When I was little, my mother had, like, a million names for my “unmentionable.” The stand-outs: Pum Pum. Pee Pee. Gina. Stink Box. Down There. I don’t think I learned the real name for my lady part until I got to that one “Scared Straight” health class in the seventh grade—the one where they separated the boys from the girls and showed us a really mind-blowing movie about our bodies morphing into boobs and hair in weird places and, if we looked too hard at the really cute boys, big-headed babies. By the time the instructor finished with us, the word “vagina” was the least of the things I needed to know about myself.
I never really considered what I would call it when I had my own kids—not until I got my first baby, Mari, around Nick’s mom. She’s a nurse. And a vegetarian. And grown. And she believes in calling a spade a spade and a vagina, well, a vagina. I liked her philosophy on it: If you make up names for the baby’s private parts but call everything else on her body by its anatomical name, you’re telling her there’s something wrong with her vagina—that it’s embarrassing and secretive and not to be discussed with you.
Note: this is the exact opposite of the way my mom thought when it came time to learn about my body in general and my vagina in particular. With her, nothing associated with down there was up for discussion. Nothing. Which means I spent a whole lot of time being completely ignorant about the care and keeping of my lady parts and just plain dumb when it came to the mental gymnastics and emotional baggage that came with using it.
This is the last thing I want for my girls. Rampant vagina ignorance is not an option.
Which brings me to this whole Summer’s Eve “Hail To the V” commercial business. If you’re not up on it, read “Why the Summer’s Eve Commercials Are NOT Fresh,” over on MyBrownBaby. The quickie version: Summer’s Eve, some kind of chemical concoction its makers say will make your sssstank vagina smell like a field of roses and strawberries or whatever, launched a new commercial campaign last week that somebody on their clearly all-male staff thought would get us girls all hyped about “it.” In one series of stereotypical and seriously creepy ads, hands cupped in the shape of talking vaginas tell women to stop ignoring them and get it fresh. Dumb? Absolutely.
But it was the second commercial that gave me serious pause. It shows men throughout the ages beating the crap out of each other while really pretty women stand by, anxiously watching; a sultry voice-over says, “It’s the cradle of civilization. Over the ages and throughout the world, men have fought for it, battled for it, even died for it...”
Long. Blank. Stare.
And um, yeah, this commercial was shown in theaters during opening weekend of the Harry Potter movie. Where a bunch of little girls, presumably as young as the youngest Harry Potter fan in the theaters that weekend, found out that really, the most powerful thing on their body is “it.” Their vaginas. Not their brains. Not their hearts. Not the superpowers that give them the innate know-how and strength to carry a career and a family and a community on their backs with little help and lots of unequal treatment— with a smile and a prayer. Nope. “It” is what brings the world—and all the men in it—to its knees.
So, er um, needless to say, there’s been a whole lot of talk about vaginas in my house lately. How to keep it clean (and the importance of keeping it chemical-free!). All the working parts associated with it and the specific changes that’ll come as they get closer to getting—or actually get—their periods. And yes, the physical uses for the vagina and how society in general and boys in particular will view it as they grow into beautiful young women. Lila is a little young for the latter part of this conversation, but Mari got an earful this week—some serious food for thought.
The Summer’s Eve ad campaign served as a fine example of how easily society tries to reduce us women to one body part, with messaging cleverly disguised to brainwash us into thinking it’s a good thing to have our vaginas treated as if they are our sole asset. (The talking hands ads were yanked, btw, after a massive uproar, but the “it” commercial still runs, like, every five seconds on some channels with large female audiences.) And then I turned to Jill Scott’s song, “Rolling Hills,” on her latest cee-dee Light Of the Sun, as a jumping off point to really talk to my oldest daughter about sexuality and the power of “rolling hills”—i.e. womanly curves—when it comes to dealing with the opposite sex. In the song, Scott implores women to recognize that yes, their bodies are sexy and sultry and can “make a blind man see and a full man hungry,” but the real power lies in sharing that beauty with someone who is worthy of it, and using our intuition to determine exactly who that someone should be.
As a mother who lived her life in the dark about such things, this is the kind of light needed to help guide my daughters and millions of girls like them through the confusing, complicated mess that is human sexuality. Not some talking vagina screaming at them to get “it” clean for a date or the winner of a sword duel.
My prayer is that my girls have the smarts to discern between the two.