The shame that women have around their bodies, around sex, around the menstrual cycle, basically anything to do with female anatomy is heartbreaking. Not only does it lead to so much pain, physically, mentally and emotionally. But it may be taking so much more from us than we realise.
A study found that 45% of young women put off having a smear test1 despite the fact that cervical cancer is the fourth most common cancer among women globally, and had an estimated 342,000 deaths in 2020.2
So what was the reason for putting off going?
71% reported feeling scared, 75% feeling vulnerable, but a significant 81% of women said they felt embarrassed.
Which is really no surprise when 65% of women struggle to even say the word vagina or vulva and instead “resort to using code names such as ‘lady parts’ or ‘women’s bits’ to discuss gynaecological health”.3
Maybe the reason women struggle is that they simply don’t know their own anatomy as was shown in a 2019 survey.4
2000 adults in the UK were given a short sex ed-style quiz in which they were asked to label the clitoris, labia, vagina, and urethra on an anatomy chart. They also answered questions about the clitoris, when to replace tampons and how to keep a vagina clean.
The truth is that there is a worrying lack of knowledge among women about how their body and how it works.
I assumed, that as women, as a society, we are becoming more open about women’s health and the female body. I assumed it was easier for women of younger generations to talk about sex and menstrual cycles and female genitals. And I’m not alone.
In fact, a survey found that over 60% of women said they thought that young women knew more about gynaecological health than older women.5 Oh how wrong we were. Turns out, it’s just a misconception.
A study found that lack of basic anatomical knowledge is an issue especially with women in the younger age groups who struggled to correctly identify the five areas that can be affected by gynaecological cancer. However older women were much better educated about their bodies.6
The study also found that one in five young women couldn’t name a single correct symptom of any of the five gynaecological cancers and less than a quarter reported feeling confident that they were well informed about gynaecological health issues.
This was in contrast to over 42% of older women reporting that they felt confident they were well informed about the same gynaecological health issues.
The fact is that 1 in 10 young women find if hard to talk to their GPs about any health concerns that are gynaecologically related. And nearly a third of young women admitted they avoid going to the doctors about gynaecological issues due to embarrassment whereas older women are less embarrassed.
We live in a culture that appears to have no taboos left. And yet they still prevail. Female genitals. Menstrual cycle. Periods. Sex. It’s still there. We are (as a society) still embarrassed about our bodies and what they do. And this taboo, this shame is not only heartbreaking, it’s deadly.
The first step to breaking this taboo is accepting it exists in the first place. Do you feel embarrassed to say the word vagina, vulva or clitoris? Do you feel shame about your own body? Do you feel comfortable visiting your own GP with gynaecological issues? Are you avoiding your smear test? Be honest. Recognise they are there. Accept them. Investigate why they exist in the first place.
Secondly, we need educate ourselves. Do you know your own anatomy? Do you know where your vulva, clitoris, labia, vagina, and urethra are? Please note there is no shaming here if you don’t.7 It’s just a chance to take stock and to appreciate that maybe it’s worth finding out.
Finally, we need to educate our children, we need to use the correct terminology, to talk openly about our bodies and to teach them that shame is not welcome here. Our daughters should feel comfortable talking about their bodies and awareness and improved education are the key. Often we are afraid of discussing something simply because we don’t really understand it.
I only learned about my own female anatomy in my mid 30s. Before that I had no idea. And when I started learning I felt ashamed I didn’t know this before. But shame doesn’t get us anywhere. There is still so much I don’t know about women’s health. I cannot possibly know everything. But I will not let shame stand in the way of me learning more, and passing on the knowledge that I do have to other women.↩︎