Shame, Shame, Puppy Shame & other expressions of sexual suppression
Vagina. Clitoris. Vulva.
There’s a good chance that just reading these words makes you uncomfortable. My work and training is in pelvic health among those who identify as women so I now throw these words around like confetti, but I know I was self-conscious and embarrassed when the topic of bodies and sexuality came up when I was growing up. I still remember feeling ultra-uncomfortable when I accidentally watched Titanic with my parents in a theatre and had to sit through the scene where Leo DiCaprio paints Kate Winslet nude. Amma (mother) covered her face with her hands and Appa (father) looked down and around angrily muttering “Ithu enna kothari”? which roughly translates to “What the #@*$”?! Despite my work, I still cringe if my parents are around when lips lock and clothes start to come off onscreen.
My experience as a young Tamil girl, parallels that of many young girls of many cultures. Many parents were scared to teach their children about their bodies for fear that it would entice them to behave immorally. Instead their references to female genitalia was indirect, condescending and controlling, reflecting the belief that sexual expression among girls and women is wrong at any age or stage of life. For example, the phrase, shame, shame, puppy shame, was popularly used among Tamils to comment on their childrens’ body positioning or behaviour. It meant, “have some shame” and was intended to embarrass children into covering up their offensive naked body.
Instead of learning about our bodies, we learned to use phrases like “thing”, “down there”, “shameful parts”, or “private parts” to refer to our genitalia. Nothing differentiated. Just a mound of shame.
The ideas of shame that we learn at home are reinforced everywhere around us. Many messages about the female body tell us that our bodies are not good enough and dirty and need to be explored surreptitiously or not at all. Period products are labelled as feminine hygiene products that must be hidden or used discretely. Surgery is touted as a way to “fix” our bodies to meet societal standards. Face lifts, breast implants, tummy tucks - even our labia and clitoris are substandard as they are.
It’s no wonder then that many individuals who come to see me don’t have the words to describe what they are experiencing - good, bad or otherwise. Given that pelvic health is associated with menstruation, fertility & pregnancy, urinary regulation, digestion, and our core health and fitness, many women delay seeking help until symptoms worsen. Common challenges such as painful periods, incontinence, bulging at the tummy, pelvic and low back pain, prolapse, and pain with sex are often dismissed, hidden, or suffered in silence. It also frequently means that people don't prioritize their pelvic health or seek to explore their bodies and pleasure fully.
Let’s change that.
Here is a quick guide to female anatomy with my wish that knowledge of it gives you the power to speak about and represent your body as you desire to yourself and whomever you choose to share your body with.
The vulva includes all the external parts, including the inner and outer lips. When people refer to the “vagina”, they often mean the vulva.
Labia Majora = Outer Lips:
It’s natural for hair to grow on them.
The labia majora protect the more sensitive parts inside.
Labia Minora = Inner Lips:
This is a second layer of protection and secrete lubrication to keep you comfortable.
They are often not symmetrical, might extend beyond the edges of the majora and may or may not be smooth. All these differences in shapes and sizes are normal. Labia minora are unique, like fingerprints.
Clitoris and Clitoral Hood:
The nub of the clitoris that is visible outside is only a small part of the full clitoral structure which extends internally. The clitoris is very sensitive and stimulating it may lead to orgasm. The clitoral hood protects the clitoris and slides back to expose the clitoris when aroused.
A small opening between the clitoris and vagina where urine comes out. Pee does not come out of the vagina. It’s hard to see and you can’t really feel anything there.
The vagina, aka birth canal, leads to the uterus. It’s a muscle that is “closed” ie. the muscle walls touch, when at rest. It is normal for the vaginal walls to feel bumpy to the touch. Also, contrary to a common myth, you can’t lose anything in a vagina!
Internally, you also have the following:
The uterus is where a fetus would be should you get pregnant. It sheds its lining, which results in your period, every 28 days or so, even when you’re not pregnant.
Neck and opening of the uterus. It typically stays closed and opens only when a woman gives birth or to release fluid during menstruation. When you get a pap test done, the doctor takes a sample from the cervix.
Fallopian Tubes and Ovaries:
Eggs are release from the ovary and send it down the fallopian tube to the uterus.
Some thoughts to consider:
This “textbook” diagram doesn’t reflect what you see, feel, or know about yourself? That’s totally fine. In fact, it makes complete sense. Our bodies are sort of like snowflakes - each of us is the same, but different from everyone else. We have similar parts but they may be arranged differently, may feel different, and may react differently to stimuli. Unless you’re experiencing pain and you’ve been advised otherwise by a medical professional, your genitals are perfect as they are.
This picture is incomplete because we don’t see the brain, which is so intimately connected to your vulva. So much of our sex drive is related to context and it is your brain that processes all the information that comes in about your body and your environment to determine whether you want to pee, want to fight, run, or shut down from stress, or want to have sex. Your brain is the reason why you can improve your sexual health and pleasure without directly changing anything about your sex life.
Our bodies change over time, with age and experience. For example, your body may not look or feel the same after having a baby and that is very common. Again, same parts but maybe slightly different based on your unique experience. The good news is that we know that pelvic health, which is more than just sex, is based on anatomy, alignment, tone, past experiences and trauma, emotional state, and context. And we know that the brain and the body are dynamic, which means that change is possible at any age.
So what can you do to reclaim your power?
Use the proper words to talk about your body. Your body is not shameful and shouldn't be overlooked. Remind yourself that you are beautiful and worthy of care and attention just as you are.
Explore your body in safety. Hands or eyes. Yours or your partner’s. Seeking arousal or strictly academic. Intercourse or other techniques. Toys or no toys. Lights on or off. You decide what feels safe for you and how you want to change it up as you learn your body and your needs better.
Understand your context and sit in your feels. It may feel uncomfortable to allow yourself to be vulnerable to the rush of emotions of past experiences, or the current stress and pressure of personal and societal expectations. For example, it may feel scary to touch scars along your pelvic floor or allow your partner to see that part of your body for fear of being judged. There is no rush; go at your own pace. It takes time and practice to build awareness and to learn what helps you feel safe, whole, and loved, but it’s definitely worth it. Sex is only truly enjoyed when we meet the trifecta of eagerness, expectation, and excitement. When we feel safe, whole, and loved, we can allow ourselves to feel good and relax in the knowledge that sex is one of many options for intimacy. Sometimes even if you’re a committed relationship sex can be a stumbling block if we don’t understand our emotional or physical context or if our experience and expectations don’t match those of our partners.
Talk to a professional if you have questions or want insight into your body’s responses. So many pelvic health challenges are common, but can be improved or even eliminated. Our bodies change over time, and each transition is an opportunity to positively transform our relationship with our bodies. If you would like to improve your sexual or pelvic health, this is the perfect time to start!
Image: “Grey Lines with Black Blue and Yellow” by Georgia O’Keefe