Cultivating Microbiopolitical Self-Care

Exploring Feminist Multispecies Companionship and Letting go of Control

If you’ve heard of or bought into “kombucha culture,” you’ll know that “gut health” and “gut flora” have become buzzwords in Western wellness communities—and for good reason. The importance of, quote unquote, “good” bacteria for our digestive health has only recently come into mainstream consciousness, but has always been true. In fact, food anthropology tells us about the long history of raw milk cheeses, probiotic-heavy kimchi, kombucha, and other ferments in various ancient diets.

We are living in a microbe-fearful, control-obsessed time and place in which raw milk is considered a hazard and monoculture is the dominant regime. In her article “Post- Pasteurian Cultures,” Heather Paxson describes the history of how we came to fear bacteria and makes suggestions for how we might become “post-Pasteurian.” She suggests that “the neglect of the microbe continues to distort our anthropological view of the social world.”

Anna Tsing, in “Unruly Edges: Mushrooms as Companion Species,” illustrates how mushrooms, which require particular, multispecies companionships to grow, reveal the fraying edges of modern monoculture. In the same vein as Paxson, Tsing’s treatment of human-fungi relations calls human nature and subjectivity into question by directing us to pay attention to the “unruly edges” of our existence. “Human nature is an interspecies relationship,” writes Tsing. “We cannot ignore the interspecies interdependencies that give us life on earth.”

The work of these feminist cultural anthropologists give us convincing reasons to pay closer attention to the complex and important relationships between human beings and microorganisms like fungi and bacteria. Their conceptions of microbiopolitics give voice to some of my own experiences and concerns. Tsing asks us to consider mushrooms, Paxson asks us to consider cheese, and I ask you to consider two other microbiopolitical sites. I’ll start with the more palatable case.

That’s an ironic characterization, since those who have never tried sourdough bread might be surprised—perhaps even put off—by the tartness of the dough. Sourdough is an interesting and delicious site of human-microbe relations—consider the sourdough starter.

Sourdough starters are known also as “leaven,” “levain” in French, or, according to Google, “chief,” “chef,” “head,” or “mother”. They begin as a fermented mixture of water and flour—in my sourdough starter’s case, part whole wheat and part white—that are cultivated to house a colony of microorganisms including wild yeast and lactobacilli.

My starter, Birdie, has been a part of my life for about six months now. She’s a discarded piece of the sourdough starter at my favourite bakery. The owner of the bakery freely gave me Birdie when I asked if she had starter for sale. Since then, Birdie has spent most of her days in a large glass jar in my fridge.

I take her out once a week, let her warm up on the counter, discard half of her bulk, and give her a feed. I feed her 1/2 cup of water, 1/3 cup of white flour, and 1/3 cup of whole wheat.

She sits and feeds for four to twelve hours, depending on how warm the kitchen is, until she’s bubbly and doubled in size. Then, I either start a loaf of bread or a batch of cinnamon buns, or put her back in the fridge to slow her down, again.

When I feed Birdie, the water and flour break down into sugar, which her yeast and bacteria feed on. The byproducts of this fermentation process produce carbon dioxide which, in the presence of gluten, cause a dough to rise.

This is about as much as I know about how Birdie lives. I’m pretty awestruck, still, by the way she works. I could tell you that I keep her alive by feeding her, but that wouldn’t be true. She does that herself. In fact, sourdough starters are extremely resilient. Bakers will often dehydrate their starters to sell online. They simply mail off these envelopes of dried up bacterial culture with instructions to rehydrate it when it gets to its destination.

If I go a while without feeding Birdie, she bounces back with just a little extra time and care. If I go really long without feeding her, she develops a putrid, brown or black liquid on her surface called “hooch.” I simply pour this liquid off and give her a feed. And an apology.

Tsing writes, “Science has inherited stories about human mastery. These stories fuel assumptions about human autonomy, and they direct questions to the human control of nature, on the one hand, or human impact on nature, on the other, rather than to species interdependence.”

While I don’t “keep Birdie alive” in an exceptionalist way, I consider our relationship to be interdependent. A nourishing, multispecies, interdependent relationship. I can’t make bread rise—Birdie can do that. Birdie can’t go to the store and pick up some more whole wheat flour—but I can. And I choose to do this, instead of buying my bread, because I enjoy the slow process of sourdough and its tasty by-products. Tsing writes, “To find a useful plant, animal, or fungus, foragers learned familiar places and returned to them again and again.” I return, week after week, to the colony of microorganisms that resides in a jar in my kitchen.

