We Open Ourselves:
Autoethnographic Research as a Healing Process
by Meredith Eget
Autoethnography, or the research approach that utilizes the autobiographic data and the recognized social positions of its researchers, is often dismissed as illegitimate and subjective “me-search.” However, this characterization ignores the inherently subjective nature of all research perspectives as well as the benefits of an autoethnographic approach. I argue that autoethnographic research can function as a healing process that teaches the researcher and readers to value their own perspective. Furthermore, I believe that research as a healing process is beneficial on a larger scale, as it allows the researcher to draw connections between experience and the power structures and social hierarchies at play in our society. I explore the narrative of my individual research journey with undergraduate gynecological care as a means of honoring my experience and modeling this methodological approach.
autoethnography, research, gynecology, feminism, me-search, healing
When I first visited the gynecologist, I arrived in a state of fear. I did not understand what was happening inside my body; from my perspective, it had begun to revolt against me. It had betrayed the trust established between us, and the cause couldn’t be less clear. The internet told me that my irregular menstrual cycle could be the evidence of anything from cervical cancer to mere stress, the latter an unhelpful theory as I had never known an academic career divorced from the feeling. The weeks that followed trudged forward with the weight of worlds on them as I carefully documented every irregularity, warning sign or cause for concern. I put my body up to a microscope during the day and cursed it silently at night.
The speculum itself was cold, the stirrups petrifying and the pain immediate. Though my doctor did his best to keep me in the present, walking me through his movements and inquiring about how I felt, I soon found myself drifting from the exam table, floating higher and higher above my body until I no longer occupied the room at all. Soon, the prying stirrups felt more like hands, the nurses at my side spectators. I didn’t know why I felt as I did. After all, as my mother had told me countless times before, the exam is just part of being a woman. It’s the pain we’re made to bare. I knew this, so why couldn’t I just bare it?
The diagnosis that followed and the confusion that persisted over the next few weeks led me to this project. Over the course of five appointments, I underwent every test possible to interpret my symptoms and the pain I experienced that day. From scans to ultrasounds to blood tests, I held out hope that the right answer—that is, the definitive and the fixable one— would suddenly materialize right before my eyes. Instead, I was told that my pain was seemingly inexplicable; every possible diagnosis I had collected like seashells on my journey to the exam table that day was thrown away in the impact of the words provoked vulvodynia.
In the olden days, they would have simply called me hysterical, my doctor told me. I had been handed a phantom diagnosis of sorts, the disorder for the otherwise perfectly functioning vulva, the pain without a cause. And though there existed medical terminology and treatment peer-reviewed enough to validate my lonely pain, I couldn’t help but wonder if the olden days had gotten it right. What’s more, when I turned to my peers in the following days to ask how their first gynecological experiences had gone, they only spoke of positive encounters that bore no resemblance to my own. Was I truly alone in my pain and discomfort? What was the pelvic exam experience like for other undergraduate students in the state like me? And was there a place for my pain at all?
Unknowingly, these questions began a research approach grounded in the validation I sought to grant my experience. When I found the research methodology of autoethnography, I was confronted with a bitter truth a lifetime in the making: I had never been taught how to speak or stand on my own. I argue that autoethnographic research can function as a healing process that teaches the researcher and readers to value their own perspective. Furthermore, I believe that research as a healing process is beneficial on a larger scale, as it allows the investigator to draw connections between experience and the power structures and social hierarchies at play in our lives. I explore the narrative of my individual journey with my research as a means of honoring my experience and modeling this methodological approach.
Autoethnography, or the research approach that analyzes “autobiographic data…to interrogate and interpret the culture in which [researchers] themselves are situated,” often gets a bad rap in the world of academia (Lapadat 2017, pp. 590). Commonly discredited as “me-search,” autoethnography offers researchers the ability to explore the communities they know best: the ones from which they originate themselves (Hoang 2015, pp. 20). Criticism for “me-search” is bolstered most frequently by the assumption that the personal cannot be objective, but what is objective research to begin with? And is there anything wrong with personally-motivated research in the first place?
Feminist theorists like Donna Haraway would argue instead that there is no “objective” researcher with a “God’s…Eye,” as we are all “warped” by “gender, race, and the world itself” in some way (Haraway 1988, pp. 576-577, 587). Our experiences, whether we exist on the intersections of countless identities or just a few, influence the way in which we perceive others. Combatting the myth of the objective researcher, Haraway argues, requires an acknowledgement of one’s social location, emotions and point of view. Put simply: good research cannot be done without an understanding of who is doing the research.
