I found my daughter fiddling with her vagina in the bathtub. The said vagina will here forth be referred to as a pony, it is far too cute to be burdened with the responsibilities that come with having a vagina. She was in the bath and suspiciously quiet, bath time is always her opportunity to work my last nerve, so the silence was unheard of. I found her chubby hand, beneath clear water, fiddling with whichever part of her body stays hidden below her plump belly. I soon found that what had her attention was her pony.
Thoughtlessly my immediate response was to hit her hand away, and scold her for behaving improperly. A surge of discomfort overwhelmed me. She is too young to have been doing anything more than attending to an itch, but seeing her hand on her pony, a place she had never done anything more than graze absentmindedly, fuelled the lava in my spine. I preferred it when she didn’t know it was there. Consciously touching it meant that she was learning a part of her anatomy, a part I prayed would keep itself hidden below the plump until I was ready to acknowledge that at some point it would no longer be my baby’s pony.
My unwarranted outburst was of course a product of my own conditioning. I was transferring my vagina dramas onto my baby. I officially met my vagina in my twenties. When I was younger it never really belonged to me. Its initial role in life was as my mother’s pony. When it was no longer cute it was something that I was warned everybody was after. What it is that they wanted from it was unbeknown to me, as far as I was concerned it was the furthest thing from attractive. All I knew was that despite its appearance, no one, including uncles and older brothers, was allowed within a one mile radius of it. Why it was strictly off limits was never explained all I knew is that it was to be kept hidden behind closed legs, full panties and hems that grew longer the taller I grew.
As a girl I walked around oblivious to the purpose of what was kept hidden in my panties. Its importance was never shared with me, but what I soon understood was that I had become the custodian of a “private part”, kept private from everyone, myself included. When I turned 13, the secret started to scare me. A white substance had begun to visit and stain my underwear. Because it resembled sour milk, I assumed it was caused by too much milk at breakfast. But when it persisted even after I had eliminated milk as an ingredient in my diet, I began to worry. I had not an inkling of where it came from, but I was petrified of being caught for something I hadn’t done intentionally. So each time I went to pee, I’d check to see if it was still there, if it was I would pour hot water into the sink, add a drop of antiseptic fluid, lock the bathroom door and ferociously scrub away. It burnt so much my vagina might as well have been the burning bush, but I refused to be burdened by more than one secret at a time. Of course the white substance, which I learned was discharge, stayed with me well into my mid-teens. Thankfully Google, the greatest gift to mankind since the dawn of the microwave let me know that the crime scene in my underwear was completely natural.
Because I had no relationship with my vagina, I had no relationship with what was done to and with it. I gave my virginity as a gift to a man that found a song in me. If life was possible without breathing I would have given him my breath as a dowry, so in its place I offered my hymen instead. My Catholic prudishness has always kept me from engaging in anything that even Jezebel’s distant cousin, twice removed, might be caught doing so like a good girl I never watched porn. So when my first time came I brought a) No bedroom skills and b) A vagina I knew nothing of. I didn’t know what to make of the experience; it was both awkward and agonising. In a dorm room on dishevelled crisp tan bed sheets, the said lover draped my thighs around his waist like a constellation of silver moons and planted kisses of wanting on the skin that covered my trembling body, obviously having had practice. But I didn’t know how to move or how to feel, so I just lay there.
I lay there clenching the life out of the metal headboard feeling its cold swallow the warmth of my palms, hoping that it would swallow the pain in my limbs along with it. I lay there dumbfounded because this was the first time I had ever had any interaction with my vagina, vicariously through somebody else’s endeavour it had morphed from something I used daily to pass urine into something that had feeling.
At varsity my friends and I had become comfortable with the idea of sex, a word we were forbidden from uttering when we were younger from fear of falling pregnant on the spot. We shared personal experiences over wine at dinner tables. At first we were embarrassed by the idea of revealing intimate moments, but it was a quiet shame that soon evaporated along with sobriety. At these dinner tables I learned that not all women have the same relationship with sex. Some of us hate it, some of us derive a sense of empowerment from it and some of us are curious enough to have it by ourselves. I personally enjoyed it and at times when the person in bed with me gave the kind of love that could make my insides melt to sweetness, I fell in love with it. However what I never had was an orgasm.
Because “coming” is something I thought was a given, I thought I had been “coming” all along. A girlfriend of mine deflated my delusion and explained in detail what climaxing really was. Upon inquiry, more girlfriends of mine corroborated with this description, and from this I learned that I had no idea what orgasm-ing really was. I obviously still had a lot to learn. The more liberated girls suggested that I try it on my own, apparently the only way I would ever know what I really liked was by sticking my index finger into myself and fiddling, the more adventurous candidates on my sexual advisory board suggested more audacious methods that I dare not repeat. This, they said, was the surest way to know what an orgasm felt like. I never did try any of it because truthfully I was petrified of my body, it had never belonged to me, first it was my mother’s to protect and dictate the movement of to, then it learned to find satisfaction with whomever I had allowed to claim it at the time.
I now realise that my relationship with sexuality has always been dictated to me, from the time that my mother scolded me for sitting with uncrossed legs to when a boyfriend assumed that I enjoyed having my vagina showered by his saliva. It is absurd that, even behind closed doors, the concept of touching a part of my own body would make me feel uncomfortable and even silly.
The subtle lessons that were taught to me as a girl, the inhibiting of exploring my own anatomy, set in motion subliminal boundaries that have since policed the course of my self-actualisation as a woman.
But as a mother to a daughter I try to break these boundaries every day, hoping that it will allow her to live freely, not only sexually but as an individual. I was never sure where to start, but now I know that her first lesson is free rein over her anatomy. I want my daughter to learn her vagina, maybe through a good relationship with it, she will, as a woman, come to know herself.