I felt empowered to learn about my body (Picture: Zespri Kiwifruit)
Surprisingly, for someone who has one, the world vulva is new to me.
Of course I knew the term before, but I’ve finally learnt what it really means – and that I shouldn’t be ashamed to say it out loud.
It’s a word often confused with vagina (which is where I fell foul), and to be frank talking about your ‘lady bits’ is something that’s always felt taboo.
It felt ‘unladylike’ to discuss, so much so, that when I started my period aged 11, I didn’t tell my mum for two years because I felt embarrassed.
You might call it your noony, your ‘see you next Tuesday’ or maybe even your fanny, but what is our vulva?
A YouGov survey in 2019 found half of adult Britons – with both male and female respondents – could not identify or describe the function of the urethra (58%), labia (47%) or vagina (52%).
And I was one of them.
Lockdown has encouraged me to find out and look inward – but not in the way you would think.
I felt empowered to learn about my body, not my blood sugar levels (which are important too, mind) but I decided I wanted to learn about my vulva.
In January, I completed a ‘Cliteracy’ course and it was like going back to school, this time with a fresh mindset, overcoming internalised misogyny.
I learnt about our vulvas and sexual health and how important it is to know your body, and how better communication between partners can bridge the orgasm gap, and why intercourse doesn’t always have to be penetrative.
I have now learnt the vagina is the internal muscular birthing canal – while the external vulva encompasses the clitoris, urethra, labia majora and minora.
So, we have a vagina and a vulva – and every single vulva is different, colour and size, so ‘normal’ doesn’t exist.
The entire clitoris is made up of the clitoral glans and hood (i.e. what you see on the outside) plus the clitoral shaft (or body), crura (or arms), corpus cavernosum, urethral sponge and vestibular bulbs.
The clitoris is an incredibly sensitive organ with 8,000 nerve endings and interacting with 15,000 more. Fascinating, right? But why is it not common knowledge?
I remember being in primary school, learning about the reproductive system, feeling awkward and weird. I knew I had ovaries and I would bleed every month until I was older, and that’s all I knew.
Like the scene in Mean Girls – ‘Don’t have sex, you’ll get pregnant and die’ – and that is essentially what I took from the lessons.
I knew a lot about the penis because educationally it held more power; it can ‘take your virginity’ and ‘it can make you pregnant’.
Learning about my vulva has encouraged me to book my first ever smear test (Picture: Jackie Adedeji)
I was also made aware in PSHE class to make sure ‘you smell fresh down there’ and use feminine hygiene cleansing shower gels, which are proven to be terrible for us because the vagina is actually self-cleaning – and cleaning internally can actually damage our vaginas’ natural balance.
So it’s no wonder I was clueless.
Female sexuality has always been something that’s taboo, and embedded in shame and regulated for centuries through the patriarchy, religion, misogyny and the media. It’s so touchy a subject that writing about this I’m instantly feeling risque and worried about what my parents will think?
But a massive part of me knows that if we don’t know the science or the facts behind our bodies, how can we be empowered by our health?
It can also cost us our lives – with the decrease in women attending their smear tests Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust surveyed more than 2,000 young women about their experiences.
It found that of 915 women who had delayed a test or never gone for a screening, 81% gave embarrassment as the reason, while 69% felt uncomfortable with a stranger examining an intimate area.
I can’t sit there and point the finger because learning about my vulva has encouraged me to book my first ever smear test.
I am 27; I got the letter when I was 25 and did nothing about it until now. I didn’t prioritise my own cervical health and learning about my body has empowered me to do so.
For the first time, I feel no shame attached, and studying my vulva has also made me realise that there is nothing wrong with me, and if there ever is –because I know my body better – I can ensure I get help as quickly as possible.
I would love to say Cardi B’s popular song WAP was the main contributing factor for me deciding to start looking inwards, but it wasn’t.
Living in a Covid-19 world has given many of us time to reflect and change, and it’s given me the outlet to learn and educate myself. As we said goodbye to our old world of normality, I wanted to step into our new normal with more knowledge about my being.
I feel inspired and so much more in awe of my body and what it continues to do, learning about my vulva also taught me it’s important to open the dialogue.
As a firm believer of the proverb ‘Each one teach one’ – which means if you can read, you can teach another person to read – that is what I will aim to do.
I want to open up these conversations more so we can take responsibility for our bodies, because it’s the key to feeling more in charge.
Self love is a radical act. How can we love ourselves when we are flawed? How can we love ourselves when society tells us we should look a certain way? I simply say start and the rest will follow.
Nobody can tell you about your body, when you simply know it for yourself. That is power.
I am charged up with a glitter gun of autonomy and I’m not afraid to use it!
I say, viva la vulva!