When I found out I was pregnant, there were a small handful of things that I wanted to make sure I did with my child: reading books, going on walks, and having an appreciation for adventure and discovery. I didn’t know exactly how this was going to pan out, but I thought I would teach it as best I could. So far, it’s been a rousing success and now that my daughter has just turned two, she’s super chatty and interested in things around her. She wants to know what things are, what words mean, and how thing work. I am charmed, delighted, and proud of her.
When we started singing Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes with her, I started working on naming all of her body parts with her. (For a while, she was obsessed with the word nipples, which thankfully has passed.) I want her to know about her body and I want her to know that it does awesome things for her: jumping, running, swimming, singing songs, playing. I’d also like her to be able to accurately describe her own experiences (if she falls and scrapes her knee, she can specify what hurts), but also because I want to protect her, so that if anything bad were ever to happen to her, she’d be able to explain it. So in the interest of age-appropriate sex education, I taught her the word vulva. She wanted to know what it was when she was taking a bath, and I thought, why not tell her? It’s as much as part of her as her eyes, her fingers, her legs. Why should she be ashamed of it? Why should I suggest that there was anything weird about wanting to know about her body?
So I explained that was her vulva and that most girls had one. I said that most boys had different body parts, called a penis, (although this was not an guaranteed distinction) and then after she’d repeated the words once or twice, she went back to playing with bath toys. I had sort of assumed that she’d taken this in and then forgotten about it, until the other day when I was helping her use the bathroom. She asked for toilet paper, used it, and then yelled at the top of her lungs “I touch my vulva!”
Thank god we were in the bathroom at our own house.
I know my face turned bright red, I know I tried not to sputter, I know I tried not to laugh. Ultimately, I wound up biting my lip very hard and then saying, “Yes, you are correct, that’s your vulva.”
“Vulva!” She announced cheerfully. “I touch my vulva!”
I managed to get out a few sentences about correctly naming body parts and worked in a few sentences about privacy and boundaries. (Given how often she charges into the bathroom while one of us is showering or something, I think it’s something she’s not quite sorted out yet.) I was also immediately reminded of an excerpt from Our Bodies, Ourselves.* It was a little vignette in which a mother described her own daughter (age 4ish) playing in the bathtub and being delighted with her own body, including her vulva. The mother remarked that she wished she could go back to that un self-conscious feeling of her own body as home, as some place simultaneously familiar and exciting.
One of the best, best lessons I learned from my own mother was to treat my body as something awesome that did cool, cool things: soccer, running around with a cape on and being a superhero, racing through books, coloring, writing, chasing my siblings around the backyard, swimming in the ocean. And part of my body doing awesome things, she explained, was being nice to it: getting enough sleep, eating well, things like that. My mother and I have never talked about sex, but I eventually learned about that being yet another cool thing that my body did.
This is something I want so badly for my own daughter, that it’s almost painful. I am doing everything I can to make sure she gets to feel like her body is her own, that it’s home, and that it’s awesome. That she knows that she is strong, that she is capable, and that she can do things. I also want her to know that her body won’t do everything she ever wants it to, and that her current abilities may not stay the same. I want her to have a narrative for self-care, for knowing about herself, and being proud of her abilities, whatever they happen to be.
And having her yell the word vulva at top volume is totally worth it.
*I had an original version of this that I acquired from my mother, and I think this story appeared only in the original. I don’t remember it from the updated version.