The “V” Word
At an early age, we are encouraged to be modest. “Cover-up”, “be shy“, and “shut up”. We are reprimanded if we cuss, and boxed into being “too dainty” for sport, “too quiet” for politics, and “too female” for science. Technology is a man’s playground. The kitchen is ours.
Sexual education features giggly representations of the male and female bodies. Yet, we can talk freely about the penis in all its phallic representations and men are allowed to expose their upper torsos in a non-sexualised way. However, when it comes down to the female “V’s”, we divert into shyness and half-muffled expressions of this anatomical feature.
Only 1% of Parents Say “Vulva”
An independent YouGov survey in the UK found that 44% of parents use the words “fairy” and “flower” when discussing their daughter's organs. This is considerable because it reduces the female body to feminine stereotypes. Implanted into the subconscious at an early age, to misidentify parts of the female body with “fairy” or “itsy bitsy” is to force girls to choose “daintier” and false ways of life in the future. Scientifically, this demonstrates a clear injustice of the education system to women.
The YouGov study also found that only 1% of parents use the word “vulva”. Since this language is repeated in everyday life by families and institutions, then the female body becomes reduced to a symbol. Symbolic or mystified representations in turn allow arguments for the female body to either be covered, objectified, or done violence too.
According to Menegatti and Rubini, “language is one of the most powerful means through which sexism and gender discrimination are perpetuated and reproduced”. Their study deconstructs how gendered language or “linguistic gender bias” reflect the social asymmetries of status and power in favour of men.
In other words, the way we express our bodies is through language and it is no secret that patriarchal structures have leaked considerably into everyday colloquialisms. “Pussy” has become an insult to call out weakness in (mostly) men. “Slut” is derived from the Middle English term “slutte” which used to mean an “untidy woman”. Now, the word “slut” has evolved parallel to patriarchal repression, and suggests a woman who sleeps around. And let’s not forget that where women are conflated to prostitutes for being free, men are generally rewarded as “playboys” or “studs” for the same act of promiscuity.
Saying the V-word in public, just like mentioning your menstrual cycle, is met with blushing, the fanning of the face, feminine responses that hark back to a pre-modern time of housewives and corsets. The word “hussy” in fact originates from the Old English term “husewif” which meant the head of the house. Now “housewife” represents the gendered role of kitchen, cleaning, kids, and “hussy” means almost the exact same as “slut”.
This prejudiced nomenclature is symbolic of the role of women in society. We are either the blushing brides or Femmes Fatales. Language either misrepresents us, or leaves us out completely; Humankind is “man”. Synthetic or artificial products are “man-made”.
Women navigate a world of mailmen, policemen, and congressmen, with little respect for those modifications in job titles such as “waitress”, “hostess”, or “actress”. When discussing the cohort of those thespian celebrities, we don’t say “actresses” but “actors”.
Teaching girls the correct words without their “feminine” consequence is to remove those words of their symbolic references, and thus to empower women to feel at home in their bodies. Repurposing or reclaiming words like “vulva” or “vagina” will go against the grain by revealing and teaching what is real in the female body. This will push against the objectified/concealed paradigm inherent in the damaging social portrayals of women everywhere.
Lets Talk About Sex Baby
The word “vulva” is not a cuss word reserved for dirty playground antics, but a real anatomical label used in practical science. It should thus play a visible role when educating women and men about their bodies, starting from school, to home, to popular culture such as news, entertainment, and advertisements.
Wouldn’t it be refreshing for a tampon ad to show a) how to use one, and b) what we are using it for. Instead, tampon and pad retailers show thin, often older women running around in loose white dresses. Real experiences of the menstrual cycle are not only never depicted, but shunned in popular commercials. This is because we are taught to blush at the mention of “periods” or “vagina”, so nobody would buy products that represented this experience correctly. Yet, ads for condoms are mostly explicit.
The Sydney Morning Herald calls out the censoring of a tampon advertisement by three American networks for using the word “vagina” in their campaign. The campaigns were forced to switch the word vagina for the ever-elusive, “down there”, supplanting what is considered an “offensive word” to a euphemism, again dumbing down or degrading reality. The article goes on to say that, “apparently, it is fine to mention things such as “‘erectile dysfunction’ but any allusion to female genitalia is just too much for censors to cope with”.
Women menstruate, they have vulvas, sexual desires, legs, and hair. To efface over one of these things does damage to how we are portrayed and thus how we see ourselves. Misrepresentation drives oppression and inequality.
It seems ludicrous to think that once upon a time, women were so inferiorised that our natural bodies were discouraged or boxed in: foot binding, ribcages deformed by corsets, and lead poisoning from makeup.
Women sweat and bleed, and by not being able to show these things correctly, or by replacing the world “vulva” with “fairy”, this kind of archaic mentality still figures today.
Health & Education
The repercussions of the YouGov survey showed that half of the female respondents didn’t know their vagina was self-cleaning. In total, therefore, only 46% of women knew the correct way to clean their genitals. Health care is indiscriminate based on gender, sexual education is obligatory in schools, and yet when it comes to “down there” women are still poorly educated.
This reveals a serious gap in Western education. Where it becomes problematic, however, is in less developed countries, where period poverty is still a prolific issue. In Nepal, the practice of isolating girls’ during their periods has only just been banned. In Kenya, a 14-year old schoolgirl took her own life after being shamed by a teacher for staining her uniform whilst on her period.
It starts with education, and language features heavily in this. We should opt out of using “female” swear words like “bitch” or “sissy”, discourage the use of anatomical euphemisms, and start exposing the real bodies and real experiences of women starting from an early age. We should naturalise the menstrual cycle because - does it even need to be said - it is natural. We should face the V-word head-on and remove it from the backward, archaic shame it used to represent.
Reclaiming Gendered Language
Always’ new campaign “Like a Girl” shows promise for the menstrual health industry. Their video ad reclaims what “hitting like a girl” or “running like a girl” really looks like, taking the popular and stereotypical language of the feminine, and rephrasing it for the purposes of empowerment.
These days feminist language has reclaimed words with neologisms like “mansplaining” and “manspreading” in an attempt to reveal social inequalities when it comes to gender. #MeToo has now been affirmed as a mainstream trend, and women are beginning to speak up.
These are only small steps forward for a total cognitive shift that would favour correct education and non-biased language, but these small steps will define how women are represented and, most importantly, how we live in the future. To correctly educate women about their bodies without substituting real science for derogatory words is how the future of female equality and empowerment should look like. Until then, it should be up to parents, educators and popular culture to define the way forward for those V words - or should I say, for the vagina and the vulva.
“Gender Bias and Sexism in Language” by Michela Menegatti and Monica Rubini: https://oxfordre.com/communication/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780190228613.001.0001/acrefore-9780190228613-e-470