I've been thinking about my relationship with certain parts of my body. Started with worries over my hair and went from there. Somewhere along this as-yet-unfinished continuum, I began to think about how my vagina* has become this thing that's a part of me, but not. I think it's because, for my whole life, it has been defined as a problem area.
The primary descriptions I got for my vagina as a child were 1) It needs constant tending and 2) It gets you into trouble. When I first began hearing people say that the vaginal area was delicate, I was amazed. My mother and grandmothers taught us that the goal of vaginal cleaning was to erase any scent and to prevent it from coming back for as long as possible. I can't tell you how offensive vaginal odors were deemed; I can tell you that we would've been in trouble had we ignored the extensive hygiene routine. We were taught that our vaginas were smelly and could cause great embarrassment.
So, we did not treat our genitalia delicately. We repeatedly scrubbed with gold Dial until it passed a finger test. My grandmother added brown lysol to our bath water, my mom added bleach. I grew up seeing douches and Norforms in our medicine cabinet and linen closet. We marvelled at the cleanliness of my mom's cousn who mixed a little bleach in her douche. When we were a litle older, my mom suggested we wash with vinegar, which created an even more intensive routine--lather up with the Dial a couple of times, rinse, wash with vinegar, rinse, lather with Dial again to remove vinegar scent. We took two full baths a day and sometimes washed our vaginas in between.
And then there were the dreaded periods. Menstrual blood was nasty, funky, and mandated even more washing. I have a friend whose stepfather required that she and her mom bleach the tub after they bathed when they were menstruating. For us, period days were three bath days--before school, after school, at night, with plenty complaining about how we hated our periods and our vaginas in between.
By the time I was 17, I was douching, spraying FDS, and constantly bathing. I'd also learned to be wary of my vagina because it was a source of trouble in a sexual sense. I was never taught pleasant things about sex, only that my vagina was a pathway for STIs and for pregnancy. To say that I had a complex about sex is an understatement. I entered my 20s worried that I was going to be "punished" with an incurable STI because I was having sex. Oh, I would've never acknowledged that--I knew that was an ignorant, offensive, untrue deduction, but there it was. That didn't just come from my Baptist background--there's only so many times you can go to a public health unit with nurses whose primary concern is stopping you from having sex. Being told to use condoms so "He doesn't shoot you up a load of AIDS"** and repeatedly seeing the pictures of sexual organs with various bumps, sores, and swellings are pretty efficient scare tactics.
Couple the vagina = road-to-trouble with the vagina = smelly training and you get the makings of a sexual dysfunction--how can you enjoy sex when you're sure death lingers around the corner or you don't want your partner to perform oral sex because their nose will be "right there" or you can't have it spontaneously because you don't have sex except straight from the shower? And the "sex bath" is even more intensive than the regular one.
So my life consisted of fear-imposed bouts of celibacy, constant check-ups and testing, and unhealthy cleaning practices.
And then, for my mental and physical well-being, I had to stop. Stop most of the incessant cleaning because my body was rebelling. Stop the fear, because I learned enough and grew enough to reject the "STI = horrible punishment for bad girl."
But I still haven't accepted my vagina as a delicate-but-strong, precious part of me. I haven't fully given up my hygiene routine. I am, at best, ambivalent about sex because I hate worrying about whether or not everything is "just right."
I'm angry, because none of the guys I know were ever given these kinds of lessons about their genitalia. I'm angry because I've been taught to despise such a "womanly" part of myself. And I'm angry at myself because, while I realize this is yet another way women are shamed and taught to feel deficient, I just can't let it all go.
*I am using "vagina" as an all-encompassing term.
**Yes, a nurse really told my 19-year-old self that. I will never forget that.