When last did you look at your vagina? Occasional stolen glances while grooming or bathing don’t count. When last, if ever, did you take a mirror and just look? Okay, indulge me for a few moments. Get into a comfortable position and take a good look. Selfie mode on your phone camera works just as well as a mirror! I mean really look at it - the detail of the labia, the different openings on the vulva - and get familiar with what your normal is. Maybe you blushed or laughed so much that the tears made it hard for you to focus, or maybe you only managed to stare at the pubic hair. One thing is for certain - we all have very different relationships with our vaginas, and for as many reasons too.
Self-examination of the genitals is seldom, if ever, spoken about or encouraged, yet you are the perfect person to notice any changes and then seek advice. The path to learning about, being comfortable with, celebrating and even reclaiming our bodies starts with the language we use to refer to them. We need to unlearn habits that do not serve us, and relearn affirming ways of being sexual. It starts with looking, touching, feeling and exploring our own bodies, emotions and expressions.
I often wonder when the vulva, which encompasses the entire external parts of the genitalia, evolved to being referred to as ‘the vagina’. Often what is referred to as the vagina is, in fact, more accurately the vaginal opening. Both in general discourse and in medical discussions, the details of the magnificence of the vulva has been reduced only to the mechanics of the vagina, through which a foetus is birthed and on which many sexual fantasies rely. The importance of naming body parts accurately and referring to them by their anatomical names cannot be overstated, and continued lack of accuracy when referring to ‘the vulva’ is a form of erasure that is reductionist.
Whenever I am asked to give ‘the sex talk’ (and I have done so to so many audiences, ranging from high school students in Orlando West and college students at West Virginia’s Wesleyan College to a women’s-only conference in New Orleans and my favourite – the healthy sex parties I host), one of my best icebreakers is to ask participants to say the ‘name’ of the vagina in their mother tongue. These words immediately, as I’m sure you can guess, make most people uncomfortable. I always ask that we say the words out loud over and over again - enough times that they start to sound less ‘vulgar’ (as many people say they are) and until, in fact, the reluctance to say the word out loud melts away.
Why and when did our anatomical parts become vulgar? How do we reclaim the use of language? Can we get to a point where in Sesotho or isiXhosa women can speak about their genitals without offence given or taken based on the experience of how such words are used and weaponised against them? There are so many words for ‘vagina’ in all languages, yet even as adults, when we say any of these out loud, it’s as if we are sharing a disapproving voice in our heads - be it that of a parent, a caregiver, or a teacher. There is an expectation of - and often a predictable - backlash every time the word ‘vagina’ is said out loud. Some adults never break the habit of referring to their own vaginas as food, inanimate objects, fluffy animals and flowers, while others make up new words altogether, perhaps in an attempt to be less offensive.
But is this really what is best? I don’t think it is. By exceptionalising genitals and avoiding naming them correctly, it sends a message to children that there is something shameful about their private parts. In some cases, parents exhibit embarrassment and even hysteria when their kids name their genitals as anatomically correct. Again, this sends the wrong message to children - that there is something odd or unwelcome, dirty or wrong about their bodies. It is not possible to expect children to ignore or have no interest in their genitals. They do not share adults’ cognitive processing or understand why they are being chastised or reprimanded. Adults’ learned behaviour, past experiences and reactions are not conducive to affirming conversations with children. There is a large spectrum between normal inquisitiveness and children showing or interacting in inappropriate ways regarding language and behaviour around their bodies. Reactions – even to what adults may consider inappropriate - should still be informed. On the other end of this spectrum, where the physical and sexual abuse of children is being handled by the justice system and children's courts, it is imperative that children are able to explain their body parts as accurately as possible during statement taking or cross-examination.
In the medical world, genitalia are discussed through a mechanical lens of conception, menstruation and urological function. There is very limited information at undergraduate or postgraduate level for doctors and nurses that deals with aspects of sexual pleasure in a way that affirms it as part of health and wellness. The focus on disease processes and the resultant capitalistic commodification of sex, vaginal health and, by extension, general medicine through a pathological lens, means that the focus on sex through genitals and disease management has given rise to a pharmaceutical industry filled with ‘alternative agents’ claiming to be able to help women make themselves ‘normal and healthy’. As if the vagina is by default in an abnormal state and needs to be improved. This trend is escalating, and is evident in the number of harmful DIY treatments women are performing on their vulval area and vagina. Once, while on a radio open line during a sexual health feature, a caller detailed how she had been inserting and washing her vagina with Epsom salts because she had heard it was good for it. As a result, she had been experiencing what she described as a ‘creamy discharge’ intermittently throughout her cycle. By the end of the hour, many women had shared truly horrific stories of using concoctions such as snuff, fresh garlic and the dreaded over-the-counter feminine hygiene products.
Women everywhere are constantly discussing ways of making improvements to their vaginas, whether it be in online forums, in consultations with medics, in advertisements or with each other. Firstly, as I have said, it’s a vulva and secondly, no two, three or four vulvas are the same, and there is no standard shape or size of what a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ vulva looks like. Every woman needs to know and accept her ‘normal’.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr Tlaleng Mofokeng – affectionately known as Dr T – is passionate about making sexual health and wellbeing services available to all, regardless of their sexual and gender identities or economic status. Her book – Dr T: A Guide to Sexual Health and Pleasure – was published by Pan Macmillan this year, and is available for R290 at leading bookstores.