Four individuals tell their stories.
Do you remember the first time you thought about your relationship with your vagina? It could have been the first time you snuck a glance in the mirror, curiously poked around, or bemoaned its existence in your life with friends at brunch. Perhaps you’ve never consciously thought of it at all. There are a number of experiences, memories, and perspectives that shape the way we think about our vulvas and vaginas that instill a myriad of feelings we have towards our genitals.
In many cases, said perspectives have been influenced by society’s treatment of the vagina, which, historically, has been less than stellar. In fact, for years, the area has been shamed or overly sexualized in pop culture and even the medical field. It’s been commonly seen as a vessel that provides pleasure for a penis, or as the source of a problem (yeast infection, urinary tract infection, sexually transmitted infection… you get it). For many, this stigmatization of vulvas has become so widespread that even talking about them is a no-no, making it a silence that has been passed from generation to generation in many households, perpetuating shame for many.
Thankfully, activists and leaders in the sexual wellness space have stepped forward to disrupt the status quo. TZR spoke to four such leaders about their own relationships and journeys with their vaginas and how they influenced their career paths and personal missions.
Ev’Yan Whitney is a sexuality doula raised in Los Angeles, California determined to help others access their sexual selves. While a doula is typically used for expecting parents looking for guidance, Whitney created and currently uses this title in their work to liberate women and femme-identifying people struggling with sensuality.
The sex expert wasn’t always this comfortable in their own skin. Raised in a conservative Christian household, Whitney signed purity contracts as young as eight years old, pledging to save their virginity for marriage. They distinctly remember being raised as a cisgender girl, and taught how important it was to “keep their legs crossed” and their vulva hidden. From the messaging Whitney received via the adults in their community, the vulva was explicitly tied to its sexual function, and ruining the purity of that “private part” with premarital sex would bring shame not only to Whitney, but to their parents. From childhood, they learned that their genitalia was something to be ashamed of.
Whitney recalls the overt mystery and secrecy around the topic of vaginas, and how this taboo laid a foundation of fear in them. “The reason why I have to keep this private is because there is a lack of safety for me if I don’t keep my legs closed,” they explain. Whitney thus grew up believing their vagina wasn’t something to be talked about, looked at, or explored, even by themselves. Is it any wonder the etymology of the word vagina means “sheath for a sword”? The word itself is quite literally rooted in phallic pleasure.
So how did someone from conservative Christian America begin a decade-long career helping others discover their sexuality? Bad sex. They made the decision to have sex before marriage with their now husband, and after hearing stories from friends about how fulfilling their sex lives were, Whitney realized their sex life didn’t come anywhere close. They discovered how deeply rooted their shame was, and how that shame took over their sex life. “Most people are having amazing sex,” they recalled thinking. “I’m not. I would rather not have sex. I don’t feel pleasure with sex.” Whitney decided then and there they wanted more for themselves, and decided to take matters into their own hands.
Well, not in the way you think (at least not at first). Whitney started a blog called Sex, Love, Liberation where they could document their sexual healing. After a year of publicly chronicling their sexual experiences with their partner, multiple shifts in perspective and their attempts to improve body image, readers began asking Whitney for help on their own journeys to liberation. Similar to the sexuality doula, these people reported that they too felt disconnected from their vaginas due to shame and trauma that kept them from accessing their sexuality. Some people sought help for issues like vaginismus or endometriosis, painful conditions that can make the vagina a source of anxiety and embarrassment.
Whitney admitted to not being an expert in all things sex ed, but was willing to share their own process and what worked for them to become comfortable in their own skin. Over time, they began hosting workshops, retreats, and one-on-one coaching sessions as a professional sexuality doula. When treating clients, Whitney encourages them to form new relationships with their bodies from a neutral place. “It’s not that I feel ‘good’ or ‘bad’ about it, it’s like ‘Oh, I can live with this.’ My goal is to have my clients feel that their relationship to their vagina is as benign as the one they have with their nose.”
Pia Baroncini also takes a relaxed approach when it comes to vaginal care. The womenswear designer grew up in Pasadena, California with a Danish mom who raised Baroncini in an intentionally laissez-faire household. “I remember taking showers with my mom until I was about five and she explained what periods were at a young age.”
Baroncini remembers how lighthearted conversations were with family about learning to take care of her body. “I felt so safe at home with my cousins and my mom. When I took showers with my mom, I remember she could see my pubic hairs growing. She said, ‘Oh my gosh, you have hair, when did that happen?’” Baroncini cheekily responded, “That’s my accessory hair.”
In addition to the open relationship with her mother, the designer credits her strong friendships with a group of girlfriends in high school for a solid sense of self esteem when it came to body variance. “There was an awareness that everyone looked different, and that was OK.” They traded tips on what to do with pubic hair, looked at differences in skin tone, and turned to Baroncini as a resource for advice on milestones she had already achieved, such as dealing with ingrown hairs and deciding between period products.