Crucially, of course, if I bought my bread, I would still be just as dependent on relationships with other species. But choosing to cultivate my relationship with Birdie reminds me, at least once a week, of the companionship I experience with other kinds of life, of the importance of cultivating rather than controlling, and of the mystery that’s still left in the human condition. WonderBread separates us from our nature. In sourdough, as in Tsing’s mushrooms, “bounty is not yet exhausted.”

In choosing to attend to my interspecies relations, I can’t help but turn to my vagina. Here’s my pressing question: if we can talk about imbalances in gut microbiomes and the importance of cultivating good gut health, why do our vaginas remain outside of the acceptability of mainstream discourse?

This is a vulnerable effort in doing philosophy about bodies, problematizing the myth of control, living out my leaky body, and enacting my newfound microbiopolitics.

The vagina contains a lively microbiome of bacteria and yeast.

The most prevalent bacteria is (usually) our old friend, Lactobacillus, who ended up in vaginas a long time ago in a decidedly undetermined way (but probably related to our dietary evolution). Lactobacillus bacteria pump out lactic acid, which keeps the vaginal environment at a low, acidic pH that kills or discourages other bacteria, yeast, and viruses from thriving. Sometimes, though, the balance of “good” bacteria is thrown off by “bad” bacteria. This can cause something called bacterial vaginosis.

Bacterial vaginosis is “the most common vaginal infection you’ve probably never heard of,” writes Kendall Powell in a 2016 thinkpiece in The Atlantic. Like a yeast infection, it’s not a sexually transmitted disease. It is sometimes, not always, linked to introducing a new sexual partner, having multiple sexual partners, and vaginal douching. Nearly 1 out of every 3 women probably have a case of BV at any given moment. BV is usually characterized by a change in amount, consistency, colour and odour of vaginal discharge.

In her article, Powell speculates that vaginal odour is the “last taboo for the modern woman.” While I disagree with the implication that we’ve crossed every other hurdle, as well as the implication that only women and all women have vaginas, part of my reason for including this topic in my paper was that, frankly, I’m much more comfortable talking to you about other parts of my body, and what better way to challenge bodily stigma than to talk about it openly? In most public spaces, my vagina is, as far as I understand societal norms of discourse, off-limits. And when it is an acceptable topic, the expectation is that the vagina is clean, closed, trimmed, proper—and purely sexual.

Pop by the “feminine products” aisle at the drug store and you’ll see shelves of gels and creams catering to “eliminating feminine odour.” What is that? While “masculine” odour usually connotes an image of strength and sexual prowess, feminine odour signals the too-natural, the unclean, and the private. Even more ironic is the fact that scented vaginal washes are well-known to upset vaginal balance.

I think that’s part of the reason BV is still so misunderstood. How are we supposed to know what’s “normal” or not when it comes to the way our vaginas smell if our culture tells us they shouldn’t smell at all? Or, even, that they should smell like “white jasmine” or “peach blossom”? There is a lot of shame wrapped up in those pink plastic labels.

This is what I have problematized in my own experience with BV. I’ve actually stopped calling it BV whenever possible. I always want to scrunch up my face and make myself smaller when I say “bacterial vaginosis.” I’ve tried getting behind it, reclaiming it, even proclaiming it—bacterial vaginosis! But I don’t know that I can get behind the implied problem involved in this diagnostic label. It doesn’t match up with my experience. What I have become comfortable with is talking about imbalance.

If we can talk about imbalances in gut microbiomes without medically-perpetuated shame and stigma, we can do the same for vaginas.

I’ve had a variety of bouts of imbalances in my vaginal microbiome. My balance fluctuates with my menstrual cycle, so I know it’s at least partially connected to hormonal levels. I’ve had more intense episodes where I have chosen to take antibiotics or have pursued other treatment methods. But thinking about my vaginal microbiome in a post-Pasteurian, non-fearful, curious way has freed me up to getting to know it and learning how to cultivate the conditions for balance.

Ninety percent of cells in the human body are microorganismic (!!!), so the vagina is just one site in which human nature is deeply microbial. But the vagina has long been gendered as female, and the female gender has long been socialized in particularly repressive ways. Considering that the vaginal microbiome is intertwined with a microbiopolitical regime that has made it very clear to me that my vaginal flora are not acceptable topics for public discourse, the vagina is a gendered microbiopolitical site.

Not only is it unacceptable for vaginas to smell, and unacceptable to talk about it if they do, but it is also unacceptable to seek or claim understanding of one’s vaginal health. In a Baroness von Sketch skit called Private Vagina, a woman asks for an over-the-counter treatment for a yeast infection and is harassed and condescended by the pharmacist until she finally breaks and says something along the lines of, “my vagina’s disgusting and I don’t know how to take care of it.” “Wonderful,” the pharmacist says, handing her the medication. This assumed lack of self-knowledge and need for paternalism is part and parcel with societal treatment of women’s bodies.

