Updated: Oct 19, 2021
"It is very unique. Most cloacas form a kind of slit. Sometimes it's a vertical split, sometimes it's a smiley face, sometimes it's a sour face. This thing has a V-shaped structure with a pair of nice flaring lips." — Jakob Vinther, a paleontologist describing new discoveries about dinosaur genitals
I think I was in graduate school when I learned that the correct name for the external female genitalia is “vulva” (it’s not “vagina,” as so many of us refer to it). I knew that I had been taught shame and fear around my body, but I didn’t realize how much shame and fear until I got married and discovered the condition of vaginismus.
And I know I’m not the only one. One of my friends in college recoiled at the idea of looking at her vulva in a mirror and described it as “gross.” I’ve been to many a church sermon where woman who have sex outside of a hetero-married relationship are described as beat-up roses, chewed pieces of gum, or irreparably torn pieces of paper. I’ve worked with women who didn’t know what a menstrual cycle was until it happened to them. My sister warned me of male doctors who would try to tell you that your PMS symptoms were all fake.
What’s the Deal?
There is a tremendous amount of fear, shame, and subjugation of the female body in our collective history. And it has very real and tangible consequences. When I was pregnant, I took a class about pelvic health from a doctor who explained that some women experience this so deeply, and have such severe cases of vaginismus, that they have to be artificially inseminated and/or deliver their babies via cesarean. Women chronically under-report pain to their doctors and live with disease. Women live with the side effects of weak pelvic floor structure because “that’s just the way it is.” A lack of knowledge and awareness around your sexual well-being is also correlated with a higher likelihood of experiencing sexual assault. All of these experiences (and more) are the very real ways that women’s bodies are still subjugated today.
So What Now?
I’m going to break down some things you can do for yourself, and then for the mothers among us, I’m going to break down some ways you can educate your daughters so that we can break the cycle of trauma.
Get to know your anatomy. My favorite books for this are Women's Anatomy of Arousal and WomanCode. Women's Anatomy will give you an in-depth description of the different structures of female anatomy and their (completely normal) functions. WomanCode will take you into the internal anatomy of the rest of your body (all the way down to your hormones) and teach you how the health of your whole body and the health of your cycle are interrelated.
Get to know your cycle My favorite book for this is Taking Charge Of Your Fertility. This is a good intro-book if you're unpacking a lot of baggage and want something that's focused more on wellness and function and less on sexuality.
Get to know your brain My favorite books for this are Come As You Are and The Body Is Not an Apology. These books get into the mind and heart of sexuality and how that impacts your attitude toward your body.
I also cover female anatomy, wellness, and sexuality in-depth in The Soul Work Course and how it relates to your overall experience.
Now Let’s Talk Breaking The Cycle
(the trauma cycle, not the menstrual cycle)
This work starts in infancy. I’m a huge proponent of RIE parenting (also referred to as Respectful Parenting). The basic premise of this approach is that we respect infants, babies, and toddlers as wholly human and equal to adult humans in terms of the respect they deserve.
A primary way this changes things from the typical American parent-child relationship is the type and amount of communication. Even from infancy, parents who use this approach speak to their child in a gentle, normal tone of voice (no shrill baby talk) and narrate for them what’s going on in their immediate environment.
Here’s an example particular to this scenario: During a diaper change you might say, “I’m going to lay you down now so I can change your diaper. I’m getting a clean diaper and your wipes. Now I’m unsnapping your onesie and taking your wet diaper off. You’ve pottied, and so I’m going to help you get clean now. I’m going to wipe off your vulva. And now I’m going to wipe off your butt. You’re clean and dry now, so I’m going to put a fresh diaper on for you. Now I’m going to snap up your onesie, and we’re all done!”
Yes, it’s a lot of talking, and yes it feels strange at first to start giving a running monologue of all your actions. And the whole time, you’re making eye contact with your child, expressing calmness, confidence, and centeredness. This is also a very gentle way for you to get used to using the correct anatomical words if you’re overcoming your own shame experiences.
