Everything began the day I saw that Polaroid picture. I must have been about 13 and I was wearing a bikini. I remember looking at this picture and for the first time becoming self-aware and criticizing my transforming pre-pubescent body into womanhood. I didn’t like what I saw: a chubbier, sillier, more awkward and almost teenager version of myself was in this photo.
I thought, “Who is this girl? But, how did she end up like this? Why did I not like what I saw?”
“How can I change? I’ll do ANYTHING to change.”
It was my first critical self-assessment on my body- comparing myself to what I saw in the magazines, on TV, and the people in my immediate day-to-day surroundings. I mean, I knew I had gone through some changes- I had boobies now and I had some hairs sprouting up in some unexpected places. I had a rough idea about puberty through school but I did not have the household where my parents sat me down to talk about the birds and the bees. My parents were relatively quiet about all topics related to sex and sexuality which I don’t believe to be very out of ordinary for that time. However, I do believe this is a serious error that parents can make, normal or not in our culture. Like many young girls, I needed someone to sit me down and walk me through what adolescence would be like and what transformations my body would take on. I needed definitions on some of life’s most valuable lessons which include love, sex, and my own female sexuality.
I began to understand some of these things through passing with friends which was mostly giggling while learning the meanings of new words like “blow job” or “doggy-style”. But we were taught to be ashamed of sex and sexual freedom. We were taught as women to hide our monthly flow, and that our periods were (and are) something “gross” and taboo. We had to be ashamed about sexuality & our natural bodily functions because of the patriarchal system we live in, designed around a lot of toxic masculinity. My own awkward experiences only left me feeling even more confused and unsure that this new womanly body was attached to my head. I had so many unanswered and embarrassing questions and no one to direct them to. Even more terrifying were our public school Sex Ed classes, which really only informed us of what horrible STDs we could contract if we didn’t wear condoms.
Take the female clitoris for example. Did you know that the entire organ actually looks like this:
It isn’t just a small bulb hiding under the female labia- this organ extends quite completely around the vaginal opening and the urethra and can even be compared to the male’s sex organ in terms of overall size and span. The only difference might be that it is internal while a penis is mostly external.
Did you know that we did not learn the actual anatomy of a female clitoris until 29 years ago?
In “The Clitoris, Uncovered: An intimate History” by Rachel E. Gross published in the Scientific American Journal:
“In the history of sexual anatomy, the clitoris has long been dismissed, demeaned, and misunderstood. (Fun fact: when a French physician dissected this organ for the first time in 1545, he named it membre honteux—“the shameful member”—and declared its sole purpose to be urination. The earlier origins of the word are murky. Clitoris comes from the Greek kleitoris, which has been translated as both “little hill” and “to rub,” suggesting an ancient play on words.)…
“What is crazy is that, starting with the ancient Greeks, it took humans more than 2,000 years to develop this understanding—despite the fact that about half of the population has a clitoris. Though female anatomy has not changed all that much, our understanding of it sure has. Throughout history, the clitoris has been lost, found and lost again, with male anatomists jostling one another over who deserves credit for its “discovery.” Yet the full clitoris is still inadequately portrayed in most anatomy textbooks.
” …[In the early 2,000s] O’Connell compared the clitoris to an iceberg: beneath the surface, it was 10 times the size most people thought it was and boasted two to three times as many nerve endings as the penis. And its shape—part penguin, part insect, part spaceship—was a marvel that could only be appreciated in three dimensions. “
How is it possible that it took us so long to discover the source of all female pleasure? And why have we discarded the notion that we are allowed to rejoice in the female orgasm and continue to openly investigate our sexual stimuli? After all, the idea behind embracing your body, your pleasure and your orgasms is directly linked to improving overall health and relieving stress. In Medical News Today, in an article by Janet Brito, Ph.D called “Everything you need to know about Orgasms,” she explains:
“Several hormones that are released during orgasm have been identified, such as oxytocin and DHEA; some studies suggest that these hormones could have protective qualities against cancers and heart disease. Oxytocin and other endorphins released during male and female orgasm have also been found to work as relaxants.”
Sophia Wallace has an excellent Ted talk on educating the public on all things female sexuality, the clitoris, and common misnomers of our female parts, as well as her own integration of art to bring space and attention to this very ignored topic of discussion (see below).
In continuation: Why are we afraid of accurate and appropriate sexual education? Is it really too much to ask to embrace the beauty in a woman’s monthly flow and her female parts? Isn’t there a better way to be with our kids and talk about our up-coming sexuality and the beautiful changes that will take place in their bodies?