Paxson’s microbiopolitics gives me language with which to discuss Western medicine’s frustrating lack of knowledge about the vaginal microbiome. My most recent visit with a nurse practitioner, who I quickly informed of my extensive experience with and research on bacterial vaginosis, consisted of her telling me, “Well, you’ll know that we don’t know exactly what causes it or why certain people are more prone to it,” and, “no, there are no new suggestions for management that you haven’t heard of.”

Paxson writes, “Like pregnant women consulting online bulletin boards… cheese makers trading tips on working with raw milk construct counterknowledges about biological processes and selves.” The same is oh-so true for vagina-havers. After my first bout of bacterial vaginosis, I consulted online and in-person sites of counterknowledges about vaginas and their apparently-mysterious workings. I spoke to friends and read through Reddit threads, where I learned that the standard practice in Western medicine is to prescribe an antibiotic like metronidazole—which is almost always only a temporary help, as half of those who take it (including me) experience a recurrence—until the body no longer responds to it (yay, antibiotic resistance!). These antibiotics kill all of the bacteria in the vagina, “good” and “bad.” Some more progressive doctors may suggest an oral probiotic to be taken in tandem with the antibiotic, and some who see patients in desperate need admit to recommending boric acid, inserted into the vagina. Boric acid, if you’re unfamiliar with it, is rat poison. I have, indeed, special-ordered capsules of rat poison from the pharmacy to insert into my vagina because there is so little good knowledge about how to restore and maintain balance in the vaginal microbiome.

The microbiopolitical terrain of bacterial vaginosis is complicated by the fact that it’s more prevalent in Black and Hispanic people than white people, poor people more than rich people, and uneducated people more than educated people. In fact, research is showing that in healthy vaginas of different ethnicities, the dominant bacteria differ, further complicating our understanding of what the “ideal,” healthy vagina is like. There are clear inferences we can make, then, about the lack of attention to BV in the realm of medical research.

I am in a symbiotic relationship with the microbial cultures in my vagina.

Sometimes, I find myself very frustrated with the colony down under. But when it’s balanced and happy, it keeps a very important part of my body lubricated and healthy. And not just for sexual intimacy. Vaginas are not just for sex. To be clear.

I want to see the microorganisms that are a part of me as my allies, so sometimes I feed them probiotic-rich yogurt or expensive probiotic capsules through my mouth or vagina, like many counterknowledges have counselled me to do. Earlier this week, for example, all it took to set us back on course was two days of a lot of yogurt. Every time I do this I think about my sourdough starter and wish that my often-fraught relationship with my vagina resembled, a little more closely, my relationship with Birdie. Perhaps it could, if there was less shame, stigma, and lack of scientific attention attached to the current microbiopolitical regime. Perhaps if the healthcare system was post-Pasteurian, it would be more inclined to prescribe yogurt and probiotics before antibiotics, to cultivate instead of eradicate. While the doctor sees my vaginal balance as a hazard, I see its potential for resilience.

My relationships with my starter and and my vagina inform each other. Don’t panic, I’m not about to reveal that I make cinnamon buns with my vaginal yeast (though a woman did actually do that, a couple years ago!) I like to think of imbalances in my vaginal flora as similar to the “hooch” that Birdie produces when I haven’t cared well for her. In this way, I avoid frustration, and attempt to consider my vaginal flora as my companions rather than my enemies. I continue attempting to cultivate and gently manipulate the conditions around the microbiome—perhaps less sugar in my diet, more yogurt. Or more loosely-fitting clothing, or more post-sex aftercare. I try to learn as I go, respecting these parts of my self and acknowledging them as such.

Of course, sometimes my best, most caring efforts are futile. Situations like those require me to let go even further of the myth of control and human exceptionalism that I’ve been brought up with.

Tsing writes that mushrooms reveal the limitations of human control. Given the way they grow and their resistance to monoculture, “mushroom growing allows us to see the seams of global capitalism.” Noticing the seams, while not a promise of a future utopia, “is a place to begin.” Tsing tells us that we can ignore fungi, “or we can consider what they are telling us about the human condition.” My vagina allows me to notice the seams of the Western medical system’s obsession with cure, eradication, and control. It allows me to notice the seams of our continued cultural mistreatment of gendered and racialized bodies. I choose not to ignore what my vaginal flora tell me about the human condition. I choose to begin.

These are my microbiopolitics, my alternative ways of thinking. Microbiopolitics, in Paxson’s words, “concerns the recognition and management, governmental and grassroots, of human encounters with the vital organismic agencies of bacteria, viruses, and fungi.” I consider my encounters with bacterial agencies and commit, again, to respect them, to not be fearful of them, and to cultivate my relationships with the microorganisms that give me life.