The vagina is getting a lot of love again. From the press, that is.
From Naomi Wolf proclaiming it as the expressway to women’s souls to Olivia Wilde dropping the v-word as a dirty-bomb metaphor as to why her marriage fizzled, the word “vagina” is now the intellectual discourse stunt word for a universe of attention-hungry female celebs whose media personas straddle (no pun intended) academia, Vogue fashion layouts and TMZ tweets, which means they wind up in magazine ads seductively lounging across handbags costing more than a mid-size SUV. It’s an instant way of engendering gravitas when the paparazzi insist on lovingly documenting your side-boob.
How did we get here? It’s a long journey for a word once considered unfit for polite (or any) company, and relegated to animal husbandry textbooks and the musky realms of Real Men magazine. One obvious reason is the women’s movement, which decided to rescue the word from its playground-tittering hell by debating it, the empowering it with museum-quality dinner place settings.
Let’s face it: the word will forever be a conversational hand grenade: some avoid it at all cost, even with their gynecologist. Others will lob it cheerfully into any situation involving more than one person, be it a panel discussion on Foucault and post-feminist discourse or directions to the nearest bathroom.
I’ll admit the word has held an uncomfortable place in my history. As a younger sister to the first baby boomer wave, I was too busy wrapping Barbies with hippie beads, unaware I would soon reap the consequences from all their female consciousness-raising. In fact, it wasn’t until the sixth grade when, marched into a dark room, I was forced to watch a cartoon hinting of my impending maturation, that I realized there was a name for what my mother termed “down there”. The film was a confusing allegory, cheerily alluding to the hormonal tsunami my pituitary gland would soon unleash. Breasts unfolded like flowers and golf-wedge shaped uteri expelled eggs like a blissed-out pachinko machine. Though the vagina looked more like a plumbing schematic than an actual body part, it was the beginning of decades-long tortured relationship with the organ and the word, though the only thing I really understood at the time was I would be spending a lot of money padding it with feminine hygiene products.
My introduction to the vagina as a political statement came courtesy of Planned Parenthood, at my first-ever exam. After spending 15 minutes on my back, staring at a picture of stampeding horses ripped out of a National Geographic and tacked to the ceiling tile above me, the nurse jammed a mirror into my sweaty hand and let me know it was time for me to look my vagina. Taking the confused look on my seventeen-year old face as an invitation, she gave me a lengthy argument as to just how spiritually and emotionally empowered I would be by knowing what I looked like down there. After reluctantly agreeing, I spent an additional 15 minutes attempting to contort myself into empowerment. Using the hand mirror as leverage and coaching from the staff (including the receptionist) I managed to position myself into a precarious teeter-tottering pose, allowing me to view my anatomical ticket to liberation. The nurse pointed out in excruciating detail the all the components, which from my viewpoint melded into a shaky blur, not helped by my flailing attempts to maintain balance without trapping my legs in the hospital gown, thus running the risk of looking like a demented Martha Graham.
I came out of the clinic shaken and dazed by that political/gynecological foray. Fortunately I was blessed with a mother who, though driving me to the clinic and back, was more interested about getting home in time to fry hamburger for the dog than what I endured, sparing me from reliving the experience. Looking back, I believe the episode gave me insight into why women my age have an unhealthy obsession to attend yoga classes 24/7.
The constant preoccupation of all things vagina didn’t just extend to baby boomer women—it also exerted a strange hold over the men, even the ones who weren’t seemingly interested. Like James.
James was a high school classmate. And gay—very gay, but was fascinated by the concept of the vagina, which he cobbled together from the same sex education cartoons, locker room bragging (when he wasn’t busy making sure his ass wasn’t getting kicked), television tampon ads and oddly enough, his dog’s penchant for giving birth in ironic places, such as his sister’s prom shoes. Since I was the possessor of such an organ, James viewed me as his opportunity to verify his preconceptions, which mostly centered on the idea that extensive maintenance was required. Because of James, I spent my senior year answering endless questions like “How many tampons do you need to put inside?” “Is special soap required?” and “Do you use a bottle brush?”
I dutifully answered all questions, though they were inevitably let downs since they didn’t jibe with his fantasy of the vagina as a perplexing yet elaborate orifice, something defying understanding but demanding attention. In other words, the anatomical equivalent of a Madonna concert after a gun-control squabble.
I never gave his questions much thought until I caught him flipping through Hollywood Babylon. After landing on the infamous pictures of the Black Dahlia murder, grainy black-and-white photos detailing the naked, eviscerated aftermath, James was mesmerized. After staring at one particularly horrific image for a few minutes, James pointed at the victim’s lower half: “look—“ he murmured, “you can see her vagina….”.
Even vagina word variants had their day in the media sun, as evidenced by the mercifully brief ascendancy of Oprah’s favorite genital pseudonym, “vajayjay”. It became so widespread amongst the screaming-housewives-of-a-reality-show mindset that I became confused when trying on a pair of jeans, the sales woman remarked on how the denim was unacceptably bunching around the “vajayjay”. It’s quite the sight to see women navigate their way through a conversation without uttering the word. I’ve witnessed twenty to seventy-year olds regress into bizarre baby-speak or discretely point towards their thighs in order to refer to the genitalia that dare not speak its name.
Spoken or unspoken, the vagina still holds a lot of us captive. So I would like to make a modest proposal and ask: can’t we just get over it? After all, fifty percent are owners, so they’re not exactly unique. And as someone who has lived with one for quite some time, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not a metaphor for female empowerment or a fast-track ticket to moral oblivion. It’s not even human anatomical equivalent of the squeeee-inducing baby squirrel. In other words, it’s just a vagina.
LINDA UEKI ABSHER is the creator of The Lipstick Librarian! web site. She works as a librarian in Portland, Oregon.