When I was 13 or 14, I was sitting with a group of friends and we were talking about our bodies; you do, at that age. Things change so quickly then, sticking out, getting bigger, running away from the smooth control of childhood. I don’t remember how the conversation got around to vaginas, but one of the girls says “I don’t know what it is about it, but I don’t like mine. Every time I put my hand down there it smells stinky”. And without even thinking, I jumped in with “really? Mine smells amazing!”
It’s true. I’ve always loved my vulva. I used to stroke and cup it in my hand when I was a little girl, long before it ever occurred to me to masturbate. It took my parents a lot of anguished tutting to get me to stop doing it in public. Later on, when I started finding out about the women’s liberation movement, I used to take out a hand mirror and examine it, with a frisson of anticipated trepidation: will I hate it, like those women in the books? Will it disgust me? Does it look strange? But it never did. It looked pink and soft and familiar.
I tried to find fault with it, I really did; even as a teenager I was dimly aware of the fact that my adoration for my honeypot was not normal. I’d read those advice columns in teen mags: “I have a funny discharge”, “my inner labia are uneven”, and I’d try to relate those to my own body, but it never stuck: everything down there just seemed to be pretty awesome.
I’ve no idea how I got to be that way. God knows I’m not the norm. Woman seem to have a hate-hate relationship with their genitals that is matched only by the disfunctionality of the relationship with our weight, except even more secretive and shame-ridden.
It’s not as if I didn’t have the same indoctrination as other girls. Maybe more, who knows. My grandmother, who brought me and my sister up, was a bit obsessed with what she called “under-washing”. She had a pitcher in her toilet and kept on in ours too, and we had to wash after going to the loo. She’d interrogate you, too: have you washed? Loudly and everything. It should have been shaming, but I just found it tedious.
I did used to worry about people being able to smell my period at school, but if I’m honest that was only because if they did, the boys would bully you to shreds. Mind you, they did that even when no detectable smell was present and you weren’t even on your period, because they were abusive little shits; but somehow if you really were on your period, that made it worse. But I didn’t worry about it as a thing in itself. I had no problems putting a tampon in, pushing it in with my finger, touching myself, penetrating myself. Again, not sexually – just, touching. Like it was a foot or an elbow. No big deal.
I don’t think I truly grasped how abnormal I was until recently. I was out with a friend and she went to leave the ladies’ room without washing her hands. I expressed surprise (for all my vulva loving ways, I am a judgemental clean freak), and she said “well, I didn’t wipe, so it’s ok”.
That stopped me dead in my tracks. First of all, because eww, damp. But also: this is a public toilet. Hundreds of people walk through here every day, and they touch the taps and the door handles with hands that have picked noses, stroked stray cats, changed nappies… Every inch of surface in this room is covered with minute droplets carrying the faecal matter of strangers, and you think you noony is the dirtiest thing in here? That as long as you haven’t touched that, you’re okay?!
Of course it’s stupid of me not to have thought of it before. It’s not the first time I heard that, even, it’s just that the penny had never dropped before. And if women didn’t already think their vadges were toxic, the presence of those obligatory hazmat bins in every women’s toilet would tip them off. I really resent those fucking things, with their foot pedals and isolated compartments and special disposal bags. It’s a goddamned fanny mate, not fucking Sellafield! PSA: menstrual blood is sterile. It is the cleanest, least bacterially infected fluid to come out of any of our bodies at any time. It represents absolutely no health hazard to anyone, and despite what toilet designers have obviously been reading in 17th century witchifinding manuals, cannot be used to enchant or poison men. I mean, really.
Then there’s Vagisil. Oh God, Vagisil. The continued commercial success of this brand alone should have informed me that not being disgusted with one’s hoo-ha is Not On. Not to mention all of that scented panty liner bollocks, like knickers were not there to absorb discharge in the first place.
There’s something really foundational about this business of hating, fearing and being disgusted by a body part that is so multi functional and so personal. I was talking to a feminist friend one time, about the different standards of cleanliness between men and women, and whether this is something that is just a product of laziness of men or a more fundamental (acquired!) gender trait. She said that for her, the need to keep her environment and clothing clean all stemmed from the anxiety of keeping her sexual organ clean – when it’s already clean, dammit! Vaginas, in case you didn’t know, are self-cleaning! And yet here we are, modern feminist women, tacitly falling in for this oldest of patriarchal myths: that filth (and therefore sin) has its origins in the female sex.
I wish I could sit every woman of my acquaintance down and somehow infect her with my love for my own vulva, its smell, shape, taste (mmm, post-oral kissing…) and feel. I don’t know what nascent insensitivity to indoctrination helped me dodge this bullet, but if I could pick just one feminist thing about myself and bottle it for distribution to the masses, this would be it. I think if we could all somehow magically wake up and be simply deaf to the messages that tell us our very cores are dirty, smelly, ugly and misshapen, the revolution would be half made, don’t you?