When I sat down to write this article I thought I was well-equipped to confabulate on the topic up for discussion. I am in possession of a vagina. I have actually had a vagina for my whole life. I am fairly sure I know how it works. I think I use it an average amount for someone my age (this is proving quite difficult to empirically confirm).
But, sitting blankly in front of an equally blank Microsoft Word document, I swiftly realised I do not know as much about my vagina as I originally presumed. You see, when we meet people, our first impression of them is how they look. This kind of introduction is denied to women when it comes to our own vaginas. My impression of my vagina is massively inhibited by the fact that it’s inconveniently placed between my thighs. I am pretty inflexible – and I’m fairly certain it’s physically impossible to get your head that far between your legs – so I would have to go to the effort of getting a hand-held mirror to create the conditions for a proper inspection. But I’m also pretty lazy, so that’s not a viable option. Thus, I have never looked my vagina in the eye. The closest I’ve ever got to an eyeful of vagina is the odd cursory glance in any given chrome-plated bathroom accessory that happens to be below hip-height. In fact, I think there might be boys in the world who are better acquainted with my vagina than I am.
Part of this, as I say, is to do with physical positioning. Men might know their penises intimately because – well, they’re just there, aren’t they? Just sort of hanging there, like a weird flaccid windsock on a still day. They’re difficult to ignore. Vaginas, on the other hand, are tucked neatly away, private and internal. Out of sight; out of mind. A school kid will doodle male genitalia all over their friend’s notebook if said friend is looking the other way – doodles so anatomically detailed they include bollocks, shaft, prickly pubes, and a neatly penned dotted line of ejaculate protruding from the head (I say ‘school kids’; in fact this happened to me just the other day in a tutorial. My tute partner managed to draw a dick on my essay when I wasn’t looking. Which is strangely impressive, in its own way. Tutor unimpressed, though).
Yet I’ve never seen the same kind of doodle of a vagina. In fact, in July, BuzzFeed posted a video on their Youtube channel entitled ‘Do You Know What Your Vagina Looks Like?’ In the video, a portrait artist drew pictures of six different women’s vaginas, and each woman had to guess which drawing related to their vagina. Yes, it was an entertaining three minutes and 41 seconds of BuzzFeed’s finest video journalism, but it also highlighted how unused to talking about their vaginas women are.
Likening a vagina to “a very healthy raisin”, or “like two string cheeses” is comedy gold, but the statement from a woman who said “I feel embarrassed that I don’t know as much about myself as I feel I should”, and the words of another who said “I’ve never looked at my vagina”, hint at an underlying reluctance to discuss female genitalia – a reluctance which does not present itself in teenagers doodling dicks on notebooks. Of course, it’s fantastic that BuzzFeed are producing such videos, but when they do they are a novelty and have a certain shock factor. The narrative is still that we struggle to talk about our vaginas because they are awkward and weird and occasionally secrete blood and resemble dried fruit.
The answer to the question, “do you know what your vagina looks like?” is often a resounding “no”. But I think this issue of being acquainted with our own vaginas goes deeper (pun unintended, I promise) than their anatomical positioning, their drawability, and the limitations of language in describing them. The crux of it is that we’re not really taught about vaginas at all. I find myself questioning what my sex education was like at school. The answer: minimal. Frankly, shit. Incomprehensive and incomprehensible. I distinctly remember sex-ed involved a cartoon in which two tadpole-esque creatures intertwined themselves, created an indeterminately shaped mass of pixels on the screen, and had a baby one and a half minutes later, after a whistle-stop tour of a fallopian tube system which, to my disorientated eleven year-old brain, looked more like a sheep’s face than a uterus (a ewe-terus, if you will).
The more serious side of this is that, in light of substandard sex education, young people – children or preenagers – are more likely to turn to pornography to ‘educate’ themselves (I put ‘educate’ in inverted commas because this is not much of an education). It is thought that more than half of boys and nearly a third of girls see their first pornographic images before they turn 13. I don’t want to be a fearmongerer lamenting the state of ‘impressionable youths’, but it is frightening to think that a generation of young people might grow up believing that vaginas are naturally prepubescently hairless and surgically enhanced. That a generation of girls might grow up comparing their vaginas to the nip-tucked labia of professional pornstars. That a generation of boys might grow up seeing the vagina as a vessel for a phallus rather than the doorway through which they entered the world.
Which is why I say to those of us who have been denied a comprehensive education in sex, which stretches beyond the ins-and-outs, the birds-and-the-bees: it’s time to embrace the vagina. To take the vagina into our own hands. You don’t have to channel Carolee Schneemann and slowly extract a paper scroll from your vagina à la ‘Interior Scroll’. You don’t even have to go down the figurative Georgia O’Keeffe route and paint a vagina flowering like the centre of an iris. Only do not neglect it in its shadowy depths. Accept it for all its ingrown hairs and wobbly bits. Excuse me while I limber up, find the nearest mirror, strip off my underwear, and have a gander. After all, you should know your body better than anybody else does.