I’ve gotten fairly comfortable with other people seeing my vagina, which is the word that I’m going to use not for its literal meaning but as a catch-all phrase for my entire set of genitals. Part of this comfort comes from the fact that I have had urinary problems since I was a wee lass, so much so that I had to have a procedure done to reduce the size of my bladder when I was about seven (ever had iodine shot into your bladder? It’s great, and by great I mean rivers of fire). Since then, pap smears, gynecological exams, my recent dermatological visits, and physicals have seemed like no biggie. Placing one’s feet in stirrups is just the burden women bear.
Then there’s the whole sexual partners thing, and I feel no special need to disclose the precise number of people that I’m referring to (we are on the internet and trolls abound, after all), but I’ll just say that it’s not like, historically, I’ve been unhappy or uninviting when someone who I find attractive and who finds me attractive wants to see my vagina.
But say that that’s a comfortable number of sexual partners and maybe a larger-than-average number of doctors (due to the UTI thing) who have seen my vulva/labia/clitoris/vagina/urethra. If I were to add my parents and the babysitters who had to change my diapers when I was a baby, I would ballpark the number of people who have seen my vagina at around 30. You know who went 28 years without seeing my vagina? Me.
That’s ridiculous but not uncommon. I recall The Vagina Monologues containing stories from women who felt completely disconnected from their vaginas. Apparently a whole 53 percent of Australian women have never seen a vagina, and almost half of young British women don’t know where their (literal) vaginas are. We don’t know what looks “normal,” because we don’t really see a lot of vag pics, and while I think every woman who has a computer and a presence on the internet is well aware of the variety of penises that exist in the world (whether we want to or not) we are not exactly exposed to images of various vaginas that often.
Maybe it’s that penises stick out from the body and they’re kind of hard to ignore, and on the other hand, it takes a real, concerted effort to actually look at a vulva in all its glory. It’s tucked away down there, and it’s hard to get the right angle on it in any casual way. If you’re looking at your own vagina, it requires a mirror, and it’s like adding the requirement of a prop just makes it unacceptably difficult.
At the same time that I can dismiss not looking at my vagina as merely an issue of inconvenience, though, the fact remains that I have also been a mixture of intimidated and grossed out by the prospect of looking. Not because I don’t like vaginas, of course – I’m queer! I like everything. But I think the fact that I have mainly had sexual partners who have penises, along with growing up in a culture that has a general distaste for the yoni (whereas there are phallic symbols EVERYWHERE), along with the sort of warlike attitude I have had to take toward my urethra and bladder (kill it with cranberry juice!), along with various instances of sexual abuse – carry the two, and you have a person who, by association with a lot of negative ideas, is uncomfortable with looking at or acknowledging her own genitals.
Here’s a big secret, in case you’re like me and you haven’t bothered to look: It is un-extraordinary. When you prop a leg up on your toilet Captain Morgan-style, angle whatever handheld mirror you have right, get in there, and spread open your labia to take a look, it’s not like a demon baby comes out hissing at you with sickly yellow eyes. It’s just flesh, and it’s probably flesh that you already know by touch, whether yours or someone else’s.
Looking at my vagina more than superficially was like putting a face to the name. The knowledge I’ve gained about it amounts to having a better idea of what takes up how much space, which is useful sexually, because for some reason I was imagining it – literally the whole thing – as being very long and large, there being a lot of distance between the my clitoris and my (literal) vagina, and that’s not true, so I may have been slightly confusing in my directions to my partner. I know, now, that vaginas look exactly as weird to me as penises look (which is to say, pretty weird). I know, now, too, between looking at my own vagina and looking at galleries of other people’s vaginas, that everything about my vagina is exceedingly normal and apparently very healthy, and that’s good knowledge to have.
And finally, I know that there’s nothing scary about it, and it’s mine, and if I’m going to have a sense of ownership over it I really ought to check in with it every once in a while.
Original By: Rebecca Vipond Brink