Dwyer: A Healthy Dialogue
By Katherine Dwyer, Guest Columnist
Published on Thursday, November 1, 2012
Tomorrow, every first and second-year female student will receive a small compact mirror in her Hinman Box. This marks the second installment of the Orchid Project, originally initiated by Mayuka Kowaguchi in the fall of 2010. Each mirror will come with a note explaining that females could use the mirrors to view their vulvas. There is no mention of obligation to use the mirror, no endorsement of sexual activity. The mirrors are offered in the way one once was to me.
I was 14 years old when I had my first menstrual period. My dad awkwardly congratulated me, and my mom handed me a box of Tampax.
I sat on the toilet trying to figure out where to put the tampon for 30 frustrating minutes. Is this supposed to hurt? Where is the hole? Why can’t I get this in? What’s even down there?
I emerged from the bathroom in tears, tampon in hand. My mom suggested that I use a mirror to look at my vagina while I tried to insert the tampon. I was horrified. I had never looked there, or even really thought of ... there. When I sat with the mirror, the horror intensified. It was strange and ugly, and I didn’t like it. It had been there my whole life — heck, I even came out of one — but something in me “knew” it was ugly. I didn’t want to touch it. I didn’t want to see it.
It is a tragedy that an important and dynamic part of most females’ anatomy largely remains a big “gross” mystery. Friends of mine have asked where their clitoris is located, which hole they pee from, if using a tampon takes away their virginity, or if sex is painful every time.
You’d be hard pressed to find a male who’s never seen his own genitalia, while for women this seems fairly common. Some of this is due to simple anatomy — a female can’t see much when she looks down — but most of this is social. Who has never seen the back of her own head, or his butt in the mirror? “Vagina,” a term used liberally here to refer to all female genitalia, is a taboo word, and the body part to which it refers is dirty. It’s not unreachable. It’s just a part whose owners have been led to believe is ugly, smelly and indecent. It seems that any part of their body that smells different or is hairy or provides them pleasure should be kept secret.
But seeing, knowing and, yes, smelling, do matter. Just as breast self-exams are now widely promoted, understanding what’s normal for your vagina should be encouraged. What discharge is healthy, and what’s not? Which bumps are okay, and which are signs of a sexually transmitted infection or a yeast infection? Is pain normal? How do I keep my vagina healthy?
Years after that first peek, I was sitting in an office at Dick’s House inquiring about birth control options. The nurse mentioned the Nuvaring — a hormonal vaginal ring that is inserted once a month — as an option, but seem hesitant as she discussed it.
“I only suggest it to girls if they’re comfortable with ... you know ... down there.”
“Down there?” I didn’t know what baffled me more: that a medical professional had used the phrase “down there,” or that many of her patients had probably refused one of the most effective forms of birth control due to discomfort with their own body part. Conversations about birth control, healthy and positive sex and simple bodily functions aren’t happening because we don’t want to talk about “down there.”
In June of this year, Michigan State Rep. Lisa Brown was barred from speaking on the house floor after using the word “vagina” when speaking on an abortion-related bill. Yes, it was used in a sassy retort, but State Rep. Mike Callton’s response confirmed that it was her choice of language that disturbed him. He commented that what she said “was so offensive, I don’t even want to say it in front of women. I would not say that in mixed company.”
Female voices like Brown’s are not just being literally silenced — they are also quieted when women lack the autonomy to name, own and be proud of a part of their own body. How can a partner see and know your vagina before you do? How can a female be in charge of that part of herself when she feels uncomfortable with it? You can have the power to teach someone else about your own body — what you like, dislike and what you need in order to be healthy.
The goal of the Orchid Project is not just to send thousands of female students to their bathrooms, mirrors open and ready. It’s to start a conversation. Looking is so important, but talking is, too. Been there, seen that? Pass the mirror along to a friend who could benefit from the gesture. Or just toss the mirror in a bag and keep it handy when you’re eating spinach. But please — start a conversation. And let it include the word “vagina.”
Katherine Dwyer ’14 is a co-organizer of the Orchid Project.