I am glad people aren't shy about saying 'vagina'. But why can't they refer to the right body part?

The Great Wall of Vagina, by artist Jamie McCartney.

The Great Wall of Vagina, by artist Jamie McCartney. Photo: greatwallofvagina.co.uk

Like most people who hold down a full-time job, the Hollywood awards season barely registers with me. Last week, I was prepared for yet another year of the #WhiteOscars to pass me by, when one particular headline caught my attention.  

Much to the delight of the internet, Sunrise reporter Edwina Bartholomew had worn a "vagina dress" on the red carpet.

This "vagina dress" was such a phenomenon that it was covered by multiple news outlets and even managed to become "the number one trending story in Australia" briefly. Seems an awful lot of fuss for an ice blue dress with a vaguely oval-shaped decal on it.

Edwina Bartholomew.

Edwina Bartholomew. Photo: Twitter

Blame it on my pedantic mind, but when someone says something is vagina-shaped, I tend to imagine that it must resemble a muscular tube. It irks me that time and time again, an entire area of female anatomy, brilliant in its intricateness, is labelled as the "vagina", as if the vagina is only part worth considering.


When I was at university, one of the facts I learnt --  which stayed with me to this day -- was that back in the 60s and 70s, feminists took to drawing clitorises back into medical diagrams of female anatomy. Why? Because in a number of these documents, the part of the body specifically designed for pleasure and enjoyment was not considered important enough to include. It was not the part entered during (heterosexual) sexual intercourse, nor is it the part which later brings children into the world, so according to the usually white men who then dominated the profession, it was not worth a great deal of consideration.

There is an inherent misogyny attached to the continual mislabelling of these body parts which makes me feel incredibly uncomfortable. Never, for example, have I heard of the testicles being mistakenly referred to as the "penis". In the case of male anatomy, we tend to acknowledge the different parts and the importance that these parts have. When it comes to the vulva, though, and all the parts which make it up, these are continually mislabelled the "vagina" by society. As if they are of secondary consideration.

And it doesn't seem to matter whether it's these sorts of ridiculous jibes in the media, or its projects which are meant to be empowering. The Great Wall of Vagina, for example, is an art installation designed to show the incredible variation of the vulva via the making of a number of plaster casts. The male artist states, "For many women their genital appearance is a source of anxiety and I was in a unique position to do something about that". Ironically, he doesn't seem to connect the anxiety regarding the appearance of one's vulva with the continual centralising of one part by society, and the disregarding of all the rest of it. I have heard that the term "vagina" is a mere colloquial, that it's important to use this word due to the stigma it carries. While I agree it carries stigma, at least we can actually name it.

As well as the inherent misogyny I feel is embedded within the continual centralisation of the vagina, I have to wonder what effect it has when we do not encourage pride in the other parts. If the labia minora were seen as important, for example, would we be seeing the vast increase in cosmetic labiaplasty which has been recorded over the past few years?

If the clitoris was seen as important, would we still be seeing articles about how many women find it difficult to achieve orgasm? Would being able to say these words just as part of everyday conversation help remove the stigma attached to this body part in its entirety?

I am glad people are using the word "vagina" so openly nowadays. When I was a teenager, we used to hear everything but this word and generally, the association was derogatory. At least on that one front there appears to be progress. Yet when feminists of yesteryear went to such lengths to educate people on crucial anatomy, it shows we've also gone backwards.

We're still only naming the one part considered important enough by medical journals to label back then. If people don't know the difference between a vagina and a vulva then it's time to learn. Because anything else is reductive and significantly more laughable than wearing a dress with an unusual decal.