Lying on my back in front of the bedroom mirror a couple of months ago, I tried to remember the last time I’d eyeballed my own genitals. I was 14, desperately trying to figure out how to insert a tampon because, at the advent of my period and with an impending pool party on my awkward-adolescent social calendar, this skill had suddenly become imperative.
Struggling to find my vagina, I recall growing hot with frustration at my own ignorance and incompetence. This was my own body, something so wholly mine, how could it be such a mystery? My ham-fisted efforts were finally rewarded. Pool-party RSVP: attending.
Becoming familiar with your partner’s body can make you alert to any changes. Credit:iStock
It would be almost two decades before I looked at my genitals again. At 33 years old, legs akimbo in front of the mirror, I attempted to inspect a dark mark on my labia minora that my husband had, um, noticed.
Not for the first time I found myself giving thanks for cunnilingus, although on this occasion it was with my GP frowning in the direction of my vagina under the same light that had illuminated it every few years at pap-smear-o’clock. She murmured that this new mark was very unusual and sent me to a dermatologist who, upon seeing the requested photos, asked me to come in for an appointment within the month.
Now I was worried. With a history of melanoma in my family, my brain fixed on the GP’s comment that moles can theoretically appear anywhere on the body, even in parts where the sun don’t shine. I felt unsettled by the idea that, had my husband not observed it, I would have been none the wiser – and, if it had been something scary, my ignorance might have had a material impact.
I thought about all those public health campaigns recommending that we check our breasts and skin for anything nefarious – I’ve never seen one about checking our genitals.
‘It might be missed until it’s quite late’
Dr Melissa Kang, a youth health clinician and former Dolly Doctor, confirms that skin cancers – including melanoma – occur less commonly on the vulva than other parts of the body, but notes that “because people doing skin checks don’t tend to check their genitals, it might be missed until it’s quite late”.
“We should all be much more familiar with our genitals anyway, though. It’s more common that people look at their vulva if it’s symptomatic with things like itching, swelling or the presence of a cyst. We shouldn’t wait for that, but it’s a part of the body that’s always been taboo and shameful, especially vaginas.”
Certified sex and relationship practitioner Georgia Grace agrees: “I hear this all the time – due to a range of social, cultural, religious factors, or even and individuals upbringing and lack of access to positive and shame free sex education, so many of my clients feel a great amount of shame, fear, discomfort, vulnerability, even disgust, around looking at their genitals. People in their 20s, 30s, 40s, even up to their 70s, can struggle to look at their genitals,” she says.
Start with self-exploration
Although it’s unlikely for something really serious to be observable through visual inspection, it suddenly felt bizarre to me that there are a handful of people who have seen so much more of my genitals than I, the owner of them, ever have – including, but not limited to, my GP and my waxer.
“It can have a huge impact on your sexual wellbeing, and your connection to your body,” Grace says. “People often won’t know how to touch or stimulate their body, they may not even know how to name their genital anatomy. Having an awareness of your body, knowing how you want to be touched and how to build arousal in your body is the foundation for great sex – without this knowledge it can be challenging to communicate sexual wants and needs in partnered sex. Self-exploration and awareness is the foundation.”
Grace often describes that disconnection as “feeling like a blank space from our belly button down: a lack of connection to the whole pelvic region. It can be very challenging to feel pleasure and sensation in an area of our body we completely ignore. It might be more of an emotional disconnection that shows up during sex, many of my clients experience discomfort receiving pleasure or oral sex, noting the fear of what sexual partners may think of their genitals. It’s also just a really edgy thing, to look at your body or touch it, if you’ve never if you’ve never done it before.”
Grace and Kang are in agreement that looking at our genitals in the mirror is useful for overall health, wellbeing, understanding our bodies and working through feelings of shame. The benefits are endless, according to Grace: “educational, sexual, for body image, building connection, a partner practice in learning together – there are infinite benefits to building a visual connection to your body”.
Make the most of your health, relationships, fitness and nutrition with our Live Well newsletter. Get it in your inbox every Monday.
Most Viewed in Lifestyle
From our partners
Source: Read Full Article