The following article contains spoilers for season two of Pen15.
Pen15 is back, and we couldn't be more excited. Season two picks back up where season one left off, with besties Maya and Anna (hilariously played by adults amongst a pre-teen cast) struggling to navigate what is arguably the most difficult time of a kid's life: seventh grade.
After being slut-shamed by the girls in their grade, the heroines decide to befriend the boys — only to discover they have been saying the two have “BSBs,” short for “Big Smelly Bush that smells like fish.” When the girls find out, they're distraught — and a little confused.
Maya, sitting spread eagle in front of a full length mirror, brings a fist up to her nose and says into her landline, “Yeah.” The scene ends with Maya spraying a fragrance with the tinge of Bath & Body Works’ Sweet Pea perfume at her nether regions, before crying out in pain.
While the interactions are funny, they also tug at the heartstrings — maybe because they're so relatable. Although Pen15 is set in the early 2000s, vagina-shaming is still prevalent today. Being made fun of for your vagina can be distressing and embarrassing — and it can also have some serious long-term repercussions on your relationship to your body.
Vagina-shaming can lead to struggles with body image, sexual self-image, and even sexual function, explains Erica Smith, M.Ed., a sexuality educator in Philadelphia, PA. “It can also encourage folks doing dangerous and unnecessary things to their bodies in order to ‘correct’ the perceived problem, including using douches, deodorant sprays, bleaching, and hair removal systems,” she says. (Hello, sweet pea body spray.) So-called “fixes” that range from unnecessary to downright dangerous (please don’t douche!).
When we teach folks that their body parts are bad or wrong in some way, It can fuel a sense of self-rebuke. They might become ashamed of or even disgusted by their sexual organs and their natural functions. "This can lead to feelings of shame throughout puberty and adulthood, resulting in shame around sex,” Smith adds.
Tina Schermer Sellers blames vagina-shaming, in part, on the lack of comprehensive sexual education in public schools in the U.S. “We as a culture are failing young people,” says the therapist, sex educator, and author of Sex, God, and the Conservative Church: Erasing Shame from Sexual Intimacy. Vagina-shaming can lead to sexual shame, she says, which can result in a “visceral feeling of humiliation and disgust towards one’s own body and identity as a sexual being.” And that can take a long time to shake off.
We can empower folks with vaginas and vulvas — and discourage everyone from making shaming jokes — through better sex education that spreads the message that vaginas aren’t not supposed to look one certain way. “Vaginal beauty standards are always ageist, racist, and size-ist,” Smith says. “Vaginas and vulvas are as different as fingerprints — we all have a unique one.”
On the show, Maya and Anna share a few vulnerable moments after being shamed. But Schermer Sellers actually says she wishes Pen15 had created a character the girls could confide in, a la Netflix’s Sex Education. Someone who would set them straight — and stop them from spraying perfume into their vaginas. Maya’s mother comes close to filling this role during a heart-to-heart she shares with her daughter in the middle of season two. But Schermer Sellers would love for the show to go even further.
“I would be creating some kind of character who’d be dropped into their school or neighborhood, who’d talk to them about sexuality and their body,” she says. “If I were that person, I’d bring down a poster and say, 'here’s all the different vulvas, and here’s what they look like…' And I'd tell them that if anybody gives them a bad time [about them], they should turn around and say, ‘You’ve got one too. Get off my back and if you can’t get off my back, stay out of my life.’ And then we would role play it.”
A plot point for season three? Maybe.