The ‘V’ Word
By Mayuka Kowaguchi, Guest Columnist
Published on Tuesday, October 19, 2010
Yesterday, hand-held mirrors were sent to the Hinman boxes of the 1,796 female students on campus this term, with a note encouraging them to use the mirror to look at their vulva. Marking the beginning of the Orchid Project, the distribution of mirrors was meant to provide an opportunity for each student to become more familiar with her body and in particular, with the female genitalia.
I was inspired to begin this project through my own personal experience of having difficulty developing a healthy relationship with my body, particularly those characteristics that make me uniquely female, due to my conservative, Japanese upbringing. I designed this as my end-of-term project proposal for Sexperts training in the Fall of 2009, and with encouragement from those around me, the project became a reality. Now, to my amazement, over 20 campus organizations support the Orchid Project.
For some time, I have been concerned by the fact that many females I know, both here at Dartmouth and outside the campus, are uncomfortable with looking at their private parts. Some of them (embarrassingly, myself included) have let other people, such as their first sexual partner, see their vulva before they even got the courage to venture down there with a mirror themselves. I feel that being able to look at and acknowledge the existence of your vulva is a step towards accepting and understanding your female self. Being more comfortable with your genital organs will more likely lead to regular monitoring of sexual health, exploration of self-pleasure and increasing pride and confidence about being female. Females need to take control of their bodies, know that they can and should be responsible for their own sexual health and pleasure, and consequently, feel empowered! But as great as all of this sounds, the project also faces potential criticism.
A couple of sensitive issues arose in the process of launching the project, and in order for the Orchid Project to be truly inclusive, these issues, as well as any that arise in the future, need to be addressed. OPAL advisors helped me to realize that some people may take offense when they find this “gift” in their mailbox. Not everyone will find this an empowering project — especially if what is encouraged by the note and mirror conflicts with personal values and beliefs. Some may be discomforted by the expectations seemingly forced upon them. I want to clarify that it is up to each person to decide what she wants to do with the mirror: no individual should feel pressured to use the mirrors for the purpose for which they are sent.
I have also been questioned for my original use of the term “woman” in this project, which has now been selectively replaced with “female.” Why do we emphasize a single part of the human body as an indicator of someone’s gender? Is it necessary to be an owner of female genitalia in order to be a woman? The project not only deals with physical/genetic sex but also with the gender issues that surround it, meaning the project is aimed at both female students and students who identify as women.
I hope that the Orchid Project will have Dartmouth women thinking about and possibly talking amongst themselves about the questions and issues surrounding female genitalia. Why do many females shy away from their genitals? Why is the vagina such a taboo topic? Why do people feel uncomfortable talking about, looking at or touching a part of their own bodies? There will be a series of discussions this week, providing spaces in which women (and for some events, men) can gather and learn from each other, and even from themselves. Even if some choose not to participate in these conversations, if each woman on this campus questions herself about this issue, I believe that she will get to know herself better. It is my wish that the Orchid Project will continue to provide women on this campus with opportunities and resources to critically examine as well as to celebrate the meaning of being female.