We need to talk about vulvas

a picture of Caitlin at her graduation

As part of our focus on body image this month, Brook’s lead clinical champion, 25 year-old Caitlin Gorman, writes of her experience of the shame and stigma that still surrounds young people’s bodies – both in her professional and personal life – and how we can combat this.

I’m a junior doctor working in a small district general hospital in the North-West of England. I currently work within the obstetrics and gynaecology department, and I am enjoying every minute, from helping to deliver babies to managing all manner of women’s health conditions.

Throughout my training, I have spent as much time as possible gaining experience in the field of sexual health. For the last few years, I have had the opportunity to volunteer for Brook as their lead clinical champion, working as part of a group of young people helping them to shape their sexual health services around the UK.

My job means that I come into contact with a wide range of people and cases. In this post I want to outline one particular experience with a patient that left me feeling heartbroken at the pressure and shame young people still face when it comes to their bodies. Unfortunately, it’s not an uncommon story, and we must work harder to change that.

When I was on call one night, a 16 year old girl was brought to A&E by her dad, with abdominal pain. She hadn’t told him the real reason she needed to come in – which was that she was bleeding after sex.

Upsettingly, it soon became apparent that she was more concerned about the boy she’d had sex with than her own health.

I told her we’d be doing an examination, showed her the speculum and explained the procedure. But as soon as I did so she began to well up and told me “You might not be able to examine me. It’s all hanging down. It looks so weird and I hate it.”

I took the time to chat to her and she explained that the boy she’d had sex with told her that she had a ‘weird vagina’, because he couldn’t get his penis in and her labia minora were ‘huge and hanging down’. She was, understandably, mortified and hadn’t spoken to her friends for a week because they were all talking about what had happened. I spent some time assuring her that her vulva is completely normal, that every single one is different and (rightly or not) told her exactly what I thought of this boy. I gave her a big hug, and she thanked me through her tears as I was holding back my own.

This girl’s experience resonated deeply with me as I had a very similar experience a few years earlier. While I was in bed with my ex-boyfriend, he told me that my vagina was ‘weird’. (He meant vulva, but that is besides the point!) I explained to him that because of my training, I had seen a lot of women’s vulvas, and I didn’t think mine was weird at all. He assured me that, he too, had seen many (yes he really did say that!), and that he had never before seen one like mine. Perhaps I should have taken this as a compliment, but I must confess that I have actually spent the last few years attempting to convince myself that my vulva is not weird.

I find it really encouraging that more people are talking about vulvas now than they were a few years ago. For example, in the documentary ‘100 vaginas’ 100 brave women tell their incredible stories and allow artist Laura Dodsworth to photograph their vulvas. If you haven’t watched it then finish reading this post and watch it immediately! It should be a compulsory watch for everyone (vulva or not), not only because the stories are extraordinary, but because it shows real vulvas in their many forms. It destroys the notion that every vulva should look as if it came straight out of a porn film. Tell your friends, families, colleagues and anyone who will listen!

The reality is that there is still a long way to go before young people feel wholly confident about their bodies.  But I think there’s a lot we can all do to create a positive change.

If you work with young people, talk about body image, talk about vulvas, what they are, what they do and that they are ALL normal! And do everything you can to normalise these conversations. If you are a young person with a vulva (or not so young), look at it, get to know it and be proud of it. And if someone lets you near theirs, be sensitive, be respectful and understand people’s insecurities.

We are all unique. Let’s make it something to celebrate!

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