Seriously hilary

Say My Name. It’s time we learned about the female body.

Recently a teacher in America lost her job for using the word vagina while discussing Georgia O’Keeffe paintings in her class of 14-15 year olds. I’m not even sure how you could teach about O’Keeffe without using the word vagina! Meanwhile, in a café in the UK a couple of ladies having a chat about their vaginas got asked to leave because there were children present.

The average toddler is able to identify and name male genitalia with relative ease. The penis and testicles are visible external organs. We have all seen their familiar shape in amateur graffiti. Female genitalia however are a bit more difficult to identify, and are even difficult to see without a mirror and some acrobatics. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that it is not spoken about or referred to by its name. Papa has a penis and Mama does not. To explain it this way to a child seems to imply that women are lacking something.

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We have come a long way since the days when women were not permitted to vote. We are making progress when it comes to equal employment opportunities and pay. It is time that we correct one more inequality. It is time to give female genitalia the name they deserve.

I’m guessing most people would say ‘vagina’ when asked the official name for female genitalia. However, the vagina is inside your body and cannot be seen from the outside. The correct term for the external organ is ‘vulva’: the name for the part you can see. You may have read that Britney flashed her vagina to reporters while getting out of a car. Let me tell you something: Britney ain’t never flashed her vagina to anyone except her gynaecologist!

‘The love that dare not speak its name’ is a phrase historically referring to homosexuality. I think that women knowing and appreciating their bodies is the modern love that dare not speak its name. It is time to speak up. To learn and teach that we have no reason to be ashamed of our bodies. The first step to making something ‘normal’ and ‘accepted’ is to talk about it and call it by its name.

The easiest way to bring about positive change for the future is through our children. We need to teach our children the correct names for their body parts. It is no different than teaching them the name for ‘arm’, ‘leg’ or ‘toe’. Penis and vulva are not sexual words for children. They are body parts used several times a day to go to the toilet. Being secretive about these body parts teaches children that they are shameful. This is damaging in so many ways. For example, knowing the correct names for body parts and creating a safe environment to talk about sexuality are crucial factors in empowering children to identify and report sexual abuse. This is just one of the many reasons why it is important for all children to grow up with a healthy, correct, open and honest knowledge of their body.

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There is nothing inappropriate about knowing the correct words for your body parts. If people feel uncomfortable about your child using the words vulva or penis, feel free to educate them too. Do not let anyone make your child feel ashamed of their body.

Being ashamed of your body is not a natural reflex, we teach this to our children. Men grow up feeling proud of their penis, it is considered a symbol of power. Women however, are taught to hide any suggestion of their vulva. Keep your legs closed. Shave your pubic hair. Don’t mention your period. Don’t ever talk about all-that-down-there. We must throw off the cloak of shame and be proud of our vulva.

There is no stronger expression of shame than denying something a name and recognition. This silence impacts our knowledge of female genitals. Don’t feel bad if you haven’t found the G-spot, scientists cannot even agree if it exists or not. We still do not know exactly how female ejaculate is made, where it comes from or what it is. This fact blew my mind, to be honest. I never imagined that certain parts of basic anatomy were still unknown and not understood.

In an episode of Orange Is The New Black the female inmates argue as to whether urine comes out of the vagina or not. This seems ridiculous to anyone with a basic knowledge of the female anatomy, but how much do we actually know? There is still so much to learn. I for one never realised that the urethra (where the urine comes out) was so close to the vaginal opening, I always thought it was near the clitoris. (I literally learned this while researching this article.) This week I also learned that you’re supposed to pee after sex. I wonder when I was supposed to learn these things. Who was supposed to teach me?

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I learned a lot while trying to get pregnant, through hours and hours of searching online. I learned about what your cervix can tell you about your fertility cycle. I learned the secrets of the varying stickiness of vaginal discharge. I learned about basal body temperature. I learned that our vulva can communicate so much about the state of our body, if we just know how to interpret the signals.

How about you? Do you know what your cervix feels like? Did you know it has a different shape and position each day? What do your labia look like? Are they long or short? Are they the same on each side? Did you know that the clitoris looks like a mini penis?

Get to know your vulva. The women’s groups in the 60s squatting over their hand mirrors had the right idea. Those of you who understand Flemish can listen to this Vuile Lakens podcast about going exploring with a speculum and mirror. You can find photos of cervixes on the Beautiful Cervix Project site. (I should add that these photos are not considered safe-for-work, but if you frame it as scientific research, you should be fine.) And to quote sexuologist Wim Slabbinck who worked with us on a recent Charlie project: “Masturbation is Emancipation”. Figure that stuff out ladies.

You can make a difference to future generations. Teach your kids the correct names for their body parts. Don’t pass down the negative weight and stigma surrounding female genitalia. Take time to read about age-appropriate explanations.

And of course I try to practice what I preach. It’s not the easiest thing in the world but I believe it’s important. So when my four year old asks me where my penis is, I say “Mama has a vulva”. And as I do each time I teach him new words, I ask him to try to say the word. His first attempt was “foefal” which is quite funny because ‘foef’ is a slang word for vulva in dutch. His most recent effort was “bumba” which is the name of a tv clown here in Belgium. So we continue, laughing and learning.

A good place to start learning is with Dr. Lindsey Doe, she makes excellent videos under the title ‘Sexplanations’. Start with her video about the vulva and before you know it you’ll be watching all her videos and learning about things you never imagined.

It’s time to put on your grown up pants and start using your words.

Illustraties: Charlotte Vanderputte