The Power of Words in Female Health – (Part 1) Vaginas Posing as Vulvas

Hymens meaning virginity and vaginas being vulvas – a three-parter on the concepts, misconceptions and grey areas surrounding these parts of female health 

If you had asked me aged 11, what ‘losing your virginity’ was, I would have replied that it was having sex for the first time. Aged 12 – and a few years into biology lessons – I would have said the same as before, except that there’s something called a hymen (a membrane located at the vaginal opening) which breaks and so in a way is your virginity. At 13 I would have parroted the discussion had in the girl’s changing rooms that hymens can break from cycling or tampons – ‘so you can kind of lose your virginity without you knowing it’. 

Here the almost folkloric yet apparently undeniable link between virginity and the hymen became a fuzzy area in my mind. I didn’t quite buy it. It felt too dogmatic a theory with endless loopholes, thus it didn’t have any hold on my perception of my state of virginity. 

But being young (and an extremely accepting individual), I trusted it to be one of those things bigger than me that don’t quite make sense but just is. Like the existence of platypuses – mammals that lay eggs? Weird, doesn’t quite add up, but who am I to question it? 

Less flippantly and something I can’t quite understand is that while we clearly label the female anatomy in science classes, we sort of ditch that as a society and proceed to misname the vulva as the vagina. It’s everywhere and I can’t comprehend how it got to be this way! I remember sitting in class and being enlightened that the vagina had been stealing the vulva’s thunder. But that moment in formal education is undone when in society we are still blatantly getting it wrong. Again, I went along with the general discourse, unquestioning. I guess I assumed that we just don’t use the word vulva, instead we say vagina (even though its technically incorrect – the vagina is actually the interior canal). 

Apparently, I could really qualify some absurdity – not anymore! If someone referred to their lips as their tonsils, that would be weird. It’s the same difference. Only when Lucy&Yak posted conversation starters on Instagram about the taboos and misconceptions in light of the release of their vulva print clothing in February this year, did the penny really and truly drop. I hadn’t given it much thought until then, but suddenly my teenage confusion was realised and clarified. I am thankful for that memorable call to attention – and shamefully, I’m hardly surprised it took a pair of funky dungarees for it to stick with me. 

However, there is something more serious in this. It’s important that those born into a female body also have the correct language for their anatomy, at least as a basis – what anyone wants to call their own cooch is up to them! With clarity comes confidence. Being self-assured is an age-old female challenge (for fear of being dismissed as too outspoken or vain, amongst other things) and I believe that this is a contributing factor to the vulva/vagina debacle. I certainly second-guessed my own judgement on this topic, arguably from a position of naivety, but also from having been nurtured into a system where the patriarchal-favouring language trains us to feel self-doubt over conviction in our views. I thought ‘well surely the whole world can’t be wrong’. Ding dong, it obviously can and definitely is on many other issues that are gravely serious.

The rife misnaming is part of a bigger problem, as there is a mist of euphemisms that covers up our perception of more intimate aspects of female hygiene. Luckily, we’re living in an age of heightening awareness when it comes to the (feminine anatomy and) congenital landscapes of those born into a female body. We’re relearning the facts, deflating presumptions and celebrating the body in all its personality and individual glory via all sorts of platforms! And about time too! 

. . .

Recommended viewing: Duvet_days on Instagram – informative as well as beautifully drawn labelled diagrams of the anatomy and some of their conditions, paired with important discussion points surrounding them 

duvet_days ‘Vulva and Clitoris Anatomy’

Image courtesy of Georgia Hunt

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