We recently had the excitement of having an ultrasound scan. I was twenty weeks pregnant and we had decided to find out the sex of our baby if he/she decided to reveal it to us.
As we walked into the room, our three-year-old son Sol announced: “I am going to see if there is a vulva or a penis!".
The radiographer seemed rather uncomfortable at his confidence. She giggled, and then said to him: “A Volvo! But a Volvo is a car!”, and it seemed that she was making this joke to cover up her embarrassment at Sol’s knowledge of basic anatomy.
Sol looked at her oddly, and calmly explained to her “No it’s not, it’s what girls have instead of a penis”.
As I lay there, I did a silent cheer for my boy.
As Sol provided a running commentary on what he believed he could see on the TV-screen of the scan, the radiographer commented to me that he had an impressive knowledge of anatomy. I thought about her comment, and I really don't think he does. I think she was actually referring to Sol's accurate labelling of sexual body parts, and I got the feeling this made her uncomfortable.
Isn't it odd that so many people are so uncomfortable with the correct labelling of body parts? For preschoolers, the word vulva has about as much meaning attached to it as nose, mouth and ears. It is just another body part.
Vulvas. There are billions of them out there, and they are a pretty diverse collection
. I am no geneticist, but I would say there was as much diversity in vulvas as there is in fingerprints. And as long as women have had vulvas, in most cultures they have been covered in public hair. Until recently...
A few weeks ago I was visiting a Catholic all-girls’ high school. I had never been there before and I was meeting with the school counsellor and the Deputy Principal for the first time. They had come straight from the staffroom, where it sounded like a very lively discussion had been taking place. After we greeted each other the Deputy Principal said that before we started the meeting they would love my opinion on the topic the staff had been musing over during morning tea. Of course I said yes – very curious by this point!
“We are all trying to work out WHY none of our senior girls have pubic hair?”
(Apparently the topic had come up in a health class discussion).
And we are not talking about delayed puberty here. We’re talking about teen girls, and why it is the norm to have a vulva stripped of hair.
These days, many girls tell me about the immense pressure to look a particular way now extends to their vulva. It’s not enough to have perfect legs, a flat stomach and blemish-free skin – their vulva must also be bald.
Why indeed is a generation of teen girls finding themselves under immense pressure to wax or shave all their pubic hair? Because it certainly wasn’t like this 15 years ago when I was at high school. We’d shave our bikini line when necessary - just enough to ensure no stray hairs were visible when swimming. But if anyone had suggested getting rid of it all, I am sure we would have been appalled. In fact, I remember girls in my first year of high school proudly displaying their pubic hair growth – for us it was a sign of maturity, of leaving girlhood behind. Now it seems that as soon as pubic hair appears, girls are feeling the pressure to get rid of it so their vulvas resemble a prepubescent child.
I want to talk a little about pornography.
When I was at primary school, every so often we would hear the boys whispering about a Playboy magazine that one of them had found amongst their Dad’s secret stash. And one memorable day my friend and I were exploring and we came across a man stashing a whole pile of Penthouse magazines on the side of the road. We spied on him and after he left we grabbed them all, had a little giggle over the contents and handed them over to our parents. I am sure our parents would have preferred we hadn’t seen those magazines, but other than a fascinating glance at spread-eagled nude women, they were pretty unmemorable. A far-cry from the easily accessible plethora of porn available these day. This generation of youth are being exposed to explicit pornography in a way that generations before just were not. According to Big Porn Inc.
"Pornography has become a global sex education handbook for many boys, with an estimated 70 per cent of boys in Australia having seen pornography by the age of 12 and 100 per cent by the age of 15." In one recent Canadian study of boys aged 13-14, more than a third viewed porn movies and DVDs “too many times to count”.
The impact of this early viewing of explicit porn on girls’ vulvas?
