As a facilitator of the Celebration Day for Girls program, one of my responsibilities is to impart a grounded and confident knowledge of the female anatomy and cycles to the 10-12-year-old girls I teach. Thankfully, I have some handy props to help me and the easiest starting point is to bring up the subject of how boys and girls differ … a boy has his reproductive organs on the outside, while a girl has half on the inside and half on the outside. When it comes to getting the girls to name their parts, the answer invariably for the whole region is, ‘vagina’. This isn’t surprising as it’s what many of us have been taught for generations and is what we usually pass onto our daughters. It is however incorrect:
the muscular tube leading from the external genitals to the cervix of the uterus in women and most female mammals.
A brief look at Google’s etymology tells us that the word originates from the late 17th century Latin, meaning literally ‘sheath, scabbard’. A sheath for what, one may ask? Well, we are talking reproductive anatomy here, so I suppose it makes sense that it’s connected to the male scholars’ thoughts of the day. But I digress! Back to naming the external genitalia of a girl/woman. The correct, and far prettier name, is vulva. Whilst this word also originates in Latin, with the literal meaning of ‘womb’, it didn’t gain currency until the mid 19th century, peaking in the early 20th century. After dipping again, the word is now due for a definite revival in the 21st.
the female external genitals.
Basically, the vulva is everything that’s on the outside, from the urethra (where we urinate from) to the clitoris (the only organ in the body made solely for pleasure) to the labia minora and majora (the inner and outer ‘lips’). At this point in the program my handy dandy vulva cushion makes an appearance.
While some of the girls can be quite resistant to seeing it, most harbour a curiosity and desire to know more. Such a mixture of history and mystery are our nether regions! I hope that one day the most common response will be acceptance and ease. The cushion gets passed around, some holding it and looking carefully, a few barely letting it touch their fingers.
In my last blog, I suggested we all look in the mirror less. But in the quest for self-acceptance, this is one place where it’s useful to have a look—in one’s own time and privacy of course—self-knowledge is power, after all! I ask the girls if they’ve ever looked inside their own mouth? Most nod and say, “Sure”, but when I suggest that at some point in the future they get a small hand mirror and check out their own vulva they respond with an, “Ewwww!!!” shocked by such an idea. I say that this is a part of your body that belongs to you, and wonder at the difference between being okay with one’s mouth but not with one’s vulva. At this moment I usually see some just perceptible, ‘Notes to self’ occurring. Then I move onto to difference.
As in the different shapes and sizes we inhabit. I let the girls know, in no uncertain terms, that no one vulva is the same, some labia are smaller, some are larger. The same goes for the clitoris too. In the same way as our faces and body shapes are all different, so too are our vulvas. I don’t tell them about the alarming rise in ‘genital anatomy anxiety’ among teen-aged girls, or the equally alarming rise in requests to GPs for labiaplasty, known euphemistically as a vaginal rejuvenation procedure. Big bucks, big porn, fashion (tight pants, sports leggings) and Brazilian waxes are the cited reasons for such a rise.
What I mainly concentrate on is getting the girls to a point of comfort with their body parts and knowledge about their cycles. This involves a lot of humour, talking, some craft activities (so it’s not all academic) and a few good props. If they can get to know their own bodies before adolescence hits, and become familiar and at ease with all their parts, then maybe they stand more of a chance at by-passing some of the more intrusive fashions and fads of our time.
Polymer ‘life-size wombs’, during menstruation and not. Almonds/ovaries.
And you never know, maybe the V-word, Vulva, has yet to have its hey-day.
Written by Charlotte Young
A Celebration Day for Girls (CDG) is a one-day workshop for 10-12 years old girls with their mother or female carer. It’s a carefully crafted workshop (designed by Jane Bennett) to support girls and mothers at this special threshold in both their lives.
Charlotte Young lives with her family in Melbourne, close to the Yarra river. She works in a variety of different roles, from running CDGs to facilitating movement and mindfulness classes and writing and editing. Her debut novel, “Ora’s Gold” was published in August this year. The common theme running through all of her work is fostering body awareness and body acceptance.