I’m in biology class. We’re doing our first lesson on the reproductive system. The textbook has maybe one sentence devoted to menstruation, some dry factual statement with no practical information. The first thing my teacher said was, “the reproductive system is the only system in your body which doesn’t care about you.” I’m looking at a massive diagram of a dick and a much smaller diagram of a uterus. There is no image of a vulva. The clitoris is a mystery to me. The bell rings, and it's time for lunch.
So… we only seem to talk about the vagina in the context of filling it. If we do hear about the vulva, it will probably be incorrectly referred to as the vagina, and all we will hear about is how to keep it neat and tidy. Wax away hair, freshen up, use this cleanser. It's just the decent thing to do… for your partner. In Irish universities, condoms are tossed out for free, yet we’re still searching our pockets for a few euros to put in the slot machine for an emergency pad. We’re still hoping that these battered machines are fully stocked with new products, working, and have the product you need. Hell, most people don’t even know that people with a uterus have three holes down there. Because if we’re taught at all about anatomy below the belt, it's in the context of reproduction, and penetrative sex (if we even get to learn that much). But that’s not much of an owner’s manual. It's like if reproduction wasn’t involved, if someone’s penis was not involved, gynae health wasn’t explained or taught to us. I remember, after that pitiful attempt at a sex ed lesson, arming myself with books that taught me about my own body like it was my own body; of course sex was included, as it should be. But the books I clung to taught me about my body outside the context of sex too; that I shouldn’t use harsh cleansers on my vulva, that I don’t have to clean it at all except for a water wipe. They taught me how to track my PMS symptoms, that some discharge is normal, that pubic hair does me no harm. Originally, I thought because I wasn’t sexually active, I didn’t need to read anything about my vulva or vagina. Turns out, knowledge isn’t just power, its reassurance and autonomy. I had control of my own body, and for the first time, I had my reproductive system working for me. I knew where in my cycle I needed to take a rest, where my energy was better spent planning projects rather than executing. I knew stress throughout the month turned progesterone into cortisol which made my cramps worse, and I felt empowered enough to ask my mum for advice. I take ginger and magnesium because I know it works for my uterus and body, and it helps my body work for me. Your vulva does not have to smell like a peony, or mango, or anything other than a vulva. Your pubic hair does not have to be shaved for your partner. The upkeep of your vulva is something personal; there are no grooming obligations. Cleansers do not purify your vagina, they kill off bacteria that fight infections. The so-called “feminine hygiene” section at the pharmacy is a total scam; not everyone who needs period products is female, and nothing about the vagina is unhygienic. My mind was completely blown. The books held no punches; they didn’t dance around the words ‘vulva’ ‘vagina’ ‘period’ or ‘discharge.’ So why should I? More importantly, why should my teachers? Why should anyone?
I was slowly easing the embarrassment from my brain; trying not to feel like I was doing something wrong for wanting to read about my own body. Shame is a powerful weapon. But how do we fight it? How do we affirm that your body is allowed to be messy, natural and hairy? How do we shave without it turning into a favour for someone else? For me, it's a thing of In Case Of Emergency, Read This. That’s why I write about periods, self care and stretch marks. Because there will be times when I’m not as body positive as I think I should be. There will be times when I question, ‘is body hair gross?’ ‘There must be a point to vaginal cleansers…right?’ In these moments I have to look back on my own words and words of other like minded people. Words that affirm that yes, we are human. We bleed, we have hair, our vulvas smell like fucking vulvas and not a tropical fruit yoghurt. My vulva is my space, home to the clit, which is solely designed for my pleasure. My vagina and vulva exist outside discussions about sex. They are part of me that need my care and respect, but that care and respect has to come in a water wipe and not a harsh blend of chemicals, through massage and not a wax, through masturbation and not needing someone else’s body part to complete the “sheath.” Sex should be shame-free, and so should our bodies. Let’s talk about the vagina outside of sexual health class, let’s talk about the care and upkeep of our vulva in situations outside penetrative sex with other people. Let’s stop the awkward dance around the words. Our bodies need to be cared for whether or not we are sexually active! Let’s shout about our self care journeys; figuring out which period product works for us, mapping out our own clit, self checks, realising how to determine if your discharge is healthy, why we have a nasty itch down there, first STIs and sexual debuts with ourselves. Let’s shout about sex toys. Free condoms are fantastic, now let’s shout for free period products.
We’re taught to fear sex, because it could lead to pregnancy, which means by extension we’re taught to fear our reproductive system. That it’s sole purpose is to bring new life into the world. To be filled with someone else’s body part. The clit exists for us. Our bodies exist for us. My teacher told us that our reproductive system is completely indifferent to our well-being, but the truth is, they couldn’t have been more wrong. It's the system that brings us pleasure, capable of lowering our stress levels and unique to each of us. My poems, words from other feminists, books from badass medical professionals and advice from other people with a vulva are all valuable tools in my arsenal in the fight against shame, and in my journey as a menstruator and vagina owner. I wasn’t given an owner’s manual for my body, so with the help of people I trust and people I haven’t met, I’ve been working on writing my own. It's biology, sure, but it's also respect, holding space for myself. It's understanding that I deserve the knowledge that lets me own my body and feel not just comfortable, but empowered.
"This piece signifies me designing my own curriculum or practical information. Not all knowledge is equal in power. I was never an algebra lover. I understand why math is taught; because you can’t exist in the world without using it in your day to day life. But you cannot exist in your body without using knowledge of your uterus. So why isn’t it taught to us? Why can’t we ask about it without people wrinkling their noses, or cringing? It’s not appropriate conversation in a public place, it’s bad language, keep that to yourself. This is me writing about all the things I’ve been told not to. This is me taking all the euphemisms, the aunt flos, the vajayjays, the you know what’s, and throwing them in the garbage. This is me saying all the words that used to make me blush, and repeating to myself, they’re just body parts, body parts, body parts. This is a letter to a younger version of myself sitting in that classroom, a letter to reassure myself that I won’t give up. This is the knowledge that is more valuable than every other school subject combined. I don’t want to whisper about my body. I want to celebrate, loudly. I want to re-educate myself, to design my own curriculum where there is no shame. Only respect, for ourselves and our bodies. I want more knowledge than, periods cause cramps, ovulation occurs around day 14, always use a condom. I don’t want to just exist in my body; I want to reclaim it, and rejoice in it. Writing this essay has allowed me to practice discussing vaginal health casually and freely; it’s a relatively new experience for me to say the words without a knee jerk reaction of embarrassment. It’s mind blowing that this is going to be my new normal. Words are powerful tools to fight shame, raise awareness and spread information, and I hope my words have lived up to the challenge." -- note from the artist
MORGAN LYONS (she/her) has a passion for writing poems depicting body respect, intersectional feminism and queerness. Her writing and art has been published in Rainbow Library Cork Anthology, which was launched at West Cork Literary Festival 2023, Good Day Cork Protest Poetry, Motley Magazine and The F Word. She is a member of Rainbow Library Cork workshop where she collaborates with other queer artists, and is currently writing a fantasy novel full of platonic love and found family. She has a BA in Spanish and Asian Studies from University College Cork, Ireland, and enjoys walking with her dog and hunting down sapphic YA books.