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Real Life Stories
By: Dr Elle Boag
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Vajayjay, nether regions, lady garden, front bum, Mary, foo…

 ...these are just some of the plethora of names that British women use to identify that they are talking about their vagina. Vagina is the correct, clinical name for the female genitalia and yet one that causes many women extreme psychological arousal to talk about.

A recent survey has confirmed that 66% of 1000 18-24 year old British female participants reported that talking about their vagina or other gynaecological issues is deeply embarrassing, and 48% report that they are afraid of being intimately examined. Sadly, this has profound implications for women’s sexual, physical and psychological health. Women are not talking to their GP (in the first instance) about issues that might arise in terms of physical changes, lumps and bumps, pain or discomfort during sex (or just more generally), and/or discharge or non-menstrual bleeding. Any, or all of these can be simply “normal” gynaecological events but they can also be symptomatic of greater problems that if left untreated may lead to more serious and even terminal conditions such as ovarian cancer. 

So why are women putting their health at risk over a little embarrassment? Well, it is not as simple as that. Fundamentally, there are two broad issues that feed into and propagate the continued taboo of discussing vaginas. First, unlike the penis which is external, the vagina is wholly internal….this may be why their existence (past the basic function and differentiation from males) simply does not elicit discussion between mothers (or other female role model) and daughters during childhood, adolescence and even adulthood.

In contrast, getting boys to keep their penis in their pants is challenging at times, throughout the lifespan. Following on from this physical and social internalization of the vagina, what is identified during discussion with women is that the vagina is seen in terms of its biological function. Indeed, for the vast majority of women the only time that their vagina is viewed by strangers is during pregnancy and birth. However, despite not particularly being concerned during the actual birthing process – at which times a military marching band could be in attendance and you really wouldn’t care – once the baby is born an overwhelming sense of indignity and embarrassment can be experienced. This is exacerbated if you have “stitches” which need to be examined daily, and then, after 6-8 weeks when you just begin to regain a sense of dignity, you have to endure the postnatal check where vaginal examination is mandatory. So, the vagina is viewed by many as serving a purpose in the production of offspring, only to be considered during this process and subsequently hidden away again.

The second, and most concerning issue surrounding female reluctance to embrace the open discussion of all things vaginal, is explicit sexualisation. Indeed, explicit pornography is so easy to access that many people (males and females) only view the vagina in terms of sexual activity and for many women consideration of the vagina, vulva or labia is done so in a comparative way…and in a world of designer vaginas any comparison cannot be great for esteem and self-confidence.

The problem is that it is simply not “done” to discuss vaginas with others, sadly this includes medical professionals, and as identified by the British charity Ovarian Cancer Action, which commissioned a survey, 57% of younger women report turning to Google instead of the GP if they have any concerns. Importantly, some young women view “smear tests” as a means of identifying STDs rather than the identification of cervical cell abnormalities, whereas some older women view them as unnecessary as they are either not sexually active or have been with the same partner for a long period of time.

So where does the responsibility lie in encouraging more open discussion, and in turn more chance of early diagnosis of serious health problems?

Clearly, one avenue would be to foster discussion between girls and their mothers (or other important female role model), such discussions should be encouraged by health providers and society as a whole…openly using terminology will reduce the taboo.

A second avenue would be to empower females to embrace their bodies, to know all of their body, to be “in tune” with themselves and to take notice when they feel something is “not right” and to seek appropriate help and guidance. Only when we lift the taboo, and only when we seek out help when things concern us, can we begin to reduce unnecessary female deaths due to ovarian and cervical cancers. 

So come on girls, introduce yourself to your vagina….have vagina parties where you can discuss vaginal health with close female friends…and discuss vaginal health with your daughters and granddaughters, reduce their fear and anxiety and empower them to be vaginally healthy and to pass on this openness to their own daughters and granddaughters. So as so well put in that sanitary product advert….”we got the power” - so let’s use it!

If you experience any unusual symptoms that happen frequently, including persistent stomach pain, unpleasant smelling vaginal discharge or unusual bleeding, visit your GP.

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