Outside of the notoriously awkward sex-ed classroom and gossip-filled sleepovers with friends, there aren't exactly a ton of learning opportunities when it comes to discovering your own body (you don’t usually find “how to insert a tampon” in your average biology syllabus, for starters).
For many women, getting an education on everything from periods to basic human anatomy was a task left to books sneakily checked out from the library, classmates with older siblings, talkative bikini wax technicians, and, in some cases, just personal experience.
So, in partnership with Vagisil, we asked 10 women of all different ages and backgrounds to share their honest stories of learning about their own bodies. Whether it finally clicked in high school, during pregnancy, or somewhere in between, they were able to understand themselves that much better — which is proof enough that it’s never too late to learn.
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“I was raised by a single dad, so there was no way we were having those kinds of talks — he's always been the type of person where you have to ask him specific and direct questions to get answers. Maybe he would have chatted with me if I would have asked, but I was definitely not asking him! Thank goodness for good friends. My high-school bestie helped me figure out how to use tampons and educated me on even more — ahem — womanly anatomy.” — Amy M., 33
“When I was 10 years old, my mom handed me a book and said, 'You can read. Here.' That was her version of the sex talk. Luckily, I went to a very progressive, female-only private school and had formal sex education. And the most common-sense things I learned about external female genitalia were from aestheticians specializing in Brazilian waxes.” — Fiona G., 42
“The Care & Keeping of You: The Body Book for Girls was, hands down, one of the best puberty books for young women to read. I was very shy when I was a pre-teen, so I definitely wasn’t going to talk to my parents or friends too much about my body. I loved this book not just for the information but also for the illustrations: They show you how to insert a tampon, which I had never seen before in a book; it was an amazing guideline for young women who might be scared to ask for that kind of help. It was so ahead of its time! I dogeared it like crazy and always returned to it when I had a question.” — Heather T., 32
“I learned by reading magazines and sneaking into my parents’ study and going 'old school' looking at Encyclopædia Britannica — you know, the printed version. My mom was a prude and sex was not a topic she wanted to discuss. So I learned for myself, probably the hard way, with experience.” — Aimee H., 32
“I learned about my anatomy and sex education from my mother, the preacher’s wife. Later in life, when I was a married woman, my mother schooled me again about my body. After the birth of my child, I was to abstain from sex for six weeks [on doctor’s orders] — and she was the one to tell me that although I couldn’t have sexual intercourse, this was an opportunity to get creative with sex. I was mortified.” — Lisa L. 49
“When my husband and I were working on our first baby, I learned a ton about how my body worked. For example, I had no idea that the clear fluids I noticed between periods was cervical fluid that indicated I was in ‘primetime’ for pregnancy. And I was 37! Now I have a daughter who's learning as much as I can share.” — Sedruola M., 51
“When my girlfriends and I would hang out, they would all have some sort of steamy story to share about their times with their boyfriends from the night before...and all I could say was that I tried a new flavor at the local ice-cream shop. Needless to say, my game was lackluster. I learned from my friends how to kiss — just silly explanations of what to do and what it would feel like. Heck, my friends even walked me through how to use a tampon for the first time!” — Meagan S., 34
“I was forced to have a more intimate understanding of my body when I was diagnosed with Crohn's disease at 15; it can affect everything from my mood to my growth to my eyesight. Crohn's disease eventually resulted in the resection of my intestines and removal of my appendix — which was expected — but also the need for Lasik surgery, since the constant inflammation of my eyes resulted in my not being able to wear contact lenses anymore. The good news? I love not having to worry about glasses or contacts.” — Christina P., 28
“I started trying to figure out what was up with my body and sexuality in 1970 or so. Fortunately, it wasn't long before an expanded edition of the original late-’60s booklet compiled by the Boston Women's Health Book Collective was published: Our Bodies, Ourselves. It's still in print! I learned tons from this book — it kept me from getting pregnant and getting STIs, helped me learn about sexual orientation and orgasm, and so much more.” — Carol Q., 62
“I learned about my body with...hands-on learning. I vaguely remember a female-specific sex-ed class in middle school, but it didn’t make a lasting impression. I do remember being bummed that we didn’t do the condom-on-the-banana thing.” — Pei C., 30