If boys are getting their primary sex education from pornography, their expectation is that vulva’s come in one model – hair-free. And if this is what the boys expect, many girls will comply. One teen girl commented that it wasn’t pressure from boys to wax - it was the pressure from her girlfriends. Teens are desperate to fit in – I know that should I have been a teen in this era, there would be no way I would have wanted to be the only girl in the changing rooms with pubic hair. Hair-free vulvas are now entirely the norm. In fact, a school that I used to teach in ran a full-page for Brazilian waxing in the school diary. This diary was distributed to all students, from Year 1 to Year 13. Imagine your five year old writing in their homework for the evening, right next to the “Home of the Brazilian” advertisement.
I have no problem with adult women doing whatever they want to their vulvas. Hey, if bejazzling your vajayjay
is your thing, go for it. (Just don’t package it in terms of empowerment
PLEASE!). My problem is also not with pornography - sexuality is to be celebrated and although 'ethical porn' is a pretty rare thing, it does exist.
The thing that really concerns me is that no part of a girls’ body now seems immune to the beauty pressure. The pressure starts so young and this is a ‘trend’ that is driven by a misogynistic porn culture seeping in to our everyday lives. It makes me sad to think of girls being so ashamed of their vulvas in their natural state.
I haven’t got a simple solution. Other than to talk talk talk with our children. They need to know that the pornography that they are likely to see (inadvertently or not) is not ‘real’. That is not what women look like, that is not how people experience loving relationships. Give girls the message that they are beautiful as they are, and teach both boys and girls the beauty in diversity.
Speaking of diversity, now it is possible to make your vagina whiter
. Yep, vaginal bleaching. I have never really considered the colour of my genitals, but apparently it should be another thing to add to my list of "women's worries". This post
by Moata reiterates my feelings well!
Image from The Great Wall of Vagina. Plaster casts of vulvas and vaginas. Look at the diversity!
This is the update of the Diva
situation from Suzanne Culph at Change.org
. See my earlier blog post
for some background on the issue."Huge news! Reports are coming in from supporters in Perth, Brisbane and Adelaide that Diva staff have been removing some Playboy products from display. The campaign is working - but Diva management continue to dig in their heels and are refusing to withdraw Playboy nationwide.Diva’s brand is taking a beating - both online and offline. They’re monitoring what their customers are saying about them online every moment. Taking a respectful message about why you signed the petition directly to Diva right now could tip the balance.Click here to post a personal message on Diva’s Facebook page.It’s important you speak from the heart about why this campaign matters - but if you need some help, here are some ideas on what to say:• Why you’re personally against promoting a porn brand like Playboy to girls.• As a parent and customer how it will influence your shopping decisions.• The impact of the porn industry on women and perceptions of women.The petition started by Collective Shout on Change.org has transformed into a movement of parents and shoppers, determined to hold Diva to account for pushing Playboy products on to young girls. And we’ve been phenomenally successful, some Playboy merchandise has been shoved under the counter “because of the controversy.”Diva’s General Manager Bianca Ginns continues to say they’re just following a fashion trend. Let’s make sure Diva know that selling the porn industry to young girls will never be fashionable - click here to share with Diva why you support the petition by posting on their Facebook wall.Thanks for all that you’re doing,Suzanne, for the Change.org team."
One of New Zealand's national headlines today was "Question after school puberty talk shocks granddad
". Given my line of work, I was intrigued.
Apparently, following a evening sexuality education evening, an 8 year old girl asked her grandfather about the size of his penis. After reading the article, I came to three conclusions:
- This is ridiculous journalism
- Ridiculous journalism leads to inadequate sexuality education for our children.
- A 'teachable moment' was lost, and a little girl probably left rather confused.
Let me elaborate:1. This is ridiculous journalism
'Sex sells' and sexuality education portrayed as outrageous also sells. One man unhappy with one school's sexuality education evening does not constitute national headline news. Particularly when the public health nurse at the optional "mother and daughter" evening spoke only about puberty and the associated changes, and did not talk about penis size or go into any sexual detail
A fantastic sexuality education programme wouldn't be considered 'newsworthy" by mainstream journalism. Imagine this: Happy parent comes home from sexuality education parent/child evening, calls up local journalist to report what a great evening it was and how they all feel so much better prepared/informed on how to face the questions and changes that will be happening in their child's life. I can't imagine that making ever making the national headlines. (If any journalists disagree with me and would like to write a positive article on quality sexuality education I would be more than happy to help them out!) 2. Ridiculous journalism leads to inadequate sexuality education for our children.
