Growing up, I was totally grossed out by girls. It wasn’t just me, the straight boys around me were also disgusted. Even girls seemed grossed out by other girls, sometimes by themselves. That’s how it seemed to five year old me.
In kindergarten, we had to carry imaginary cans of ‘Cootie Spray’ in case a girl touched us, that way we could get rid of any invisible infections, cause Cooties were even worse than germs. Even at that age, I remember the guys in class having recess discussions about which girls were the hottest, ranking them right down to the ugliest. There were even discussions about girls’ private parts. We didn’t know much, but we knew they didn’t have a penis, and that was just weird. Boobs were cool, though. I agreed in order to fit in.
Around the age of 7, I was curious, and took the clothes off of my sister’s Barbie doll, but there was nothing there. Barbie’s slim waist was a smooth plastic surface, lacking any definition. On the back, she had a smooth line in the center of her rounded hips, giving her a butt, but there was nothing on the front. (An inspection of the Ken Doll yielded similar results. No penis. This couldn’t be right.) So later, I called my little sister in the bathroom, in an ‘I’ll show you mine if you show me yours’ moment, and we showed each other. Mine dangled. But for her, there was nothing there, just a little opening of some kind. Huh. Okay. That was that.
All through adolescence, my peers continued talking about boobs and hot girls, but the conversation topics somehow shifted into virginity, and how one might lose it. I didn’t know what that meant until 15 or so, except that it meant inserting the penis into the vagina, but we never talked about the vagina, and guys always seemed a bit grossed out by it. Guys also constantly cracked jokes about PMS, about how if a girl was upset, annoyed, moody, or angry, she must be on her period, that mysterious time of month when girls had to use tampons to mitigate blood flow, and during when they could get lots of headaches, stomach cramps, and mood swings. PMS jokes were rampant, though I don’t remember a single girl ever laughing at one of those jokes ever.
I don’t recall ever speaking to my mother about vaginas, or periods, or PMS, or menopause. But I was the sixth of seven children, with five sisters, and settled in between two sisters in the birth order, one that was 3.5 years older than me, and one that was 3.5 years younger. I saw the feminine hygiene products in the cupboard, and I remember discussions about periods being irregular, and voiced reluctance for either sister to see a ‘lady doctor’, the phrase used to avoid using the word ‘gynecologist’. I didn’t know the difference between a tampon and a maxi-pad, I just knew there was blood, and I knew that everyone thought it was gross.
In my third year of college, in a Human Behavior in the Social Environment class, the teacher made time for one of the students, Shanna, to perform for the class. She had been rehearsing a piece from the Vagina Monologues. She boldly stood before the class, sharing the story of a woman who had grown up thinking her vagina was disgusting and how she eventually learned to love it. I remember sitting in the back of the class, in my Mormon mindset, and feeling disgusted that she felt the need to talk about the vagina at all, which I thought of as some sort of sacred lady part that should only be discussed by wives with their husbands, or maybe with their ‘lady doctors.’ After class, I told her good job, but secretly I was grossed out.
It wasn’t until many years later, when I started becoming more aware of feminism and female issues, that I realized the shame with which American society treats female bodies. This opens all sorts of wider discussions on abortion, genital mutilation, rape culture, diet culture, and a myriad of other issues, but at its very basis, I’m realizing that I grew up in a world where we were taught to be embarrassed about vaginas, reproductive cycles, gynecology, and periods. When those discussions did happen, they were with derision, disgust, shame, or belittling. And that is entirely unacceptable.
During the brutal election last year, Donald Trump was at odds with newswoman Megyn Kelly. In an interview about her, he stated, “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever. In my opinion, she was off base” A presidential candidate, one notorious for his marriages, divorces, and affairs, tried to shame a professional woman because, he hinted, she might be on her period. It was vagina-shaming, period-shaming, at a national level. I remember experiencing disgust and revulsion at his comments, at a bully of a man who was shaming a woman simply for being a woman. And I remember being repulsed that he was finding support from Americans who defended his comments.
As a gay man with two sons, I am not a good advocate for women’s rights. But I am an ally. We shouldn’t be laughing at, feeling disgusted by, or body-shaming our mothers, sisters, daughters, wives, and friends for being women, for having vaginas, or for having natural, biological, healthy functions like periods. Health care for their own bodies should be in their control. And we should be able to have grown-up conversations about it.
And that’s all there is to say.