Emily Varnam, a doula, who is speaking over a Facebook call, is currently in London visiting family. Despite being jet-lagged, she is still able to hold a conversation about the systemic oppression that is present in the daily lives of women, especially women of color, regarding their bodies and health care. She tells me about the organization she co-founded, The Fifth Vital Sign (or 5VS), which identifies the menstrual cycle as a vital sign.
She founded 5VS with Kelsey Knight who is currently based in New York City. The two teach classes on menstruation, contraception, consent in a medical and sexual setting, breast and chest health, hormonal health, anatomy and body literacy.
The Fifth Vital Sign was created following several after-work conversations with Varnam about the lack of informed choice Knight saw while working in labor and delivery. Knight said that many women were “meeting their cervix for the first time during labor,” meaning these women were not aware of what their cervix did, especially during labor.
Lack of available access to body literacy is “disempowering” to these women, said Knight. They both decided that conversation concerning body literacy, among many other concepts, needed to be made accessible to as many people as possible.
According to Varnam, while working with birth, she noticed there wasn’t adequate preparation in the way education and healthcare systems were set up to give people opportunities to make informed decisions about their bodies and their health.
“I just saw how differently people were spoken to, how much their pain wasn’t taken seriously and how much they were coerced,” Varnam said.
It’s an issue where we need to start listening and believing people. This motivated them to focus their organization on people understanding their bodies, rather than a “one size fits all” kind of curriculum.
Varnam said that a really good way to oppress people is by not making access to body literacy easily available.
“Separating somebody from other people is one thing, separating people from themselves is a whole other thing,” Varnam said.
The Fifth Vital Sign is heavily focused on conversation.
“Our work is not to come in and save anybody, it’s really just having conversations about what our bodies do and what choices we can make,” Varnam explains, “then it’s up to the individual to makes those choices.”
The duo is currently broadening what they do in response to what people and the community have said they needed.
“The health of our bodies really relies on the health of the community and vice versa,” Varnam said.