With negative journalism such as this, it's no wonder that the Education Review Office (2007) report The Teaching of Sexuality Education in Years 7 to 13
found that "The majority of school sexuality education programmes are not meeting students’ learning needs.” In order to avoid potential negative publicity, today's headline makes it more desirable for schools to ignore the Ministry of Education's sexuality education requirements
.3. A teachable moment was lost
The child's question immediately had an adult's framework put on it. Children don't see sexual topics in the way adults do. For a child, asking about the length of a penis is akin to asking the length of your finger, how tall you are, how fat/thin you are. Kids are curious and are exploring their world and the least we can do is give them honest answers to questions. Even if you 'suspect' an ulterior motive to a question, the best way to diffuse it is to give it an honest answer. Students have certainly tried to 'catch me out' in class by posing explicit or weird questions - the way I respond to them determines the outcome.
Sure, kids will ask the adults in their lives questions that may embarrass them - but it's the adult's responsibility to respond maturely and with integrity.
Given that this grandfather went to the media about the question his granddaughter asked him lead me to assume that a HUGE deal was made out of her question. I think that right now this girl would be rather confused about things.A real teachable moment was missed.
The conversation could have just as easily gone like this:Girl
: "Grandad, are you worried that your penis is too small/big/short/long/fat/skinny?
: (smiles, because hey, it's an amusing question) "No Jane, I am not worried at all. Everyone's body parts come in all different sizes. Just like I am fatter/taller/skinnier than your Dad/uncle/brother, our penis' are all different shapes and sizes too.
: "Oh, OK, I was just wondering. Can we go to the park now/eat dinner now/watch TV now
(The girl had a question, it was answered honestly without drama, and they moved on with their day).Meanwhile, I applaud St Paul's School
in West Auckland, for hosting a 'mother and daughter' evening. I hope that other schools see this type of journalism for what it is and are not put off offering their students quality and comprehensive sexuality education.Thanks to Boganette for alerting me to this article. You can read her post on this issue here. After commenting on her blog I felt compelled to write more about this issue myself.
Today's guest post is written by Dannielle Miller. Dannielle is a highly respected and experienced educator, author and media commentator on issues affecting teenage girls. She is CEO of Enlighten Education, an organisation that works with thousands of teenage girls across Australia and New Zealand each year. Dannielle writes a thought-provoking weekly blog, and hosts a Facebook page, where an active community of students, parents and teachers and provide an important forum for discussing issues relating to girls and education. Dannielle is also the author of The Butterfly Effect, a book on raising happy, confident teenage girls by forging deeply connected and loving mother-daughter relationships.
I lament the use of terms such as “liberation” and “empowerment” to sell women more and more product. In this post I want to particularly question the use of terms implying female empowerment in the growing trend to convince women to change what is surely something quintessentially female — our vaginas.
Case in point? The latest series of advertisements for Schick Quattro’s TrimStyle
all-in-one razor and bikini trimmer. The ads invite you to “celebrate your inner confidence” and, using the language of liberation, “free your skin”. According to the company’s PR blurb, five everyday Australian women were photographed and filmed for the campaign wearing nothing but lingerie, in and around some very public locations in Sydney’s CBD. Men are shown gawking at them, whilst other women look on admiringly. The women do have inspiring stories — there is a single mother and a cancer survivor — yet surely as the advertisement is for a bikini razor and they are seen posed in lingerie, we can only assume that their confidence actually comes from having well-groomed vaginas.
