It is the creator of new life, contains invaluable stem cells, houses the only body part to exist just for pleasure, and still manages to bring shame to women everywhere: It’s the vagina. While men are emboldened to explore their bodies and be proud of their penises, women lag behind in this progression of genital confidence. But this isn’t because the prowess of the penis is superior, or the vagina is unworthy of creating hubris for a woman. Rather, a sexist society has been degrading and humiliating female genitalia for years, contributing to an internal hatred of the vagina shared by everyone from adolescent girls to fully blossomed women.
This subject is important to broach because the discomfort women feel when talking about their own bodies is dangerous. Degrading language, objectifying media, and lopsided marketing have made women more than embarrassed about their private parts — it has made them reproachful. These deep, festering emotions can inhibit females from asking questions about their vaginal health or sexual activity. This then leads to ignorance of STDs and birth control. The United States has the most teen pregnancies of all developed nations, according to the Office of Adolescent Health. And an estimated 24,000 females become infertile each year due to undiagnosed STDs, as reported by Center for Disease Control.
It is unfortunate that internalized shame will lead many women down the path to becoming one of these statistics. Women are sent the message that everything from the appearance to the smell of their vagina is wrong and unacceptable. And this makes candid conversation about serious problems fall into silence. When this endangers the health of young women, it is time to start talking about it in a more scrupulous manner.
The first step is paying attention to the reappropriation of words for the female genitalia. Words like “pussy” or “cunt” are no longer anatomical terms but have been transformed into insults. Think about the way people react when the word “cunt” is uttered. It is correlated with something dirty and vulgar. The real meaning of it has been diluted as modern culture has repurposed the word. In rap songs like “Lucky Cunt” by Tinie Tempah, the idea that women and their private parts are weak and exist to be objectified by men is clear. When Tempah raps that “dicks sound pussy,” the message to women is that their vagina is the ultimate insult.
The power of this language cannot be undermined, as might occur in the counter-argument that being called a dick is not flattering either. However, the weights and meanings behind the two terms are incongruent. To be called a dick still implies an overtly masculine, strong, and assertive demeanor. The slang word might be insulting, but it is not demeaning in the same way that “pussy” is. The former insult only reinforces the link between maleness and power. The latter holds none of these intimations.
Equally as important, marketing behind feminine grooming products must be altered. Women are bombarded by ads for bikini-waxing kits, pubic razors and a host of other products meant to improve the appearance of the vaginal region. This implies that a woman’s pubic hair is not natural and is something she must change. While men are encouraged to trim their own bushes, they do not experience the pressure that an entire niche market can create. The problem is not that these products exist, since grooming can be beneficial for vaginal health, but the issue is that the former benefit is not mentioned in marketing. This implies that the sole motivation for tending to vaginas is aesthetic, when in actuality the motivation should be for our own personal comfort and health.
One aspect of sexual health that has long caused discomfort is female masturbation. While this private practice is taboo for both genders in the wrong setting, it is considered a normal and acceptable habit for men. Women, on the other hand, “are told that touching themselves is neither normal nor acceptable and that doing so is dirty” in the words of EverydayFeminism. This double standard leads many women to feel as though they have to suppress or even fear their sexual desire. It reaffirms the point our culture makes about the passivity of the vagina and how it is not something for women to control, but rather something for others to claim.
There must be a cultural shift in the way we talk about vaginas. Not only are we making the confidence of women ever more fragile, but we are also endangering their health by discouraging them from learning and exploring their bodies. It’s about time we launch a campaign of empowerment for the vagina. And it’s about time we reclaim that word as a symbol of strength, sexuality, and beauty.