- Jenni Davies
Yes, that's right. Bold as brass. Vaginas.
Why are we so scared of that word? I read a brilliant post on Facebook tonight about a Mum who had sent her 13 year old daughter into the supermarket to get her "feminine hygiene products". However, this was no ordinary Mum and 13 year old - this was an educated 13 year old. The photo of the text conversation that followed when she couldn't find the aisle with the tampons was hilarious but so so poignant. It started off as any conversation for lost objects would do, then became hilarious when she finally found them and couldn't believe that a whole aisle of "feminine hygiene products" wasn't clearly labelled when the tiny shelf of joint supports was. Mum stated that this was because "vaginas are secret". Her daughter replied "vaginas are myths, whispered quietly in secret among only the bravest of men, courageous enough to even mention the name" (she's 13) and then questions why men are so afraid of women and vaginas. This is a really good question with lots of historical and political answers. However, we also need to ask why are we, as women, so afraid of vaginas and reluctant to talk about them? Why are we embarrassed about the part of us that is most central to our female identity? Again the answer has many historical and political components but that doesn't change the fact that we, in general, don't talk about them.
A recent study by a cancer charity in the UK revealed that 44% of women could not correctly identify the vagina, 60% could not identify the vulva and only 33% could correctly label the female anatomy. I find this statistic shocking but not surprising. As the cancer charity noted, if women don't know what is normal, how on earth are they going to know what is abnormal? In contrast, 70% of women could correctly name the male anatomy. There go those historical and political influences again.
Another article I read tonight was entitled: "Sex before kissing: how 15 year old girls are dealing with porn-addicted boys". It included the results of a survey of Australian girls and young women aged 15-19. In amongst the obvious and horrendous issues facing girls when boys have learnt sexual education from porn was a quote from one of the girls asking for better education about sex for both girls and boys so they know what is normal in a loving relationship. As a basic component of this education, there has to be education on the female anatomy both for practical reasons and for knowing where sexual pleasure comes from but how are we going to teach this to our girls, if we, ourselves, don't know the answers?
Here are the answers.
Below you'll see 2 pictures. The first one is a cross-section through the body showing the female reproductive organs. The second is a "midwives view" of the female vulva and it's components. Have a go at labelling them then check your answers with the ones at the bottom of the page.
I also encourage you to get a mirror and check your own vulva. Learn what is normal for you - remembering that, just as we all have different faces, we all have different looking vulva's. There is a massive difference between individuals and they are all normal. Can you identify all the parts as labelled on the second diagram? (note that you may or may not see the urethra - in some people this is almost invisible, whilst in others it is quite large).
If you'd like to see some variations of normal, google "The Great Wall of Vagina". This artwork, composed of plastercast moulds of different vulvas, was made specifically to "change female body image through art". There is a similar exhibit at the MONA gallery in Tasmania that I visited last weekend. It struck me how embarrassing we find this sort of display - I was being followed through the exhibit by a group of women, all in their 50's/60's, who were giggling like school girls and could barely bring themselves to look.
It's easy to say, but we need to get over this embarrassment. There is no shame in knowing yourself and a comparison of normal. This is your body. Knowledge is incredibly powerful and also essential if, as the cancer charity pointed out, we are to know what is abnormal and when we should seek help.
Normal function is:
1. Going to the toilet 6-8 times in 24hrs (0-1 overnight)
2. Easily passing a bowel motion with minimal strain daily
3. Having an increase in vaginal discharge, or increased thickness of it at ovulation
4. Not leaking ANY urine at all, under any circumstance
5. Being able to control wind under any load
6. Having painfree intercourse and no difficulty with penetration
7. Being able to control the urge to go to the toilet
8. Being able to use a tampon/menstrual cup, if you choose to, without difficulty
If any of the above aren't normal for you, help is available. Pelvic Health Physio's specialise in the assessment and treatment of pain and dysfunction of the pelvis (both internal and external issues), urinary leakage, urgency, pelvic organ prolapse, pelvic floor muscles (both weak and/or tight) and toileting issues.
Full details of what a Pelvic Health Assessment involves is available here.
Globally Pelvic Health Physio's are pushing to increase awareness in both men and women of what is normal and when to seek help. It is still early days, but the conversation is increasing. It will become common knowledge but we aren't there yet. If you would like to keep up-to-date with the latest developments and gradually increase your knowledge of your pelvic health, please subscribe to the newsletter. I promise never to release your details to any 3rd party and will only ever send you quality information. I also post interesting research articles and blogs from my colleagues around the world on my Facebook page: JenniDavies.Physio
C: Vaginal entrance
D: Fallopian Tube
1: Pubic Mound
3: Clitorial Hood