I was raised in a comfortable and loving home in a comfortable and loving neighborhood. My family ate dinners together most every night, I got to go to the zoo a fairly often, and always got home from school in time to watch “The Magic School Bus.”
We also used the words “private parts” to refer to a penis or vagina.
Since I grew up with that term, I thought it was one that everyone else used. “Private parts” was a hush-hush topic, something only my closest girlfriends and I giggled about. It was a secret, it was silly—it was concealed. It took me a long time to understand that yes, although these parts of our body are private, this is not what they are called at all.
It is usually the burden of fourth or fifth grade teachers to bestow the revered knowledge of “the birds and the bees” upon a gangly group of awkward tweens—to try to make sense of something very adult, beyond pre-calculus or Cold War history. It was during such a time in elementary school when we were on our way to music class in a single-file line. Fifth grade heartthrob Jake Benson began yelling the word “vagina!” in a silly voice so that it reverberated throughout the quiet halls. With each repetition, there was an outburst of laughter that followed from his entourage with their Hollister belts and layered collared shirts. Assuming this was something I was supposed to find funny—and wanting to appear just as cool as their crowd—I rolled my eyes and giggled right along with them. Once we were in class, Jake continued his random cries of “vagina!” until he finally got the attention he was seeking from an annoyed Ms. Clarkson:
Pausing and putting down her chalk. “Jake, that’s enough.”
Constrained laughter. “Sorry Ms. Clarkson.”
A few more minutes passed by but no one was completely settled down. Not one who is comfortable with confrontation in any form, my awkward self was sweating at this point. I was unsure if I should continue to find him humorous or would be able to successfully ignore him.
“VAGINA!!!” he screamed.
Ms. Clarkson walked right up to Jake as she icily laid down the law: “Jake, that is not an appropriate word—we do not say that in public.”
It wasn’t the first time that Jake Benson was escorted out of a classroom.
For the rest of the day, the scene he put on in music class was the talk of the fifth grade town. His disruption was soon replaced by other antics but my naïve self continued to wonder what a “vagina!” was and why it was cause for trouble.
I am unsure of the exact moment I made the connection that the word that Jake yelled was my “private part,” but when I did, my world was changed. My thought process: “ I am a female. I have a vagina.” Transgender persons would later help me learn that these things don’t always go hand-in-hand. At the time, however, I could not believe this piecing of my identity had been withheld from me for so long. How did I truly not know before that moment in my life that my “private part” is, in fact, a vagina? I don’t know how I missed it—it’s right down there! How could I not have understood the meaning of a word that is literally a part of me? I was appalled at myself. I was appalled that an annoying shit of a pubescent boy would forever be associated with my discovery of the part of my body most mysteriously and wonderfully feminine.
I lived the years thereafter trying to reconcile the fact that I only halfway knew my body. I don’t blame my parents—teaching small children the words penis or vagina along with bedtime reading doesn’t necessarily seem appropriate. But I knew there had to be something wrong with the way in which I was presented with my own self.
Fast-forward eight years, moving to Chicago from my comfortable and loving home and neighborhood—it wasn’t just tattoos that were visible on people externally. The various ethnicities, sexualities, and backgrounds I encountered were all carried with such confidence. I relished and took in each difference, and a transformation took place in the way I view what being a heterosexual woman means.
Particularly struck by the LGBTQ community, there was a bold sense of self-awareness within each individual I met. The “out loud, and proud” mentality—albeit a movement that is a product of a heteronormative society—is something that inspires me. I cannot speak for the entire community but I so admire anyone than can so comfortably wear their sexuality on their sleeve. Isn’t that what Pride is all about? I’d like to see Ms. Clarkson react to the “Viva la Vagina” posters up and down Halsted each summer during Pride fest.
Think about “coming out” as a straight person. That’s something heteronormativity has practically deemed unnecessary because it’s seen as a kind of default setting. If someone identifies as gay, bi, queer—they have had to declare their sexuality and “come out” at some point. Being heterosexual, you don’t have to declare to anyone why you’re attracted to the opposite sex. It’s a privilege—I will never have to explain to an assuming family member that just doesn’t know better about “the moment I knew I was attracted to men.” Maybe the fact that there is never a need for this verbal announcement is part of the reason that people still feel uncomfortable talking aloud about their “private parts.”
Just the other day, my mom was telling me a ridiculous story about her friend going to the gynecologist and accidentally spraying body glitter “down there” rather than the scented mist she had intended so she would smell nice. It was hilarious, it was embarrassing, we were cracking up—but I could not get her to say the word “vagina”. “Down there” made it sound like some kind of dark dungeon, once again giving way to the dangerous euphemisms that we cloak something very real in.
Pussy, cooch, twat, va-jay-jay, minge—they’re vaginas. And we need to know what to call them. Our private parts have names, and adults should have better ways of dealing with them than escorting a kid out of a giggling class. We need to eliminate the ambiguous definitions and quiet voices we use to discuss something that every human on the planet has in common. Coming from the fifth-grade girl that simply wanted to be included in a juvenile joke, I think we should make our “private parts” a little less private.