When I was in about 5th grade my mom got me an American Girls book about puberty and the transition from girlhood to womanhood. It told me all about shaving, choosing fingernail polish, and eating well. And on one special page it told me about my period and how to put a tampon in. Me and my girlfriends each had our own copies and we referenced it like the Bible. I was one of the last of my friends to get my period and I remember wanting one so badly, complaining to my mother about my feeling left out.
In my experience, the pre-pubescent world of girlhood was one filled with a Romanticization of my impending period. I thought that having a period would make me a woman. I was being prepared for my future as a mother! How exciting. But at the same time I also knew that it was my god-given duty to hide this change. I should change and I should celebrate it, but I couldn't make anyone uncomfortable.
One of the first period lessons my mother taught me was to wrap up any used period-related products in ALOT of toilet paper and take the trash out often to prevent my brother or father from being able to smell and or see evidence of my new found womanhood. I was supposed to check my pads often to make sure that no trace of blood ever met with my underwear or the crotch of my pants, because that would be the most embarrassing moment of my life.
When I finally did get my period the little diagram in the American Girl book didn't help one bit. It was not Romantic. My boobs didn't grow like American Girl told me they would and the only part of me that ever got more "womanly" was my fat butt and no one except Sir Mix-A-Lot seemed to be very excited about that outcome.
Then I was put in the market for deodorizing tampons, cute tampon cases to disguise the fact that I had tampons, and the notorious girly double-speak with which I began to forever refer to all of my "woman problems".
So this past week when Jalena Jankovic blamed her Wimbledon loss to a teenage unseeded U.S. player on her "female problems" I had a mixed response. Periods do suck. I was an athlete in high school and I remember having to run during workouts and/or play my volleyball matches, basketball games, or track meets while on my period. Sometimes it effected my performance.
And here is where it all get's weird. As a female athlete, I was constantly being challenged or mocked my males. The game I played was inherently different than the games they played, because I was a girl. Everyone just loved to point that out. But if a girl pointed it out, or if I ever complained about cramps, then I was being silly. And amidst the Wimbledon coverage it is obvious that people think the same of Jalena.
Feminist commenters mock her for using such a silly excuse, and males write her off as a baby despite the fact that male players complain of physical discomfort all the time (flus, broken bones, etc.). But when the ailment is exclusively a "female problem" then the legitimacy of such ailment is no longer as valid and Jalena becomes a joke.
But periods aren't the only "womanly subject" that makes people's headspin, the mere existence of vaginas seems to be even more pervasive in our society. Even Oprah-- who has recently been one of the most beneficially outspoken contenders in the push for medically accurate, full-body sexual education for adolescents (she has even begun endorsing masturbation for young women in a Spring episode)-- can't say the word "vagina" without becoming uncomfortable. She uses the juvenile euphemism "vajayjay".
The fact that vaginas have turned into vajayjays makes me think that our culture is okay with making vaginas silly and, ultimately, taboo. When we make vaginas scary and unspeakable we inherently consent to the equally prevalent view that women are scary. We are controlled by these scary organs that are plagued by uncontrollable, monthly visits from "Aunt Flow". How in the world can we be trusted? We're so crazy!!
And the ramifications of our silent treatment of vaginas are not only sad, but dangerous.
For example, a friend of mine recently came to me with the following complaint:
"I had unprotected sex and I think I may have had a tampon in because it was at the end of my period, but I don't know. Do I need to go to the gyno?"
My friend is a sophomore in college. She has been sexually active with penetrative sex for about a year now, but she has been experimenting with fingering and oral sex since she was about 14. This is a girl who has had men's fingers in and around in vagina for years, but she was disgusted when I questioned why she hadn't stuck her own fingers in her own vagina to try to find said tampon.
Because vaginas are gross. So very gross. And the only people responsible enough to deal with their grossness are trained physicians and horny dudes. Not only is that depressing. It's scary.
The cultural denial of vaginas paired with the medicalization of our "lady parts" puts women in a helpless position.
Until we encourage our young women to embrace their bodies as not only natural and beautiful but downright amazing, we are going to continue to manufacture women who are afraid of themselves and unable to take care of their own bodies and sexualities.
And a horde of ignorant youth is not a horde of safe youth.