A new study in Britain indicates that a large number of young women aged 18 to 24 are refusing to see a doctor when they have gynaecological issues, simply because they can’t bring themselves to utter words like vagina, labia, vulva, discharge, and the like.
Even when in pain, they would rather consult Dr Google than talk to a healthcare provider. By doing so they put their lives at risk when life-threatening diseases like ovarian cancer go undetected. I wonder how many young Malaysian women feel the same way.
If a woman finds it difficult to call a vagina a vagina, it’s probably because she’s not used to hearing it. When I was a little girl my mother referred to my “private parts” as a rosebud. Imagine my surprise when I was visiting my grandparents one afternoon, only to have my grandfather walk in from the garden and announce to my grandmother, “My, there are some beautiful rosebuds in the garden.”
After that incident, my mother got rid of the rosebud and replaced it with my private parts. I guess that conveyed the message that no one else was supposed to have access to that part of my body. Her intentions were great, but it would have been better if she’d used the correct terminology.
When I was in my early teens, I thought the vagina was the outer part of a woman’s genitalia. Imagine my surprise when I discovered this area is called the vulva. The first time I heard the word vulva was in a biology class at school. I thought the teacher called it a Volvo. I was completely confused and had no idea why a manufacturer would name a car after a woman’s private parts.
It was only after I’d looked at the handout at the end of the lesson that I realised my mistake. Still, it put me off Volvos for life.
It seems there are a multitude of other names that mothers use when talking to their daughters about their private parts. Names like foo foo, noo noo, mini, flower, and Mary. I laughed when I realised that some people probably grew up thinking that Mary is a synonym for vulva. I’m surprised that I had any friends at all at school.
Not that I blame my mother altogether for my early confusion. I’m sure my grandmother never uttered words like vagina or vulva when my mother was growing up. Indeed, women born at the beginning of the last century were more likely to call it “that there” or “front parlour” or “naughty”.
And even further back, during my great-grandmother’s time, it was often called a “nettle bed” or “fly trap”. So I’m now beginning to think that rosebud wasn’t such a bad euphemism after all. At least, it sounds a lot better than a stinging weed that can give you an itchy rash.
Nonetheless, whenever I hear the word rosebud I’m immediately transported back to that day at my grandparents’ house. Maybe that also accounts for my general dislike of prints with any sort of floral motif.
If you feel uncomfortable saying certain words, try saying them out loud, over and over again, when you’re on your own. It will help defuse their power.
Moreover, if a young girl discovers that she hasn’t been taught the correct word for her vulva, she might think it’s because that part of her body is shameful. Some parents even describe their children’s genitalia as the naughty bits, or give the impression that they’re bad or dirty. How is this going to help a young woman feel empowered about her body?
Despite my rosebud period, I don’t have a problem using the correct terminology, when I have to. At my age (fifty-something), there is little about my body and its various bits and functions that cause me to feel embarrassed when I visit my gynaecologist.
After giving birth to two children and undergoing a few surgical procedures, and subjecting myself to a biannual pap smear, I’m adept at detaching myself from my sense of modesty in a clinical situation.
It also helps that my gynaecologist is thoroughly professional. If you feel uncomfortable saying certain words, try saying them out loud, over and over again, when you’re on your own. It will help defuse their power.
If all else fails, please go to your doctor and tell him you’re having trouble with your Volvo. He’ll just think you’re mispronouncing the correct word, and it could save your life.
Check out Mary on Facebook at www.facebook.com/mary.schneider.writer.