How, when, and why did the vagina become so disrespected?
In the wake of the #MeToo and Olympic gymnastics scandals, we must shine a light on the wall of silence surrounding issues associated with the vagina. As a woman who experienced repetitive sexual abuse as a toddler, I have tremendous respect for the brave, incredibly strong women entangled in recent sexual abuse media exposure, for sharing their painful experiences. As a woman who finds it frustrating that we still have a long way to go to capture one of the most significant facets of our internal strength, the vagina, I acknowledge that we have additional mountains to climb. But as a woman who advocates for women navigating pelvic organ prolapse (POP), I recognize we are on the cusp of the next significant shift in women’s empowerment.
Girls often receive the subliminal message from early childhood on that the vagina is something we should not talk about, think about, or explore.
Girls often receive the subliminal message from early childhood on that the vagina is something we should not talk about, think about, or explore. Its private. It’s personal. Despite being a sacred vessel of life, hope, and love, the vagina remains veiled in cryptic silence, and is often a very inaccessible space in open conversation. The vagina certainly has not achieved the comfort zone of other previously stigmatized intimate body parts or concerns, such as breast health and erectile dysfunction. As women, it is imperative we shift the way the world recognizes the vagina in general if we ever intend to effectively achieve all aspects of self-empowerment.
Despite nearly 4000 years of medical documentation going back to the Egyptian Kahun Papyrus in 1835 B.C.E., society has been masking a vaginal epidemic estimated to impact 1 in 2 women, pelvic organ prolapse. The physical, emotional, social, sexual, fitness, and employment POP ramifications engender long term impact to relationships and quality of life. The stigma of vagina dialog continues to shroud pelvic organ prolapse in silence.
The NIH study Epidemiology and Outcome Assessment of Pelvic Organ Prolapse clarifies that pelvic organ prolapse has a prevalence of up to 50% when based upon vaginal examination. Two of the most impacting life events women experience, childbirth and menopause, are the leading POP causes. Yet despite this backdrop, women seldom hear about pelvic organ prolapse prior to being diagnosed with it. This vaginally invasive condition simply is not openly talked about or routinely screened for. When women experience common POP symptoms such as incontinence or vaginal tissue bulge, they often aren’t comfortable telling their intimate partners, much less their clinicians, who unfortunately don't always ask the right questions, or if they do, may not get the most accurate answers.
I was equally shocked and enraged when my urogynecologist looked me right in the eye and stated “Sherrie, women won’t talk about this”.
When I was diagnosed with POP, I asked my urogynecologist how it was possible I’d never heard of POP prior to my diagnosis. It didn’t make sense to me. I was equally shocked and enraged when my surgeon looked me right in the eye and stated “Sherrie, women won’t talk about this”.
Women who suffer vaginally invasive issues, whether of predatory or health origin, seldom suffer one time, they suffer over and over, often unable to express what is occurring, because so much stigma is associated with the vagina. The resulting inability to talk about what is occurring takes its toll without a doubt. We need to get past the discomfort zone and recognize that at its most basic level, pelvic organ prolapse (POP) is a health condition that is treatable, not an issue that needs to be hidden away behind closed doors.
When I asked members of our support space to share in one word how pelvic organ prolapse makes them feel, their fingers immediately hit the keyboard, flooding our space with hits.
Defective, frustrated, isolated, stunned, alone, shocked, broken, embarrassed, weird, handicapped, sloppy, damaged, freaky, limited, imprisoned, uncomfortable, disgusting, empty, violated, disabled, fearful, vacant, wasted, lonely, gross, weak, droopy, destroyed, limited, ruined, depressed, solitary, hopeless, scared, old, ashamed, pained, worried, drained, misguided, betrayed, forsaken, angry, defeated, cheated, demoralized, deformed, suicidal, useless, failure, robbed, gross, grieving, afraid, cautious, nervous, vulnerable, limited, devastated, weird, forlorn, abnormal, helpless, silenced, guarded, invisible, terrified, hindered, unlovable, broken, repulsive, ashamed, hurting, imprisoned, marginalized, unfeminine.
If we are not talking out loud about all aspects of women’s bodies, as women, we are not yet fully empowered.
Stigma is an obstacle to obtaining physical and emotional health balance and it compromises recovery. There is no doubt it is also a roadblock to women’s vaginal empowerment. Clearly, we have a long way to go to overcome vaginal stigma. If we are not talking out loud about all aspects of women’s bodies, as women, we are not yet fully empowered. In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, “our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter”. Time and experience are incredible educators.
Every Voice Matters.