This candor between friends extended to adulthood as Baroncini and her friends now ask each other questions about the current vagina-related milestones they’re experiencing. She remembers accompanying a pregnant friend to a farmer’s market when her friend started leaking. “Can you see that? Ugh, so much stuff falls out of your [vagina] when you’re pregnant!” Indeed. The leak at the market hardly fazed Baroncini, as a lifetime of uncensored conversations with all the women in her life have prepared her for moments like these, not to mention when the designer herself gave birth.
Another new mom, beauty influencer Diipa Büller-Khosla sees her stretch marks, bumps, and bits of extra skin as a “faithful reminder that her body did THAT.” She is no stranger to fighting taboos when it comes to vaginas, particularly menstrual health. Growing up in India, Büller-Khosla was raised to see the natural biological process of menstruation as dirty and not something to openly talk about. “I would never talk about my cycle around any male member of my family,” she shares. “It was seen as inappropriate.”
Like Baroncini, Büller-Khosla cites her mother as a big influence on her journey to becoming comfortable with her own body and advocating on the behalf of other women’s bodies: “Having my mother around to nurture me through the female-related things I would experience as a teen, I grew up to be more and more comfortable with my body. As I got older, I informed and educated myself on the ‘ins and outs’ of all the different things that happen to the female body over the course of life. I was amazed at how capable and organic a woman’s body is on the inside and out. Being able to bring a life into the world is truly something that is underrated!
As I transitioned into a young adult, I wanted to bring awareness to the reality that is female anatomy and how natural it truly is. Menstrual taboos and stigmas can lead to major barriers to proper hygiene practices, which is something so ethically unfair. It was a goal [of mine] to make every woman feel as comfortable as I did with my body and menstruation by informing them on the importance of vaginal hygiene and the use of proper supplies.”
Büller-Khosla began the #RedDotChallenge on social media to bring awareness to how taboo menstruation still is in many parts of the world. “When I was younger, I remember seeing a girl on the side of the road asking not for money, but for pads. The moment had a hard impact on me as I sat there wondering how these resources aren’t available as a basic necessity.”
When menstrual health is neglected and stigmatized, it can not only perpetuate health issues, but enforces major barriers to accessible and adequate hygiene for vagina owners in general. Büller-Khosla is determined not only to share the importance of vaginal hygiene far and wide, but encourage others to speak about the issue, especially in her home country.
Sonalee Rashatwar, grassroots organizer and sex therapist, also had to break free of the cultural norms instilled in them when they were young. Rashatwar was raised as a cisgender female in a South Asian household, and with that identity came predetermined behavioral scripts about how to act and how to look. Around nine or 10 years old, their father encouraged them to restrict their food intake. Although Rashatwar has two younger siblings, they were the only child subject to surveilled eating and forced dieting. “It was okay for my brother to be a fat boy, it was not okay for me to be a fat girl,” they recall.
Tying bodily restrictions to gender, it’s easy to trace the connection to desirability. How many of us have heard that we will not be seen as attractive if we don’t modify, bleach, shave, dye, or work off some part of our body?
Their body’s deviance from the norm elicited comments such as “if they did not try to shrink their body, they would not be taken seriously in their career, or find a man to marry them, or be able to have biological children.” While there was pressure on Rashatwar to be conventionally attractive for the sake of their career and romantic viability, they were simultaneously receiving advice to not trust boys and to be wary of men. The now sex therapist says they did not fear their sexuality, stating they were “hungry for sexual intimacy.” They began having cyber sex online to prove their parents wrong about being sexually undesirable but Rashatwar’s intimate experiences did not include their vagina. With no comprehensive sex education to inform them of how to attain pleasure, they did not know how different parts of the vulva and vagina functioned or how to masturbate.
They also recall how internalized homophobia in early adulthood led to their own vulva shame. “I knew I was definitely attracted to people of my gender (at the time I identified as a cisgender woman), but I was feeling this repulsion at the thought of having to put my mouth on a vagina,” they say.
As Rashatwar entered adulthood and embarked on their professional journey as a sex therapist, the number one practice they attributed to healing bodily shame (or what they call body image disturbance) is listening to body cues — including their own. In a recent Instagram post, they explain that “gender is so personal and fluid to me (especially as a bisexual — because who/how I ‘f’ impacts my gender).”
Rashatwar expands on this, explaining, “I have been aware of feeling masculine of center for almost a decade. [The] first person I ever told: the first girl I fell in love with. Being with her made me feel so butch. I’m still learning that my queer masculinity does not need to reproduce cis-het masculinity or imitate the predatory male gaze.”