Speaking of well-groomed vaginas reminds me of one of the most flabbergasting moments in talk-show history. In January last year Jennifer Love Hewitt famously discussed on American TV
that she had devoted an entire chapter of her new book on relationships to decorating her hairless vagina with jewelled decals — a practice known as “vajazzling” that is gaining in popularity here, too. Hewitt told her host “Women should vajazzle their vajayjays . . . It really helped me.” She went on to say, “After a breakup, a friend of mine Swarovski-crystalled my precious lady . . . and it shined like a disco ball.” It really “empowered” her, she insisted (although apparently she was not quite empowered enough to use adult terms for her anatomy).
Forget the war on terrorism — if the amount of ads for decorating, shaving, waxing and electrolysis are anything to go by, it is the age of the war on women’s vaginas.
Actually, it is not just grown women who are being told they should doubt their own genitals. During the formal season last year, beauticians noted a huge increase in the number of young women wanting “intimate” grooming treatments. Girls as young as 14 were asking for Brazilian waxes. Enlighten Education’s Program Manager for New Zealand, Rachel Hansen, who is also a women’s health and sexuality educator, tells me of a school in NZ for Year 1 to 13 students that ran a beauty salon’s ad for Brazilian waxing in the school diary. Imagine pulling out your five-year-old daughter’s homework diary and an ad for Brazilian waxing jumping out at you.
It seems teens no longer even know what “normal” is. In episode one of the UK’s 2009 Sex Education Show
, when teens of both sexes were shown images of women with pubic hair, they gasped in what seemed to be shock or disgust. The producers had set out to show that in reality “we all come in all different shapes and sizes. From penises to pubes, bums to boobs whatever you’ve got it’s all perfectly normal.”
Cosmetic surgeons would have us believe otherwise. As if waxing, plucking, electrolysis and decorating is not enough, far more serious procedures are being widely promoted by surgeons as important for restoring women’s “confidence”. Researcher Karen Roberts McNamara argues that women are going under the scalpel to have their vaginal openings tightened and their labias made smaller because they have been convinced this will “normalise” them and thus give them confidence:
The sanitized ideal of the clean, delicate, discreet vaginal slit, so widely used in the plastic surgery industry discourse, functions in such a way as to cast the bodies who have not undergone these procedures as necessarily dirty and unsightly . . . Scholars have noted that in years past, women rarely had the opportunity to see other women’s vaginas and thus had no sense of how a typical vagina might look. Yet with the mainstreaming of the adult entertainment industry, the situation has changed dramatically. Now, a beauty standard has emerged, one established primarily through porn actresses, nude models and strippers . . . The irony of this situation is that in pornographic films and photographs, everything from eye colour or stretch marks, to genitalia, can be modified digitally.
Amanda Hess, in her excellent piece “The Problem With Defending The Sacred Choice To Vajazzle
”, concludes with a call-to-arms of sorts that I am taking up, and that I urge all girls and women to take up.
For now, the more extreme performances of femininity, like breast implantation, vaginal ‘rejuvenation,’ and Vajazzling aren’t considered the norm for women. I’m not going to be met with shock when I remove my pants and reveal to my sex partner that I haven’t converted my pubic mound into a shiny disco ball. But these days, it wouldn’t be out of the ordinary for him to be shocked that I’m not perfectly waxed. The body hair ship may have sailed, but vaginal modification is at a point right now where we are still in a position to fend off the tide. And my greatest fear is that someday, we will wake to find that our girls are being routinely Vajazzled upon puberty, and realize that we never stood up to say, ‘This…is . . . ridiculous.’
Discussing relationships is an important part of the sexuality education I teach. Young people are always eager to discuss the different social norms and expectations. It is also a topic that most parents approach with trepidtation. I have just watched this instructional video from 1951 about "what to do on a date"...
I viewed this video with a smile on my face, sighs of "how sweet" and thoughts of how lovely and simple things were back then.... Back to reality: there were just as many nerves and broken hearts as there are now. Teen pregnancy was common, it was just hidden in barbaric ways. Or young people were forced into marriages they didn’t want. Sexually transmitted infections were present, they were just hugely stigmatised and rarely treated.
