Oh vagina, how do I name thee? Let me count the ways. From private parts to lady bits, clunge to chuff, fanny to minge, yoni to yum yum, the list of names given to female genitalia is seemingly endless and often verging on the ridiculous.
With vaginal metaphors and euphemisms depicting female genitalia as scary, ugly or off limits, it’s not surprising a large number of women and girls struggle to identify parts of their own genitalia – with just half of women surveyed able to correctly locate the vagina on a diagram of the female reproductive system.
But our recent research is hoping to change all this. We have designed a phone app called Labella, which combines a piece of underwear and a mobile phone – allowing the user to get to know their own anatomy through the medium of a smart phone.
Initially designed with a wide range of women in mind, future developments will be aimed at young women, providing them with an educational tool which will enable them to get to know their bodies in a way that feels comfortable and knowledge driven.
Knowing what’s normal
Being inadequately informed about the appearance and function of female anatomy, along with the social taboo surrounding female genitalia has led to many women feeling uncomfortable when it comes to caring for and being aware of their intimate parts. Because realistically how can women understand these parts of their bodies when we don’t even know how to name them properly?
Given this attitude towards female genitalia, it’s unsurprising then that we know so little about the clitoris given it’s not in textbooks or even covered in sex education. And with labia surgery now the latest trend among teenage girls, it’s clear the worlds of porn and advertising have collided, leaving women with yet more insecurities about their bodies – this time focused on the vagina.
Research shows that women tend to avoid “contact” with their genitalia unless they are experiencing pain. With further research showing that women still avoid talking about their “private parts” even among other women. What this essentially means is that women are not talking about their genitals because of society’s views of vaginas – mainly as something sexualised and shrouded in mystery.
Take urinary incontinence, the involuntary loss of urine that is estimated to affect up to a third of women in the UK alone. Incontinence is generally accepted as a consequence of childbirth and or ageing. It is regarded as “normal”, just as menstruation is once a month and menopause once in every lifetime, and yet no one really talks about it.
Tech to the rescue?
Clinical health care has seen few technological breakthroughs in either its interventions or devices, which can be seen in the use of the Graves and Pederson “duckbill” specula. This device was originally designed in 1878 and it remains in use today. Cervical screenings or smear tests use this vaginal speculum to dilate the vaginal walls to enable inspection of the cervix – which are meant to be quick and easy tests to carry out.
But it is often considered to be unpleasant, embarrassing, fearful and even painful by a lot of women. These are probably some of the reasons why so many women are skipping smear tests – with millions of British women failing to attend their screenings every year.
The vagina persists as an “uncomfortable” social and personal topic, perpetuating a culture of shame, secrecy, and lack of awareness, which can be (broadly) damaging to genital integrity and health.
While this discomfort might contribute to the estrangement between women and their genitalia, “having the knowledge and ability to make bodily and verbal distinctions” is critical to women’s reproductive health and sexual well-being.
We hope that Labella will have a role to play in helping to break this cycle of bodily taboos that are barriers to knowledge and self care, while also improving women’s comfort and esteem within a clinical environment – such as at their next smear test.
This development could help to break some of the societal shame that surrounds the female anatomy and could even lead to a decline in the number of women getting diagnosed with cervical cancer. It is the most common cancer among young women, and is thought to be on the rise due to the number of women missing their smear appointments where early signs of pre-cancerous cells can often be found and treated.
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