Becoming the vagina’s #1 cheerleader wasn’t a conscious decision. One second I was sitting on the toilet as my two daughters wrestled each other on the bath mat, and then, suddenly, I had two wide-eyed toddlers staring at me as I held a bloody tampon in my hand. It wasn’t my first time popping tampons in and out in front of them. (Sad truth: When you become a parent, you spend a lot of time peeing in front of your children.) But they’d never noticed before, so I’d never said much about it. “Is that...blood?” my 3-year-old asked. I could see her struggling to figure out just how horrified she should be. In her world, blood is the number-one sign something terrible is going down — a mess of scraped knees, stinging ointments, and screaming fits over band-aids. I looked my daughter straight in the eye. “Yes, it’s blood,” I said. “I have my period, which is how my body tells me each month that there is no baby growing in my uterus. Isn’t that cool?” A sea of period-filled moments clogged my brain as I spoke, like some sort of teen-movie montage. Waking up in the middle of a 6th grade sleepover to brown bloodstains in my underwear. Wearing shorts at a co-ed pool party to hide my pad — and the awful feeling of it ballooning in the water. The reactions of past boyfriends to sex while I was menstruating, ranging from disgusted to gung-ho. The countless times I’d walked to the bathroom at work hiding a tampon in my cupped hand. Last month’s failed attempt at getting the Diva Cup to work, only to have the thing leak on me in the middle of a yoga class. A thread of shame runs through all of these memories. So many moments spent hiding, covering up, being “discreet,” pounding Aleve to make sitting through classes and meetings somewhat bearable. So I decided, in that moment, that of all the crappy things my daughters would inherit from me, vagina shame would not be one of them. I kept going, suddenly confident on my porcelain perch. “Vaginas are so awesome. They can bleed, and babies even come out of them! I love my vagina!” I exclaimed, on a roll. “Don’t you?” My daughter nodded at me and went back to playing Frozen with two travel shampoo bottles. But I was emboldened. Empowered. Vaginas were awesome. And it wasn’t just my daughters who needed to hear this. I needed it most of all. I’ve spent the past 25 years going out of my way to completely hide my menstruation. I double up on tampons and pads when I’m going out, just in case. I wear black when my flow is heaviest; I obsessively check for tampon strings flapping in the wind every time I’m at the beach. Menstruation is something most women will experience for decades, and yet we’re instructed to keep it under wraps, as if it doesn’t happen at all. The tampon aisle at Walgreen’s being named "Feminine Care" tells you everything you need to know about your period. It’s the Voldemort of the human body: the thing that must not be named.
I always knew I would talk openly and positively with my daughters about their bodies, menstruation, reproduction, and sexuality. But I never thought about taking on a “Fuck Yeah, Vaginas!” approach until I reflected on my own feelings of shame and embarrassment. I didn’t want my daughters to simply understand the mechanics of their vaginas (and vulvas, urethras, and uteruses); I wanted them to think they were the greatest, most amazing things in the world. Because let’s be honest: They kind of are. The female reproductive system is mind-blowing. Why are we conditioned to be ashamed of a self-cleaning uber-machine that can have orgasms, shed blood, and give birth? As so many women know, this shame extends far beyond menstruation. I was out of college before I could admit to friends that I masturbated, and it took me years to voice my wants and needs to sexual partners. I marveled at — and envied — men who talked freely of jerking off, who dictated exactly how they wanted their orgasms to arrive. Somehow, they’d been given the societal pass to be cool with their penises and all they could do. Meanwhile, I was an adult who still treated her vagina like a dirty secret. When the time comes, I want my daughters to own their sexualities, be confident about their vaginas and all they can do, and approach them with positivity and pride. When it’s age-appropriate, I plan on discussing these things with them frankly and honestly. For now, we talk about the cool things vaginas do. I don’t scold them if they fondle their genitals or shout the word in public. I don't tell them to cross their legs. We don’t use a made-up name for vaginas. We call it what it is, just like we do their arms, knees, shoulders, and chins. Recently I found myself in the bathroom with my daughter again. I hopped out of the shower and into my bathrobe, and she glanced at me before speaking. “Mom?” she said, her tone serious. This is it, I thought to myself. She’s about to say something poignant and deep about vaginas. It’s working! “Yes?” I replied. “What if...we had vaginas in the back, and butts in the front?” she laughed to herself. “That would be so funny.” It wasn’t the girl-power speech I was hoping for, but it was better. She was talking comfortably about her body, finding humor in it, and sharing it with pride. Ultimately, this is all I can ask for. If my daughter is still making vagina jokes in 20 years, I’ll know I’ve done my job right.