The risks of heartbreak, pregnancy and disease that were present in 1951 are still there now, but nearly fifty years on, these risks are magnified and that 'benchmark' age when children are exposed to these risks is becoming ever-lower. The concept of childhood is becoming increasingly short. - in 1951 the marketing concept of 'tween' had not been invented. The behavioural expectations of late-teens in 1951 are the behavioural expectations being thrust upon our pre-teens now.
The tween phenomena has children wearing makeup
and parents taking them along to waxing salons
. They hear it on TV, YouTube
and social networking sites. This sexualisation of our children naturally leads to an early curiosity about sex and relationships.
In order to be prepared for these pressures it is crucial that our young people are able to make safe decisions that will keep them happy and ensure their well-being. They need their parents support in this.
More than ever, parents need to have the knowledge and confidence to be able to discuss sexuality and relationships with their children. Many parents say to me “oh but my child has no interest/no idea/no awareness about anything to do with sexuality.” This may be true, but their classmates are, and their classmates are talking. I posit it to the parents: if your child is not talking to you, they are talking to someone else and getting their information from them. What would you prefer? It’s never too early to start this ongoing conversation: make sure you don’t leave it a moment longer.
Thanks to Dannielle Miller
for pointing me to this video. A powerful statement on the media's portrayal of women. It sent chills down my spine and tears to my eyes.
I love playing dress-ups; putting on a costume and becoming someone else for a while. As a girl, I remember finding great delight stomping round the house in Mum’s high-heels, her flowery skirts billowing up under my arms and beads trailing on the floor. Sometimes we’d pull on her old swimsuits and sarongs and pretend to be ladies at the beach. We were playing: we knew that those clothes weren’t little girls’ clothes.
But the line between women’s fashion and girls fashion is blurred these days as the fashion industry has realised that young children are ripe targets for their marketing. The ‘girls’ fashion’ industry has boomed and has resulted in girls’ fashion simply being smaller sized versions of what teenagers and women are wearing. At face value, this doesn’t seem something we need to be concerned about. However when this means that lacy lingerie, sexy jeans and high heels are now seen in the ‘girls’ clothes section, I feel horrified.
Yesterday, UK clothing chain store Primark
withdrew from sale its range of padded bikini tops for girls as young as seven, following widespread criticism and outrage. The $4 bikini sets have been available in candy pink with gold stars and black with white polka dots. (Side note: Why do pre-pubescent girls need to wear bikinis anyway? In Europe I noticed most girls in similar swimming attire as boys until puberty – this made sense to me).
Primark has apologised to customers for "causing offence" and said it would donate profits to a children's charity. The company refused to discuss the bikini's padding but an anonymous source “familiar with the product said the extra fabric was designed to preserve a girl's modesty and prevent any signs of a developing breast from showing through”
. ‘Preserve a girl’s modesty’!!! What an oxymoron. By tying a padded bra on them? Need I say more. Even more saddening, this comment furthers the attitude that somehow girls developing bodies are somehow shameful.
A number of UK politicians
have condemned Primark for stocking such a bikini and several people have referred to the bikini as the “paedo-bikini
.” But this phrase seems to be implicating girls for the behaviour of paedophiles, which in turn minimises the blame on the perpetrator. Girls and the clothes they wear are not to blame for paedophilia: paedophiles are to blame for paedophilia.
As the American Psychological Association (2007) report on the sexualisation of girls
stated, "If girls purchase - or ask their parents to purchase - products and clothes designed to make them look physically appealing and sexy, and if they style their identities after the sexy celebrities who populate their cultural landscape, they are, in effect, sexualising themselves." Mumsnet
(UK) have launched a Let Girls Be Girls
campaign. This campaign asks retailers to pledge not to sell products that prematurely sexualise children. They have an excellent list of reasons why we all should be worried about the sexualisation of girls clothing:
- It introduces children to the world of adult sexuality, when elsewhere we are rightly encouraging them to resist the pressure to become sexually active at a young age
- It tells girls that the most important quality they need is 'sexiness' and that female sexuality is all about pleasing others
- It encourages a culture in which children are viewed as sexually available
What a worthy campaign. Perhaps we need a similar one here in New Zealand? Both Jay Jays
and Cotton On
have had clothing lines withdrawn after public outcry. Recently I saw a young girl (age 10-ish) in a white t-shirt with the play boy bunny plastered across her prepubescent chest. And I sadly noted that even 'My Little Pony' has sexy 'come hither' over-the-top eye makeup. (Please comment on examples of sexualised clothing produced for children that you are aware of).
