you feel really dirty, that you have to be in hospital just to have sex.”
She began to feel depressed about her body and her own perceived womanhood. “I know it sounds bizarre, but I just kept thinking when I was lying there that I was almost like a robot, or a cyborg, something that had been created and altered for someone else’s pleasure,” she says.
At her lowest point in hospital, she shared her feelings of dehumanisation with a nurse who made an unusual suggestion: buy a pair of knickers that make you feel like a superwoman. The tip gave Bishop the boost she needed and from there, The Pants Project was born.
The project, which Bishop, now in her third year of university, runs alongside her studies, sells empowering undies for charity, runs events and provides a platform for women to share their stories about infertility and other struggles with reproductive health.
“Growing that community has been the most cathartic, community-based therapy for me,” Bishop says. “When I found out about MRKH, I felt really alone; I felt like there was no one to talk to my age about infertility because everyone was in their 30s or 40s and married, but that’s just a whole different ball game.”
The project hasn’t made diagnosis any easier, but it has provided Bishop with an extended support network for tough days. A continual battle, she says, is being asked “Is there any chance you’re pregnant?” during unrelated doctor’s appointments. “You would think it would be on record somewhere that I am never going to be pregnant and it’s a traumatic thing to bring up every time,”
To stay positive, she plans to focus on growing The Pants Project movement, which currently has more than 7,000 members, to reflect the diverse experiences of infertility in society.
“Because IVF is quite a privileged solution to infertility it means that the face of infertility – I hate to say it – is the face of a sad, rich, white woman. My main focus of The Pants Project at the moment is making the conversation around infertility far more class diverse and race diverse. Infertility, in all it’s aspects, is not discriminatory, but we only hear one story about it.”
She’s chosen to share her own story to empower other women experiencing problems with their reproductive health.
“I want to share the power I’d gained from something as simple as underwear, to afford women more freedom to talk about their bodies and feel that they’re not shunned from society,” she says. ”Women are capable of anything despite the genetic makeup of their bodies.” We couldn’t say it better ourselves.
Natasha Bishop will appear at Young, Gifted And Infertile on 30 April, part of Fertility Fest at the Barbican, London, running from —