health

Ally was born without a vagina. Then she was shown how to 'make' one.

As I packed my bag to stay for a week with my best friend and her family, I decided to cram in one last item — my vaginal dilation kit. A neat little case containing four objects which look like dildos, each one slightly bigger than the next. I’ve owned a set like this ever since I was a teenager but, unlike a sex toy, they’ve never been used for pleasure. 

I was only 16 years old when I was diagnosed with a rare condition called Mayer-Rokitansky-Kuster-Hauser Syndrome (MRKH). I was told that I had been born without a womb, cervix and vagina. 

Globally, 1 in 5000 women are diagnosed with MRKH. Also known as Mullerian Agenesis, a typical diagnosis will occur in late teens when the first period fails to make an appearance. In fact, no period will ever arrive.

Ally Hensley. Image: Supplied.

During one of my first medical appointments, it was explained that the length of my vagina was roughly the length of a fingernail. My 'dimple', as they commonly call it, was extremely under-developed. 

If I wanted to have a 'normal' sex life and re-claim my female body, I would have to create my very own, custom-made vagina. At the time there were two options - surgery or dilation - and I chose the latter as the less invasive treatment.

For a long and traumatic nine months, both morning and night, I would insert pink, hard tubes into this fingernail-sized dimple and push hard. Eventually, this routine requiring a white-knuckled grip would create me a vagina. 

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23 years later, I will never forget the position I had to get into to force a dilator into my body - flat on my back with my feet on the floor and my knees apart. It still haunts me, whenever I get into that position in yoga. It’s surreal that, as a 39-year-old woman, I’m walking around with a vagina that I made myself.

Since my early thirties, when I co-founded MRKH Australia, I’ve been talking publicly about my condition. But I’ve never really talked about the ins-and-outs of how I made my vagina, or given people a visual example. That is, until I decided to make an Instagram reel showing exactly how - with the help of a rock melon to play the part of my body.

My best friend and journalist, Amy Molloy, offered to help me film it. 

We met seven years earlier when she interviewed me for an article - my first piece of MRKH press - and she has been encouraging me to be proud of my past ever since.

With a tripod, half a melon and my kit of dilators, we told the story of what women if diagnosed with MRKH or a similar condition causing the vagina to shrink, tighten and lose length, will ultimately face. Three weeks later, this video has been viewed over 370 thousand times. 

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As I saw the number of Instagram plays creep up to the thousands, as an MRKH advocate and charity leader I was thrilled. Over 21 peer groups and charities exist globally to offer support and raise awareness of this unique condition, and this 30-second video was being viewed by onlookers internationally.

Ally and Amy after filming the video. Image: Supplied.

It was explained to me once that my genetic path hit a pothole in the road during the first six to eight weeks of gestation, the time when our reproductive organs develop. But, not all parts of my absent system were lost. With the presence of ovaries, my oestrogen was firing and because of this, externally you’d never know. I have the boobs, the hips and the external genitalia you would typically see on a female - a body shape that I didn’t grow into comfortably.

As a newly diagnosed teenager, I was faced with a massively traumatic future. I was practically a child learning I would never experience pregnancy or childbirth. I lost my virginity to pyrex cylinders during a four-day hospital stay, before completing the process at home for a further nine months. 

In a London hospital, I was guided through the method of creating a vaginal canal, which even today is a very fresh and horrific memory. With every 20-minute treatment, I was hurting my mind as well as my body.

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I developed a negative relationship with my body early on. I didn’t know how to act like a woman. I needed to be drunk to have sex - and shame got me drunk. I memorised contraception pills and sanitary products so I would fit in with my friends.

I even took a pregnancy test once, just so I knew what it felt like. I dabbled in eating disorders and self-harm, wondering why I had such big boobs if I was never going to breastfeed. My mum would say, "Ally, put your shoulders back" as I hunched to disguise my curves.

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For most women, MRKH is a two-pronged condition resulting in infertility and sexual dysfunction - the ticket I deemed to partnership and parenthood. As my biological clock chimed in my early thirties, for six months I was faced with the dilemma - do I want to become a mother?

A close friend offered the ultimate gift: to be my surrogate. After IVF appointments and blood tests, I painfully arrived at the decision that becoming a mother wasn’t part of my plan. Exploring sexual self-esteem was.

In a series of turnaround moments after discovering yoga and my melon accomplice, I knew it was time to recover. I was exhausted and desperate to feel like ‘a woman’. I have been a woman for 39 years, but I have only felt feminine for one. I am learning to embrace a body that is no longer my enemy and enjoy the word 'desire.'

A former boyfriend once said, "Ally, you have absolutely nothing to worry about when it comes to being desirable. You are brave, and that makes you one incredibly attractive woman". Only now do I believe him. 

As we packed up the tripod and ate our rockmelon prop for breakfast, my over-sharer's nerves set in. Had I gone too far? Did I edge too close to the topic of vaginas?

As my comments feed and DMs started to fill up with messages from trainee doctors, hopeful mums and fellow MRKH’ers, I knew something special was happening.

Now, I’ve learnt that whilst our pasts shape us, they certainly do not define us. And our anatomy doesn’t choose who we can become. 

For more from Ally Hensley, follow her on Instagram.

Feature image: Supplied.