The ‘V Word’ – Why’s There Still So Much Stigma?

February 6, 2018

Our vaginas are magical things. So why do we still feel acknowledging them is…dirty?

Quick question: when’s the last time you said the word “vaginaout loud?

I confess, I can’t recall. I blush a little just typing it. And when I really think about it, I realize something.

I hate the word vagina.

Of course, I don’t hate my actual vagina. It’s brought me lots of pleasure over the years, not to mention my two daughters. My vagina does its job well! It’s just that the word makes me feel…well.

A little uncomfortable.

Part the problem is that “vagina” is misused so often, as a stand-in for the whole of a woman’s genitalia (another icky word I don’t say out loud, by the way). The vagina is talked about as the female equivalent of the penis. Isn’t that what we teach little kids? Boys have penises, and girls have vaginas? But it’s not strictly true.

What’s a vagina, anyway?

We grow up learning that a vagina is what we’ve got between our legs – when in fact, we’ve got a bunch of stuff down there: two sets of labia, a clitoris, and a urethra, in addition to a vagina. The whole package is called the “vulva,” but how many of us were raised with that word?

No, most little girls are taught cutesy or vague names for our vaginas (uh, vulvas). Va-jay-jay, hoo-ha, lady bits, yoni, nonnie, privates, fanny, bottom…the list goes on. There are multiple discussions on parenting forums dedicated to “nice” names for girls’ genitals. One thread is even titled “G-rated names for penis, vagina, etc?” as if vagina (and penis, for that matter) is a dirty word. One mother writes, “I know a lot of people think children should use penis and vagina, but I cringe hearing young children say it.”

As a proud feminist, I’m reluctant to admit that I, too, sometimes cringe a little, and not just when children say it. It makes me squirm when anyone uses the word vagina. But why?

Journalist Peggy Orenstein, author of Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape, says our discomfort with the word “vagina” is deeply ingrained. When she interviewed girls ages 15-20 while researching her book, she found that they consistently “expressed a sense of shame around their genitals. A sense that they were simultaneously icky and sacred.”

This seems pretty spot-on to me. Let’s just admit it: vaginas are kind of icky and sacred. They’re a source of both pleasure and of life, but having one can be a hassle much of the timeYeast infections and painful periods are just as much a part of being a woman as orgasms and the miracle of birth are. (And don’t get me started on the idea that vaginal orgasms are a myth. I’m sorry if you’ve never had one, but let me tell you: they are most certainly not a myth. A clitoral orgasm is nice, but once you’ve had a vaginal one, you for sure know the difference.)

My vagina, myself

But I digress. The current generation of young women have grown up with some pretty intense beliefs around their vaginas. Orenstein quotes Indiana University researcher Debby Herbenick, who says girls’ genital self-image is “under siege.”

When I was in college, I’d never heard of a Brazilian wax. No one got them. I was introduced to them at the same time many of us were, through a year 2000 episode of Sex and the City, when Carrie went to Los Angeles and got one by surprise. (“I got mugged. She took everything I got,” Carrie told the girls. “I feel like one of those freaking hairless dogs.”) Now three-fourths of college-age women get Brazilians on the regular (as do I). They told Orenstein that removing all their pubic hair made them feel cleaner – that they like getting a Brazilian. (Again, I’ve got to agree. It’s totally worth the pain.

A more troubling trend is the increase in labiaplasty – the surgical trimming of the labia. It’s the fastest-growing cosmetic surgery procedure among teenage girls: there was an 80 percent jump in the frequency of the surgery between 2014 and 2015, and five percent of those surgeries were performed on girls under 18. For some perspective, girls under 18 comprise only two percent of all cosmetic surgeries, overall. Girls and women are actually going in and requesting a surgery on their labia that is nicknamed, “The Barbie”. Yes; after the plastic doll with no vagina.

In response, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists issued a statement on the procedure, reading in part: “[adolescents] may be under particular stress…because of societal conceptions of the ideal female body and parental concerns for body perfection. The size of the labia minora can be functionally or psychologically distressing to adolescents. Parents, unaware of the normal variation of labia minora anatomy, also may have concerns about their children’s anatomical differences based on their own body appearance.”

In other words, those same parents who find it so distasteful to hear their daughters utter the word “vagina” might also be so distressed by their daughter’s anatomy that they inadvertently encourage her to undergo a surgical procedure that can lead to scarring, numbness, pain and diminished sexual pleasure.

Vagina, vagina, vagina

Maybe we should just get over ourselves and start saying the word “vagina” without flinching. And while we’re at it, let’s talk about clitorises and labia too, and teach kids the difference between a vulva and a vagina, along with all the fun facts about vaginas and how magical they actually are.

Besides helping us all feel more comfortable with our bodies, this can help girls grow up to have better sexual experiences and close the infamous orgasm gap, because they’ll be better able to articulate what they want, what they like, and what they don’t want. In her research, Orenstein found that fewer than half of teenage girls have ever masturbated. And if you don’t learn to know your own body through masturbation, how can you teach a partner what feels good?

We can start by practicing using the word vagina as much as possible – and in the correct context. If you want to get a Brazilian, go for it: the incidence of pubic lice, better known as crabs, has plummeted since the extreme waxing trend spiked. (Thanks, Sex and the City!). But if you find yourself feeling ashamed of your vagina (labia, clitoris, etc – the whole vulva package), maybe ask yourself why, and try loving yourself a little more. (P.S. Sex toys help with this.)

Here’s to our vaginas, and to all who love them. Let’s do better by our girls, and stop making vagina a dirty word.

Images via shutterstock.com and giphy.com.

Comment: How do you feel about the word “vagina”?

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