When we allow ourselves to believe that any one researcher is objective, we endow them with the power to assert claims about the experiences of other groups—often marginalized groups—with which they have no personal connection. At the same time, we vilify the researchers that choose to interrogate questions of their own identities and communities. The field of sociology often condemns such research as “illegitimate…[and] subjective” with the perception that the work of me-searchers does not “count” because they are simply “doing research on [themselves]” (Go 2020, pp. 79, 89). Notably, the term is typically used against marginalized groups, while other researchers—namely “white middle-class males”— that do not belong to the communities they study are respected for their supposed “objectiv[e]” and “generalizable” findings (89-90). This double standard does not preserve a so-called objectivity, but the racist, sexist and imperial legacies of sociological research. Thus, the value of autoethnography must be reconsidered as a counteractive approach to these legacies that may protect against sweeping generalizations and amplify the voices and needs of communities with researchers that understand these factors personally.
I am not one to trust myself. By all means and metrics, I am a citer. I search for academic validation and approval and fixate on a knowing nod and an upward thumb. I tell myself: my opinion is my shield, so long as it is shared by others.
An autoethnographic approach appealed to my research interests because a small voice inside wondered if writing my pain out onto pages for revision and substantiating it with citations of famed feminist scholars could solidify my experience into reality. While I didn’t feel prepared to speak as a gynecological care expert after my mere five appointments, I did feel an urgency to understand and to heal. That is: I began this project to meditate on my own experiences with gynecological care, so including my own thoughts, feelings and experiences as a gynecology patient felt not only right, but necessary to me. I was, and still am, individually invested in the findings of my research as a mode of activism and improvement, and I consider this a strength to my work rather than a hindrance. More personally, my subconscious mind hoped to find solidarity, to normalize my experience and to retire the shame that had been forced upon me and my body in an abstinence-only Georgian education system. In other words, I sought to heal.
I interviewed two fellow undergraduate students attending the University of Georgia and Kennesaw State University, as well as Dr. Nidhi Patel, a pelvic floor physical therapist in Athens, to gather my data. In seeking to understand such personal experiences, I felt that an interview in which I could build rapport with my interviewees, understand their background and put a human face to their medical experiences would be the best approach. My goal with this data collection was not to ascertain how many patients experience pain or discomfort during the pelvic exam, but to understand why this may be and how we may improve upon the experience for all patients. I did so through interviews because information of this kind is difficult to collect on a broad scale and I believe that one’s personal truth is important no matter how generalizable it may or may not be. Ironically, this was a belief I did not apply to my own truth at the time.
As I began my interviews, I found that I felt more isolated in my perspective than before. Both of my student interviewees did not experience the same extreme pelvic pain during their exams that I did; rather, they discussed feelings of general physical discomfort and occasional emotional unease. I realized then that I felt anger towards my body for reacting to the exam as it did and for isolating me from my interviewees. As I sat before my respondents, the tremor in my hands and the lump in my throat made plain the anxieties I felt internally as a small voice asked: What am I doing here? If my pain was mine alone, did that make it irrelevant?
At the same time, I wondered if seeking to answer such a question unintentionally centered my research on what Eve Tuck describes as a “damage-centered” framework, or that which “intends to document peoples’ pain and brokenness to hold those in power accountable for their oppression” (Tuck 2009, pp. 409). Could research be damage-centered even if the damage I sought to understand was my own? Would that make it any less harmful? I knew that in order to move forward I needed to zoom out of the frame of my own experience and focus on the larger structures at play. Moreover, I desired to know why I felt the need to relate my pain to others in order to validate its existence: perhaps it was a feeling many marginalized researchers and communities know well.
Something magical happened, however, when I interviewed Dr. Nidhi Patel. The barrier between us as doctor and student dissipated almost instantly, as the empathy and wisdom with which Dr. Patel spoke to me reminded me that my voice and research questions were not only welcome, but important to her. As she spoke of pelvic pain, discomfort and the successes and failings of sexual education and the medical system, I began to see my previous interviews in a new light. My peers and I may not have experienced the same type of discomfort, but regardless of those detailed differences, our discomfort still existed and mattered. More importantly, we could trace our pain back to similar sources: inadequate education and a lack of healthy communication at large.
Abstinence-only sex education left me and my second interviewee clueless about our own bodies and ashamed to look at them, let alone speak of them to anyone. We were told to ignore our bodies—how they looked, how they felt and what they desired—as a vow of purity and a promise to receive love. As a result, we sat on the exam table for the first time under the context of fear: fear of suspected STIs, unplanned pregnancies or medical conditions we knew nothing about. Guided by this fear, I elected not to ask too many questions in my appointments. The doctor’s got a full schedule, I told myself. Best to not keep them too long. In the name of efficiency, my second interviewee and I noted, we opened our legs, gritted down our teeth and clenched our fists at the discomfort. As we had been told before, pain for women is par for the course.
I held no previous knowledge of vulvodynia— or any of the tools used to ease the pelvic exam process for those living with the condition— prior to my first appointment. And still, believing my pain to be inevitable, inefficient, shameful and bothersome, I pushed myself to endure it in my second and third appointments even after I learned of my condition’s existence. In truth, I was not used to the experience of healthy communication and respect with my care providers. My history was one of erasures, of I-know-you-betters, and of blame redirected onto my BMI or my “frivolous” female emotions. It was a history that spoke before I could, and one that built me from childhood. How, then, was I to challenge such a legacy in the most vulnerable appointments of my life? How was I to trust and open myself up to the possibility of negation again?
