Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Oh, No, the Na-Na!

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


Mommy to Ander and Wife to Box said...

You poor thing! My mom spent way too much time telling us how great sex was. 'Course, that causes a whole 'nother set of hang-ups.

Joan Kelly said...

Wow, Elle. That's "wow" as in, effing powerful post, and made me love you even more. I am going to write a post at my place and link to this post here if that's okay. Let me know if it's not, though, please, because I know this is a really personal thing to write about and not everyone is as exhibitionist as me when it comes to talking about stuff all over the place...

elle said...

hey, k!

joan, i can't wait to read what you write.

Astraea said...

What an amazing post. I admire your ability to talk about something so personal in such a powerful way.

I can really sympathize, even though my sexual issues come from a somewhat different experience and attitude. It really saddens me to think about how much harm is done to girls and women when we are taught that our bodies are dirty or gross.

k8 said...

Bleach!! Wow! I had never heard of using it for that purpose. I'm so sorry!!

And all that bathing. I suppose we could all intellectualize about the roots of the idea of the unclean woman, but the reality is even more unpleasant.

People rarely talk about these things (outside of the family), so now I'm wondering how common this is (and to what degree).

For the record, we (my siblings and I) were just told to use a lot of soap and water everywhere. When one of us (I won't name names) disregarded the soap part, one of our parents would use a fingernail to scratch a mark in the soap to represent the amount of soap that needed to be used, but that was an extreme case with a recalcitrant and disgustingly dirty pre-teen.

CCGroovy!!! said...

AAAAAAAAAHHHHH; theBEAUTY of the NA-NA, the VA-JAY-JAY, the KITTY-KITTY, the MINI; and these are all terms that I've learned from WOMEN.

It is so sad to say that U are not alone. Unfortunately, that part of U that should be cherished, reveered, and loved the most by U, is considered to be a problem of sorts for U.

U WILL grow older. U WILL grow wiser. It WILL get better.

Joan Kelly said...

post upcoming...


I never knew a post about your vagina could be so interesting without being insulting......This was a powerful post and displays how strong of a writer you are!!!

Susie said...

I'm so glad you wrote this, but it makes me a little sad. Our bodies are so colonized, we're afraid of them ourselves. I've never used douche in my life; luckily I read "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues" as a teenager, and whatever was wrong with that book (and upon retrospection I think a lot was), it taught me that no one needs to douche, ever.

I'm not all the way to the whole vagina worship/gateway to the divine/magickal pussy portal business some people espouse, but I've made peace with my privates. They do what they're supposed to do, I take care of them, everybody's happy.

elle said...

thank you all for commenting.
k8, I'll bet it's common--not to my family's extreme--but enough to keep summer's eve et. al. afloat.

ccgroovy, sweet words. i wish kactus's old blog was still up; she had a post about all the (positive/affectionate) names women call their vaginas.

Alex, I keep thinking about you saying (at Trin's house) that the na na is your favorite thing in the world. They're wondering why I'm laughing out loud.

I've made peace with my privates. They do what they're supposed to do, I take care of them, everybody's happy.

I love that.

Anonymous said...

our mothers and grandma's might have been friends.

Revelations and ruminations from one southern sistorian...