The upside to the Primark bikini debacle is that the media outrage has been universal. No one is suggesting that on any level are these bikinis acceptable. Let's take this opportunity to take a stand against the companies marketing sexualised clothing. On a personal level let's ensure that we all consciously clothe our children: they are children and they don't deserve to be sexualised
I was navigating the supermarket yesterday, toddler in tow, chatting about all the products we were passing. A constant commentary of the products, decisions about what milk to buy, what colour the bananas are. Inane chatter to an outsider, but I love these outings with my son as he learns all about the world. We read the signs and I wonder aloud whether we need venture down that aisle. We see the ‘fish’ sign, we see the ‘beverages’ sign. We talk about the ‘baking goods’ sign and how we like to bake muffins at home. Then we come to the ‘feminine hygiene’ sign. I had passed such signs countless times before, but with a toddler soaking up all there is to learn, suddenly language has a whole new meaning and importance to me. My chatter is halted for a second - “feminine hygiene”? – and I am not sure how to explain these words.
To give my son a literal explanation, it seems that females must need products to sanitise themselves. Through a young child’s eyes, I look at the marketing – ahh, feminine hygiene products – these must make women don white leotards and dance, put on a skimpy bikini and run through waves, throw on high heels, skinny jeans and grab a microphone. And some have wings! Maybe women can fly after all! As I took a moment to ponder this, my son pointed at the ‘sanitary products’ and yelled out in delight “Mummy’s nappies!” I laughed and agreed - “Those are for women to use when they have their periods”. I could almost feel the man beside us scampering past all these ‘sanitary products’ reel in horror.
I was recently alerted to a new advertising campaign by US tampon brand ’Kotex’. According to Mr. Meurer, of Kotex - “We’re changing our brand equity to stand for truth and transparency and progressive vaginal care.” Wow, ‘progressive vaginal care’ – the mind boggles! But thumbs up to them for attempting to ‘get real' in their advertising for their products, by mocking the traditional way that menstruation products are advertised. The advertisement
opens with a woman declaring she loves her period, followed by “Sometimes I just want to run on a beach... Usually, by the third day, I really just want to dance... The ads on TV are really helpful because they use that blue liquid, and I’m like, ‘Oh, that’s what’s supposed to happen.’ ” The dialogue is illustrated by clips that had been used in previous Kotex advertisements, furthering the irony of the whole thing.
But thumbs down to US television networks who, after viewing the original advertisement, barred the use of the word 'vagina'. Even a revised version, which referred to “down there” was deemed too explicit. To quote blogger Amanda Hess
, "Now, the commercial contains no direct references to female genitalia—you know, the place where the fucking tampon goes."
The way society frames language shapes the way we feel about things, talk about things. The language we use imposes a particular view of the world. The view promoted by the language of ‘feminine sanitary products’ is that women are dirty and need to buy things to sanitise themselves. Are women’s bodies and their natural cycles really that scary? I am not advocating graphic photography here, but can we not at least acknowledge what the tampons are for? Is the word ‘vagina’ really that offensive? I hope Kodex’s new approach to tampon advertising marks the beginning of a change in the language we use around menstruation. I can't help but think of all the out-there products advertising 'penile erectile dysfunction'.
I think again of the world through my child’s eyes. If his sexuality education was left to the media, he’d grow up assuming that women need to buy ‘feminine hygiene products’ in order to wear tight white spandex and dance, or play beach volleyball in skimpy bikinis. He’d also think the ‘products’ were to clean up that funny blue stuff. But for now I am my son’s teacher, and I can filter most of this stuff for him. I dance most days, regardless of what day in my cycle it is, and I most certainly never wear white spandex.