Remember that scene in Kindergarten Cop when all the kids talk about their parents jobs and one stands up and says “my daddy is a gynaecologist and spends all day looking at women’s vaginas” and we all laughed hysterically while squirming a bit ? As it referred to our bits using real words and we cross our legs as we feel so uncomfortable talking about the parts of us we hide away.
There is, so it seems, a bizarre taboo about women’s gynaecology and it is absolutely true that many, many of us don’t know enough about our own bodies. We have all these wonderful parts of us that we rarely talk about or share unless we are passionate enough to sell feet pictures. If we do, it’s in whispers (or after eight Aperol spritz) and your friend asks you if one of your vaginal lips is a bit bigger than the other, cos hers is, and she thinks she needs plastic surgery on it to make it ‘right’.
Vulvas, vaginas, wombs, lumps, bumps, periods, smells. They live under our clothes but keeping quiet about them only serves to add to the taboo, and I genuinely do not understand why we don’t be more vocal about the things that join us.
When I was about seven, I vividly remember eating corned beef hash round the dinner table while our dog was attacking a bone and we were watching Wimbledon in the background. Steffi Graff asked to be excluded from the court for a few minutes ( yes, this was in the last century as I am that old) and my Dad, who was as open as a kebab shop at 1am on a Friday night said “she probably has her period and needs to change her pad”. My mum put down the chip pan and sternly told my dad that he had said enough, and promptly went back to handing out the spuds. I dunked my chips in my fried egg and wondered what on earth was being said, what a period was and why was it as though my dad had just let out a dirty little secret.
Well, he had really. Because periods, what they are, and why we as women have them, wasn’t talked about. Bit of a womb-ache though, because I got my period one year later when I was 8, and woke up thinking I was dying. I had gained some insight about what might happen to me via the Just Seventeen problem pages that were smuggled into school, and number 32 on the secret list to read was ‘Are you there God , it’s me Margaret’ by Judy Blume. But nothing quite prepares you for the pain that attacks your groin in the night, and to then wake up to find blood in your knickers. And Just Seventeen had told me that I would bleed the equivalent of half an egg cup of blood every twenty-eight days, and my little brain, even at that age, could work out that this was not what was happening with me.
How many wombs do you have ?
You see, at twenty-three years old, I was having surgery and at the end a doctor came to ask me if I had ever had bizarre periods. “Pull up a chair, and let me tell you” I replied, and then launched into how I seemed to bleed for absolutely ages and often twice a month. That I experienced massive clots and had blacked out fairly often, and no doctor could work out why I seemed to suffer so badly. She handed me a picture of a black screen with two blobs, and said “This might be why. You have two wombs Eve.”
I have a condition called Uterus Didelphys where I have two uterus and two cervix. All of this double action I have going on down there has given me the gift of two periods a month, as well as the ability to expel coils at bus stops spontaneously from one side. I actually have two coils in their packaging in a shoe box as they refused to have anything to do with me. When I was pregnant, there was no nookie time for me, as I could have still got pregnant in the other uterus. Can you imagine birthing one kid, to still have one brewing in the other womb ready to pop out three months later?
So, learning about female gynaecology and my own body suddenly became very important to me. All of the things I had learnt about periods, having sex, and getting pregnant – which had not quite seemed to fit my own narrative – suddenly made sense. Now, 32 years after getting my first period, I appear to have swung completely the opposite way, and I talk about women’s gynaecology A LOT.
When my son was three, I trained him to get my sanitary pads for me when I needed them. I explained about periods, what they are and why we have them. At five, he laughed hysterically as he said “so Daddy put his penis into your vagina to make me?” and at seven, told the consultant at the hospital that the vagina is inside the body and the vulva is on the outside, as the medical staff clapped.
Two months ago, I appeared on the podcast The V Word and it was playing on Spotify the other day while he was playing police, marching around the living room in a riot helmet. We also spoke about the abhorrent process that is vaginal testing and something I work passionately against and wrote about for The Motherload®.
One of my favourite nights out ever was last year when I went to the launch night of the Vagina Museum in Camden. I went with my friends Dr Stephanie deGiorgio, a GP, and Beth, who is as passionate about understanding, knowing and talking about the parts of our body that we have been told for so long to not speak of, as I am. The museum has a brilliant exhibition called ‘Muff Busters – Vagina Myths and How to Fight Them’, which discusses how just under half of the world’s population have one, but they are still such a taboo tale.
