The Power of Knowing
I have always believed that body knowledge is power, but OMG am I even more certain now! We just finished the first leg of our “Love Your Body, Change Your World” tour with Girls for a Change, and there are so many incredible conversations and insights that girls around the nation are having about why we feel so much shame surrounding vaginal health!
At the beginning of the 2 ½ hour trainings, the first few times that the word “vagina” is said, most of the hundreds of girls in each room all look at each other from side to side and start to giggle nervously. Some even scream and start to freak out -- true story, y’all! By the end of our time together, however, from not just what I saw and experienced but also from the anonymous evaluations afterward, 100% of the young women in the audience leave with a new perspective on not just their vagina and vaginal health, but also why it’s so important to talk about our bodies without shame and fear!
One young woman’s transformation really sticks with me as a great example of the power of knowing. To get the girls thinking about their bodies, I and the other trainers, Megan and Patricia, invited audience members to share their feelings at the beginning of the day. “I don’t understand why we need to be talking about this stuff with other women,” this young woman blasted into the microphone at the beginning of the session. “I mean, it’s private and personal!” She looked shocked when, later in the day, I suggested that to an extent she was right, because our bodies are private and personal, and no one has the right to harm, touch, or otherwise disrespect them. We alone hold the right to talk or not talk about our bodies, too! “However,” I continued. “While we don’t have to talk about our bodies all the time, we need to know what’s healthy and what’s not, and we need to be comfortable talking to others, from our parents to professionals, so that we can get help when we need it and help others, too.”
To prove this point, I asked the audience to raise their hands if they had ever had an earache or a nosebleed. About half of the audience confidently raised their hands both times, and when I asked how many in the audience had had the flu, everyone shot up their hands. The next question I had for the eager-to-participate audience threw them for a loop. “All of you have had the flu, and most of you have had earaches or nosebleeds, but how many of you have had a yeast infection, or a urinary tract infection, or just worried about your vaginal odor at some point?” Not a single hand went up, even though about half of all women have experienced a urinary tract infection (UTI) and 75% of women have had yeast infections, and most of those who experience them have recurring episodes. Why was it that girls were unembarrassed to acknowledge that at one point in time they were a vomiting, pale, sickly mess, or had blood gushing from their noses, but they were ashamed about a UTI? One girl said, “EVERYONE gets the flu and nosebleeds and stuff and we all talk about it so there’s no shame about it!” I countered back, challenging the audience to realize that everyone (well everyone who has a vagina) gets yeast infections, worries about vaginal odor, has times when it burns to pee, and is annoyed with cramps, too, so why can’t our vaginas be treated as shame-free and publicly discussable as an ear or a nose? After all, it’s just a body part! I called attention to the fact that even after just an hour of the word ‘vagina’ being said as a part of a normal, fun conversation, the giggles and embarrassment stopped! Everything clicked and then we all started having “real talk” when one girl’s hand went up and she asked, “so what if, um, it burns to pee and there’s also a smell?” After her question was answered, more hands shot up, because now everyone wanted to talk about and know more about their personal body dramas, too. Luckily, Megan, Patricia, and I had all the answers!
By the end of the training, the minds of the young women in the audience are wide open, and they’ve made the connection about how taking care of ourselves inside and out leads to being able to accomplish social change, academic success, and self-satisfaction. The very girls who looked panicked when asked what they thought it would take to make the world more comfortable with the word vagina were the ones, an hour later, suggesting we organize a campaign to get the President of the United States to say the world on national TV to prove that there isn’t anything to be ashamed about!
As we were leaving, the first girl who told us that she didn’t think anyone should talk about their vagina in public came up and confided in me that last year she had a urinary tract infection but didn’t tell anyone, and so it turned into a kidney infection and she had to be hospitalized. Unfortunately, her hospitalization for something that could have been treated with just a prescription if she had talked about it early enough is not an uncommon experience amongst women because of the shame surrounding vaginal health. Think of all the change that could happen and knowledge that could be spread and health issues avoided if we just started talking more about it as something other than scary, embarrassing, or dirty! “Now I know what to do the next time,” she exclaimed, “I won’t worry about what people are thinking – I mean, it’s just a VAGINA!” And she’s totally right.
Knowledge IS power! Wanna start learning and talking? Download the Girls for a Change action kit here!