As soon as we found out that I was pregnant we told our three-year-old son Sol about the pregnancy and he has been involved in the midwife appointments and lots of excited talk about our new baby. He recently accompanied us to the 20-week ultrasound scan.
After the radiographer had done all the important measurements and observations, she got to the least important part – finding the vulva or the penis. While she was looking for that part of our baby’s body she said to me:
“Ouhhh, you’ll soon know if you’ll have to be buying a pink tutu!”
(I am sure my husband smothered a laugh at this point. I refrained from launching into a tirade about gender stereotyping and the findings of various neurological studies on babies and gender.)
As it turns out, we spotted a vulva.
And I realised that, at 20 weeks gestation this wee girl had already experienced her first gender stereotyping.
It isn’t that pink tutus violently offend me, it’s that there was an assumption that if my baby had a vulva, then a pink tutu would be the most important thing on my mind, and that her vulva would automatically predispose her to an uncontrollable urge to wear pink tutus.
Who knows, she could be an absolute ballet fanatic, in which case I am sure our house will be loaded with tutus of all description. Or she could be a soccer player, a hip-hop dancer, a chess-genius, a swimmer... - in which case we may have no pink tutus at all. Or maybe she’ll have stages of being all of the above, and our already-cluttered house will have a collection of all sorts of outfits in all sorts of colours.
All I know is that I will do everything in my Mama-Bear power to protect her from the tirade of gender-limiting stereotypes that I know will attempt to surround her from birth (and before!). All of a sudden I am deeply grateful on a personal level for the amazing work done to counter such attitude by individuals and organisations such as Enlighten Education, Pigtail Pals, Pink Stinks and 7Wonderlicious.
And I will leave you with the wisdom of little Riley, who articulates the craziness of all this stuff just so so well:
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!
As soon as we knew I was pregnant, we told our son Sol and involved him in the pregnancy and the midwife appointments. He recently accompanied us to our 20 week scan.
After the radiographer had done all the important measurements and observations, she got to the least important part – finding the vulva or the penis. As she was looking for that part of our baby’s body she said to me “Ouhhh, you’ll soon know if you’ll have to be buying a pink tutu!”
(I am sure my husband smothered a laugh at this point. I decided to refrain from launching into a tirade about gender stereotyping and the findings of various neurological studies on gender.)
As it turns out, we spotted a vulva. And I realised that, at 20 weeks gestation this wee girl had already experienced her first gender stereotyping.
It isn’t that pink tutus violently offend me, it’s that there was an assumption that if my baby had a vulva, then pink tutus would be the most important thing I would be thinking about, and that her vulva would automatically predispose her to an uncontrollable urge to wear pink tutus.
Who knows, perhaps our daughter will be an absolute ballet fanatic, in which case I am sure our house will be loaded with tutus of all description. Or she could be a soccer player, a hip-hop dancer, a chess-club-member, a gymnast, a swimmer... - in which case we may have no pink tutus at all. Or maybe she’ll have stages of being all of the above, and our already cluttered home will have a collection of all sorts of outfits in all sorts of colours.
The only thing I do know is that I will be doing everything in my Mama-Bear power to shelter our daughter from all the gender-limiting stereotypes all too persuasive in our culture. And I am grateful to the amazing people who campaign so hard on these issues - Enlighten Education, Pigtail Pals Ballcap Buddies, 7Wonderlicious and so many more.
Rachel is a writer and educator whose fields of interest include sexuality education, gender, feminism and youth development.