Dr Stephanie is a bit of a hero in the women’s health world, and teaches doctors about our bits and pieces in her role as a medical lecturer. When she went back to her school reunion, her most talked about achievement were her vulva cookies. She had baked them for one of her teaching sessions, shared the photo on twitter, and it had apparently gone around a farmer wives group like wildfire. Her picture of a mammary gland shortbread. and light and crumbly clitoris, was liked 8022 times on social media and opened up quite the conversations with people across the globe:
One of the exhibitions at the Museum was of a giant tampon with a glittery red end. I flung myself over it for a hundred photos; much to the horror of some of the people who sent me messages on Twitter about how it was vulgar it was.
This is what I don’t understand. Periods have such a stigma attached to them. But they are something which the majority of women experience, and we need to talk about them more. I spoke in work a few days ago during a women’s networking session about periods in the workplace. As someone who has more periods a month than chicken dinners, I happily talked about the fact I need to change my pad every hour. I spoke about the ‘Oh-bloody-hell’ feeling in your heart when you feel your winged pad take off from the runway in your pants, and end up half way down your tights
And finally, I told them of the absolute horror of leaking on the office chair – which I have done, three times in fact, and wheeled the evidence off to the building management office with a textbook over said red infringement, and told Derek that I will wait for Susan to return from opening someone’s cabinet so I can tell her, in a sisterly way, that I accidentally stained a chair as I couldn’t balance on one bum cheek all morning to stop the leak, and eventually sat down on my vulva.
V is for Vulva
We are almost scared of using the words vulva and vagina. We teach our kids names such as twinkle, mini, button, tuppence, nu-nu, and my personal favourite that I heard at the school gates – ‘cherry bakewell’. Which I thought was a cake with jam, frangipane and a sprinkling of nuts on top but … I mean, it had nuts on top if it, which does happen to the vulva at times but I think that might be the only similarity?
We REALLY don’t talk enough about the fact that sometimes, our vaginas are something of a fire crotch when we see white, orange and red stains in our pants. Though startling, it isn’t a bad or embarrassing thing! Our vaginal discharge is acidic by nature, and so will dye – or even cause holes in – your frillies when you wear them. We also don’t talk about discharge and why we have it, but we should; it’s natures cleaner who pays a visit more than once a week and won’t charge you 12 quid an hour.
Being at one with what your body normally does, and produces, means you can also pick up when there may a problem. Discharge is a mucous produced by your cervix and you can produce a teaspoon full of this a day (in mum language , this is a Calpol syringe) and it can be clear or white and it may have a slight aroma of you about it. If it smells different compared to normal, and is green or yellow, then jog along to your GP who can work out what is happening.
The importance of smears
Jo’s Cancer Trust carried out a survey a few years ago where 35% of women reported concerns over how their vulva looked and smelt. Lots of women didn’t realise that smears are vital to help pick up any issues that could relate to cervical cancer.
I have to have double the smears because of ‘womb-gate’ and I am really conscious that 21,000 women a year are diagnosed with one of the five forms of gynaecological cancer here in the UK. However, smear rates are still low and this must change. The Royal College of GPs says cervical cancer is largely preventable, but women are embarrassed to lay down and have a doctor perform a smear.
I see so many posts with women worried about the fact they think need a hedge trimmer for the forest in their pants, or a doctor will get lost in there. Women think their vulva, after having children, will be judged for not looking like a porn star’s, or that they may expel some air when the speculum is inserted. All of my doctor friends have confirmed to me a million times that none of this matters. What matters is you get checked and they will not blink an eye or notice if you can french plait your pubic hair or make a noise as they are doing their job.
Get to know your body
Our bodies have bits and functions we know are there but there are also bits we don’t know much about and we are scared and embarrassed to learn. But we should as knowledge is power. Get to know your body, what is normal, what isn’t normal. Grab a mirror and have a good look at the undercarriage.
Oh, and if you have a larger vaginal lip? It’s okay. It has a name and everything – labial hypertrophy. Lots of people are born with it and it is absolutely fine. Think about it, you have a trophy! Vaginal lips and labia can have their own special shapes unique to you and the more we realise this, the more we will break the taboo.
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