Fellow vagina-havers, I come to you today anonymously not because I am ashamed of the particulars of my genitals, but because I am about to talk about them in the level of detail that I would not like my mother to stumble across and find it has my name on it. I’m sorry, but that’s just the way it has to be.
I’ll start at the beginning. A few weeks ago I suffered a bout of weather-related illness that, while hardly life threatening, left me needing to be cocooned in a blanket on the sofa for a week. Because I am prone to hyperbole when I’m ill, I mostly just moped about telling people I had the plague and, crucially, didn’t really shower as much as I probably should have. The combination of feeling a little icky and having an idle and anxious mind came together one afternoon to tell me – your vagina: it is dirty.
I developed a kind of mild paranoia about my vulva, and adopted a routine where at least twice a day I would scrub furiously, using a mirror to make sure that my labia were nothing less than spotless. I would wipe extra hard after using the toilet, and even after that have a little panic and jump in the shower to scrub myself again. Shadows looked like dirt and I even went so far as to start scratching myself, trying to get rid of whatever it is I suddenly thought was there. Eventually, the inevitable happened.
“I convinced myself that not only was this a truly serious problem, but that I was the first person with a vagina to ever have this happen.”
At first I thought it was just a little residual soreness from the scrubbing, but I very quickly realised that something more was wrong. I got the mirror out and, quite painfully, realised that my excessive cleaning had resulted in two shallow tears on my labia. Ouch.
Now, because the intricacies of the vagina were not really covered in my Catholic high school curriculum, I panicked. I convinced myself that not only was this a truly serious problem, but that I was the first person with a vagina to ever have this happen. I put off googling for as long as I could, but eventually worry got the better of me and I took to the internet.
What I discovered was an immense sense of relief. I stumbled across All Things Vagina, an online ‘vulvovaginal resource’ with advice on everything from orgasms to how to properly (and safely) keep yourself clean. Their advice on my particular problem was incredibly reassuring – that by avoiding contact with the area (that means no tampons, penetrative sex, masturbation or lacy underwear) it would heal up on its own in a few days, and that unless the tear was particularly deep (which thankfully, mine wasn’t) that it wasn’t a major issue, if not ideal. It also, in bold, assured me that the fatty protective layer on the labia, something I was less aware of and had been trying to scrub away, was there for a reason and to definitely not try and get rid of it.
It also had advice on how to make sure this tearing didn’t happen again, including reminding me that excessive scrubbing and cleaning is detrimental to the health of your vagina and vulva, and clearing up the advice about ‘wiping from front to back’. I spent a good half hour, at least, reading the articles on the site and feeling infinitely less anxious about the situation than I had before.
“How had I reached my mid-twenties without knowing some of the things I was now finding out on this website?”
But it did get me thinking. How had I reached my mid-twenties without knowing some of the things I was now finding out on this website? Things that concerned a rather important part of my own body? And this is speaking as a cis woman, with no dysphoria surrounding the details of my genitals that might get in the way of me finding out what I needed to know about them, and as someone who doesn’t have the added complications of conditions such as vaginismus.
As a teenager, I always felt like people were more comfortable talking about penises than vaginas – you could talk about cocks and erections and wanking all you wanted, but no one discussed the clitoris and anything to do with menstruation was talked about in hushed voices, and always in code. This misconception that vaginas are ‘dirty’ grew from a lack of information about how the vagina itself is self-cleaning, and the vulva only needs a gentle washing, sans-soap. I still remember the abject horror of reading the advice to look at myself with a mirror, and promising myself I would never do such a vulgar thing (if you still haven’t done this yourself, I recommend it. The diagrams make so much more sense).
Of course, this secrecy and subtle revulsion surrounding vaginas and vulvas (by the way – I’ve only recently stopped referring to everything down there as the vagina. Even saying ‘vulva’ used to feel wrong, despite the fact I don’t know anyone with issues separating out the penis and the testicles) derives from, what else, misogyny. Vaginas are still intrinsically linked to women, even though not all women have vaginas and not all people with vaginas are women. And of course, the underlying rule of the patriarchy is woman = bad.
I am hopeful, however, that we are moving away from that backwards way of thinking, and that future generations won’t have so many hangups about their vaginas, and the vaginas of others. Teen Vogue are doing excellent work in educating young people about their bodies, and here at The Nopebook we do our best to talk candidly about the issues that affect our various parts.
If up until now, you’ve been shy about learning about your body in more detail, I implore you to check out some of the resources linked in this article. If nothing else, it might save you from a week of wincing every time you move slightly the wrong way…