13-year-old me looking at my changed, female body in a picture was only the tip of the iceberg. I spent another 17 years just trying to figure this all out- I didn’t know my own body parts fully, how could I understand sexuality? And not only that, I was beginning to be aware then of so many things I suddenly had to take on as a woman in this world. Looking back, I wish someone could have told me how to step forward with more security and given me insight on all the essential details like female bodily changes; the ins and outs of menstruation; our wondrous cyclical hormonal alterations (the female brain is a damn machine); and sexual desire, sexual pleasure, and the female orgasm.
Here is another great TED talk by Sarah Barmak on improving our education on female sexuality:
Just opening up honest conversation and talking on details as cited in the video would have been leaps and bounds for my young self.
But my life path on self-discovery (which in it’s totality includes all the the aforementioned topics) was slow and sometimes painful. I did not achieve my first orgasm until I was at least 25 years old. And I was married for a good 3 years before that occurred. And in no way was it anyone else’s fault but my own: I did not know who I was, what I liked, what was considered respectable and good for me in and out of the bedroom. I was also deeply self-conscious of my body and had not raised enough awareness about both mental and physical health to even fathom what was good and healthy on sexuality.
From 13 to my late 20s, I was ashamed of what I saw most of the time. I felt embarrassed to take my clothes off, afraid to ask questions, unsure even if my body was “normal” or not. And not to mention nakedness in any form is totally censored on national US television and required to always be secret (which is crazy to me considering the most normal thing right in front of us is our human body and all its parts!). Think about this: in high school in the US it is very normal for people to shower in bathing suits in public showers rather than be completely nude in front of a stranger. So, quite normally, the disconnection I felt with my body was even further influenced by everything around me, including unrelenting pressure from society to have be thin and beautiful and perfect, as if this was a requirement of female beauty. Of course, I felt I was none of those things either- I wouldn’t dare undress!
I developed very low self-esteem which tortured me through university and contributed to an eating disorder I battled with for another many, many years. I obsessed more about my weight and appearance during my early 20s than even my grades or my soccer scholarship. Most of my sexual encounters were then belittled into one-night stands and contacts and escapades that were superficial or only seeking out attention. This “promiscuity” only made me feel worse, as societal standards on female promiscuity is still considered “wrong”.
Even today, I am still marked by moments of my past. It was, and still is, very difficult to let go of cultural or societal “norms”, as well as let go of my own past insecurities to feel free, natural and sexy during intimacy. I had to go through many self-inflicted abusive patterns and also endure some toxic and abusive relationships to get to a breaking point to really take care of myself. And this low-point was a catalyst for real self-care in every aspect: healthy relationships, safe & happy sexuality, taking care of my body through proper nutrition and exercise, and most importantly: valuing my mental health to be able to respect every aspect of myself.
So, I challenge our educational systems, our parents of today, and especially young teenagers who get a chance to read this: break down the walls of conventional sexual education. My message to any young pre-teen, teen, or even young adult: start asking questions and do real investigation. Go to a local clinic where you feel safe and get advice, and ask for safe sex tips. Find support groups or blogs to share and discover sexual interests in a safe and healthy environment (warning: the Internet can be very misleading). Explore your intimacy and sexuality on your own terms and don’t be misled by pornography which is not what real sex looks like. Consult with an adult that you trust, or contact sexual health or health experts for advice and tips or ask any question that might float around in your head. Be a young adult that is curious, self-aware, and willing to embrace and understand your body and sexuality in a very healthy way.
And for today’s parents: be a teacher that is willing to overcome minor embarrassing conversations to educate kids about the human body and its sexual organs- make it poetic, explain it with love and beauty. Help our young generations feel comfortable understanding love, sex and sexuality. Above all, don’t let these conversations slide- they really do have a huge impact on health and wellness, self-esteem and self-awareness. Show our youth real pictures (remember that most Sex Ed textbooks still don’t show any accurate images of female genitalia including the full clitoris organ).
Nowadays, looking back on my own pictures of my innocent 13 year old self in a bikini, I see a beautiful, healthy teenager just going through one of the most important moments in her life: becoming a woman. And even though it’s not possible, I wish could travel back in time and tell her just one thing. So, I guess I’ll have to tell my own daughter one day:
“Don’t let anyone ever tell you that you are anything but beautiful.”
*Notes: Although I didn’t get the birds and the bees chat, it’s worth mentioning that my parents set amazing examples of long-term commitment in love and relationships for my sister and me. While people change and can grow together or apart in long-term relationships, they have always proved to us over and over again, that real love is not just passion and short-term being in-love love spells, but that real love requires patience, investment, communication, highs and lows, and real friendship and respect.
(just in case Mom is reading this one….)
**Also note that all speeches, articles, medical publications I listed in this article were from women. This was not on purpose.
***This is not a post that condones sexual intercourse or non-safe sex practices. Each reader should consider her or his own beliefs, morals, and values on sex and sexuality before engaging in any sexual behavior. This article is meant to inspire open conversation and education on sex and female sexuality.