We learn a lot about our bodies from what other people call them.
From the time I was a very small person, my mother referred to my genitalia as “the front of you.” As was recently pointed out to me, this euphemism for my vagina and everything it encompassed was so vague, it could also have be referring to my face, or my chest, or torso, or anything and everything that was visible from the front. But that’s the point of a euphemism, right? It’s indirect, its function is to dodge what’s considered too blunt, no matter how perilous the results.
When I surveyed other people with vaginas about how their parents and peers talked about reproductive organs, I found three sets of answers. First, there were those folks who grew up with euphemisms – muff, you-know-what, pum pum, pee pee, etc, (including the all encompassing ‘private parts.’) Then came those whose parents used clinically accurate terms. And then there were those for whom it was called nothing.
“I don’t think we used any word at all,” said A. “We didn’t talk about it. This, in a family of three daughters.”
Not surprisingly, regardless of what terms were used to refer to one’s genitals, it’s almost impossible to emerge from childhood and adolescence without negative associations attached to vaginas and vulvas. J, whose mother used the word “vagina” on a regular basis, reported that she always whispered it, which just heightened the stigma around the word and the thing itself.
“I was taught to call it ‘vagina’ from a young age, “said Alex. “But I certainly absorbed discomfort about my vagina from other settings. I don’t think I became fully 100% comfortable talking about it the same way I do about my nose, say, until I gave birth and was in the care of awesome, feminist, female midwives.”
There were certain inconsistencies noticed when talking about people born with penises. “My brother was born around the time my sister and I were realizing that we had genitals,” said M, “His experience of his penis was like light-hearted and cute and innocent, but I don’t remember that being a thing for me or my sister.”
“When my then stepbrother got stuck in his pants zipper,” K told me, “There was laughing about ‘his little pecker.’ But there wasn’t even a word for my vagina, it was just ‘down there.'”
If we grow up being made to believe that our body parts must be steeped in mysteriousness and shame, what happens when we’re in charge of our own sex lives? If we have children, do we perpetuate the cycle that started with the euphemisms (which was probably the result of what our parents’ parents called sexual organs), or do we charge ahead, using the correct terms. E, who reported not remembering what her parents called her own body parts, is breaking the pattern with her three year old daughter. “People seem shocked when I speak to my three-year-old and actually use the word ‘vagina’. What else am I supposed to call it? I don’t want her to be afraid of her parts (or calling them their names).”
“I have seen a lot of women with shame around their vagina,” said sex therapist Cath Hakason.”In all of them, you can track it back to negative childhood messages, where their parents either didn’t talk about that part of the body or they used made-up names, which left the impression that if the name is unspeakable, then there is something wrong with the part.”
You don’t have to forgo the use of slang altogether, says Jill Whitney, a marriage and family therapist who blogs about communication around sex and relationships at Keep The Talk Going. “Even adults often refer to sexual body parts with terms like ‘privates’ or ‘girl parts,’ and it can be helpful for your daughter to know those words are synonyms.” Using clinically accurate names for genitals, though, means going all the way – teach your children that there’s a difference between the vagina and the vulva, instead of letting vagina represent everything that’s in a complex system.
Whether or not you’re going to break the cycle of code names with children, it’s vital that you address your own relationship with your body, and how it’s been impacted by the messages you’ve received about it. Sexual Wellness coach Lauren Brim advised finding a community of sex positive people who will talk openly about sexuality and body, and openly exploring your own. “Get in touch with your body,” urged Brim. “Talk about it. You should have been free as a little girl to talk about how you were feeling, so this is about reparenting yourself.”