Still, the inadequacies highlighted by my interviews revealed that our pain was not the fault of our gynecologists directly. All of my interviewees applauded their doctors or colleagues for their dedication to their patients’ comfort, and any failure to ensure this comfort they attributed to a case of miscommunication. In this way, I was able to focus my research on the broader socio-economic structures at play—such as the demanding nature of the medical field, the failures of abstinence-only sexual education and the demonization of female sexuality—to conceptualize the pelvic exam experience in a broader context. I learned to understand my negative health care experiences of years past in the context of the structures that permitted them to be: the patriarchy and its dismissal of women’s pain. Such an understanding comforted me with the knowledge that my condition was nothing to be ashamed of and that I belonged in these conversations. In addition, the personal experiences of myself and my interviewees shed light on the small-scale changes gynecologists and patients can enact to make the pelvic exam experience more positive for everyone involved.
Most importantly, Dr. Patel’s perspective allowed me to underline the power of hope in having such conversations. She illuminated for me various resources available to students, such as physical therapy and emotional support groups, that may help them cope with chronic pain, discomfort and shame. Moreover, the dedication of Dr. Patel to the physical and emotional wellbeing of her patients offers hope for the future of gynecological care and those patients with negative care experiences.
At the beginning of my research journey, I sought to find a pattern. I believed that if I could make the intimately personal broadly applicable, then I would feel legitimate in my perspective. And yet, I was entirely wrong. Interviewing women with experiences dissimilar to my own did not take from my perspective, but enriched it. In contextualizing my experience with those of other patients and the expertise of a medical professional invested in the improvement of gynecological care, I was able to decenter my damage and replace it instead with hope, solidarity and solutions. Rather than shunning my damage away, I brought it and all of its ugly intricacies to the surface in order to take back my own power. I realized that just as I gave space to the experiences of my interviewees, I needed to do the same for my own. My interviewees provided a context that I couldn’t, but that relationship wasn’t one-sided at all; rather, together, we constructed a broader scope in portraying the experiences of cisgender women, queer women, women of color and women living with chronic pain. At the same time, our personal narratives leave room for the study of others’ experiences, particularly those of patients living on the intersections of class, ability and gender identity.
As Kimberly Kay Hoang argues in the Appendix of her book Dealing in Desire: Asian Ascendency, Western Decline, and the Hidden Currencies of Global Sex Work, research often comes with “embodied costs,” or the things researchers may lose or give up in their journey to acquire data (Hoang 2015, pp. 193). Like Hoang, the embodied costs of my research “forever changed the way that I think and maneuver in my daily life,” but in a completely different sense (194). In my journey, the questions that I gave up on and the things that I lost helped me to heal and to grow. The insecurity and isolation that I felt in my separation from my interview subjects I learned to exchange for context, my anger for solutions and my despair for hope. The demands of an autoethnographic approach revealed to me that I was not prepared to honor my own voice as I did the voices of my interview subjects. In this way, autoethnography exposed the silence I had been taught to maintain my entire life as a woman and encouraged me to take myself and my experiences seriously, perhaps for the very first time.
If research holds the power to produce such negative embodied costs, it may also contribute to the complete opposite: healing. To me, healing meant learning to stand in my own perspective, no matter how unique I view it to be. It meant becoming comfortable talking about my body and my health, retiring my childhood shame and speaking up about my pain with my healthcare providers. To another, it could mean honoring a host of personal and sociopolitical pains, microaggressions and everyday patterns of harm as a tool of resistance and activism. For all, however, autoethnography permits us to respect our own experiences as data, to both recognize and decenter our pain through the perspectives of others, and to believe in the validity of our own words, even those that are not echoed by thousands. In doing so, we open ourselves to grow.
Go, J. (2020). Race, Empire, and Epistemic Exclusion: Or the Structures of Sociological Thought. Sociological Theory, 38(2), 79–100. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26953572
Haraway, D. (1988). Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective. Feminist Studies, 14(3), 575–599. https://doi.org/10.2307/3178066
Hoang, K. K. (2015). Dealing in Desire: Asian Ascendency, Western Decline, and the Hidden Currencies of Global Sex Work. Univ of California Press.
Lapadat, J. C. (2017). Ethics in Autoethnography and Collaborative Autoethnography. Qualitative Inquiry, 23(8), 589-603. https://doi.org/10.1177/1077800417704462
Tuck, E. (2009). Suspending Damage: A Letter to Communities. Harvard Educational Review, 79(3), 409–428. https://doi.org/10.17763/haer.79.3.n0016675661t3n15
I would like to thank Christina Crespo for her invaluable guidance in this project.
Citation Style: APA