As babies get older, they will begin touching and playing with all the parts of their body—toes, bellybuttons, and genitals. I see questions from moms about this all the time. “My son/daughter has started playing with her vulva/penis during diaper changes. What should I do?!” And the immediate suggestion I see a lot from the parent asking the question is, “Should I move their hand away?!” That question right there speaks volumes about our own discomfort and the ways we pass that on to our kids.
Here’s what I recommend. If your baby has poop on them, then gently hold their hand and say, “You have poop on your vulva/penis. I’m going to clean you off first, and then you can play/explore/touch (whatever word you want to use here).” Notice how this is a way of teaching about hygiene.
If they don’t have any poop on them/are clean, then either don’t say anything or you can narrate matter-of-factly, “You’re touching your vulva/penis/testicles.” You don’t need to say anything, and if your only reason for saying something is your own discomfort, that will come across. Saying something can be helpful if you want to help your baby start making the connection, “that word means this body part.”
You also don’t need to rush to put another diaper on. They can have diaper-free time, or you can say, “I’ll close your diaper when you’re ready.” Babies are much wiser than we know, and many times when parents use this approach, their baby will then reach for the diaper, signaling they are ready to to put it on. This is an easy and gentle way of helping your baby become acquainted with their body and also practice autonomy over their own body (“my caregiver lets me close the diaper when I’m ready, and I help do it”).
As babies grow into toddlers and begin interacting more and more with the world around them, you can begin using toys or books to help them learn about their bodies. Two of my favorites for young toddlers are:
My First Body Book I added my own labels for “butt” and “vulva” on this page
Melissa & Doug Magnetic Human Body Play Set I put away the boy-specific parts until I feel it’s an appropriate time to introduce those. I would recommend introducing them when kids are a little older and begin asking specific questions about the differences between boys and girls.
For older toddlers, they will begin asking more and more questions, building on what they already know.
For my daughter, seeing photos of me pregnant has introduced the conversation around the womb. She was interested to know if she also had a womb, and we used the Melissa and Doug toy to show where it was and that it’s called a uterus.
For girls, they may begin to notice there’s more going on “inside” their vulva and want to know what those parts are called or make up their own terms for them. I searched high and low for a good teaching tool for this, the lack of which was actually the impetus for this whole article. Wouldn’t you know, all the books I could find about girl’s anatomy was either for: Puberty — and most of these books didn’t seem to have a kid-friendly diagram of external genitalia or discuss basic hygiene 5-7 year olds — and all of these that I could find were either for the purpose of explaining the differences between girls and boys (again, no external genitalia) OR they were for the purpose of explaining female anatomy in the context of reproduction. This infuriated me, so I’ll come back to it in a moment.
So, that being said, here’s what I recommend:
This was the most child-appropriate diagram of external female genitalia I could find that wasn’t in a science textbook (i.e., didn't have a bunch of pubic hair and embellishment to show maturity).
I also changed the "labia majora" and "labia minora" labels to "outer lips" and "inner lips" respectively, since not everyone's outer lips are "major" and inner lips "minor."
A note on representation
When I tried to find similar toys and diagrams for BIPOC complexions, I couldn't find any. I could only find black-and-white diagrams and toys depicting pale-skinned bodies.
And now for my soap-box tangent.
Why on earth is it, that the first way girls are taught about their anatomy is to explain how they are different from boys or explain their “purpose”? Neither of these methods of teaching fully explain and introduce them to their body, and they don’t teach helpful age-appropriate things, which at a toddler-preschool age are: 1. Names, 2. Location, 3. Hygiene, 4. Basic Function, as they show interest and readiness.
The first time we learn about our bodies should be simply for that purpose: to learn about our own body. Not as it relates to someone else’s, and not for how it’s “useful.” And every girl deserves to learn about her body with books, toys, and resources that look like her body, not someone else's.
So here’s to changing the narrative, and breaking the cycle.
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