Empowering young children to nurture a positive relationship with their genitals, by Anne G. Sabo, Ph. D.
Now read that again: Girls as young as ten or eleven are thinking they should have their labia fixed?! As Wrenna Robertson writes in her foreword to I’ll Show You Mine (2011), imagery has the power to define reality, and so too does language. What we need today are positive and honest images and narratives of the amazing variety of female bodies and genitals in shape, size, color and texture—not just aimed at adults, but at children and youth as well.
As a former college professor who taught women studies among other subjects, and who is the mother of a toddler daughter, I feel the acute pressure to empower my daughter to nurture a positive relationship with all of her body, including her genitals.
Human sexuality educator and longtime president of SIECUS, the United States’ largest clearinghouse of sexuality education, Debra W. Haffner stresses the importance of empowering our children’s relationships with their bodies and sexuality by providing them with the accurate terms for all body parts from the very beginning (From Diapers to Dating: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Sexually Healthy Children, 2008; first ed. 1999):
I believe parents should treat all body parts equally. When you use euphemisms only for the genitals, you are giving your child a message that these parts of the body are uncomfortable or different. You may, without meaning to or realizing it, even introduce a sense of shame or guilt about this part of the body. These feelings sometimes persist into adulthood, making it difficult for grown men and women to be comfortable with their bodies and sexual feelings. You may also be affecting your child’s ability to tell you about sexual abuse incidents accurately. (35)
In her book, Haffner also emphasizes the importance of parents instilling appreciation for the human body through positive role modeling. For as she writes, “actions speak louder than words. When it comes to sexuality education, what we do is often more important than what we say … We can tell [our children] that their body is wonderful, but if we swat their hands away when they touch their genitals during a diaper change, we are teaching them that part of their body is bad” (17). And as she further points out, genital touching is a natural behavior for babies and toddlers, exploring and learning more about their body; it is crucial not to shame the small child for this.
Haffner provides a list of age appropriate books for parents to use in teaching their children about their bodies and sexuality. For preschoolers she recommends Belly Buttons are Navels (2008; first ed. 1990) by Mark Schoen, Ph.D., which portrays Mary and her brother Robert who, as they splash about in the bathtub together, discover that boys and girls have most of the same body parts, but also that boys and girls have some distinguishing features. Haffner also recommends What’s the Big Secret? Talking About Sex With Girls and Boys (2000; first ed. 1997) by Laurie Krasny Brown, Ed.D., and Marc Brown. Covering anatomy, reproduction, pregnancy, privacy, and birth, this book also addresses the differences between boys and girls. Both books introduce girls to the terms vulva, clitoris, vagina, and nipples.
None of these books, however, introduce the labia, which has been immensely fascinating for my daughter since she discovered mine and then her own. Amazing you! Getting Smart About Your Private Parts (2009; first ed. 2005) by Dr. Gail Saltz, which is also aimed at preschoolers though not among the books recommended by Haffner, provides the term for the labia but not that of the vulva. The primary focus here is the internal reproductive organs, offering a cartoon illustration of the uterus with the ovaries, vagina, and labia that looks more like a balloon head than anything that belongs to the human body. Moreover, Saltz uses euphemisms for our “private parts” with “funny names” such as “pee-pee,” “tee-hee-hee,” “weenie,” and “hot dog.”
Also aimed at preschoolers, It’s NOT the Stork! A Book About Girls, Boys, Babies, Bodies, Families, and Friends (2008; first ed. 2006) by Robie H. Harris, author of numerous children’s books about sexuality, includes a much better illustration of a young girl crouching over to examine her genitals; but while it shows the labia, the book does not provide the term.
Recommended by Haffner for children from first through fifth grade, Harris’ It’s So Amazing! A Book About Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies, and Families (2004; first ed. 1999) does introduce the term for labia. The book is geared for children ages seven to ten, and the technical illustration of the female genitals might appear alienating for younger girls. So it is questionable whether it would make much sense to a preschooler. It sure doesn’t bring out the beauty and wonder of the vulva.
Aimed at children ages ten and up, Harris’ It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, And Sexual Health (2009; first ed. 1994) finally includes an illustration of a girl examining her genitals with a mirror, in line with the advice of sex educators; as do Karen Gravelle’s The Period Book: Everything You Don’t Want to Ask (But Need to Know) (2006; first ed. 1996) and Lynda Madaras’ Ready, Set, Grow! A “What’s Happening to My Body?” Book for Younger Girls (2003), both recommended by Haffner.
What I further appreciate about Gravelle’s and Madaras’ books aimed at pre-adolescent and adolescent girls is that they make sure to stress the natural fact that girls’ labia change during puberty:
In young girls, the inner lips are small and not very noticeable, but in puberty, they begin to grow rapidly. Different girls develop differently shaped inner lips. But whatever kind you have, they will be darker and more wrinkled than the inner lips you had as a child. In many women, the inner lips actually grow bigger than the outer lips and stick out from between the outer lips. (Gravelle, 15-16)
The inner lips change at puberty, too. They grow bigger. They change color. They get more wrinkly … The outer lips cover the inner lips. But in some of us, the inner lips stick out beyond the outer lips. One of the inner lips may be bigger than the other. It’s all perfect normal! (Madaras, 73-74)
While I have shown my daughter the illustrations of girls examining their genitals in the books by Gravelle and Madaras, these books are obviously too text heavy for her and lack the color that so draws the attention of a toddler mind. Until I can find books catering to preschoolers that include positive imageries of girls exploring their genitals in their amazing variety, I have sought recourse to I’ll Show You Mine. I have looked at it with my daughter to point out the inner and outer labia, the clitoris in the pictures where it is clearly visible, the area of the opening to the urethra, and the opening to the vagina. One thing that has specifically caught her eye is the wide array in color; that some vulvae are much darker, and others much lighter colored. Whenever we look at the book, she will leaf through the pages until she finds the darkest and lightest colored ones.
By providing my daughter with positive imageries of the diversity of female bodies and genitals in form and color, hopefully I am empowering her to feel good about all of herself and never think she needs any of her body parts “fixed.”
Yet young girls are pressured from many holds today, and young boys too need frank information about girls’ bodies and sexuality in order to foster respect and appreciation for the female body. A woman featured in I’ll Show You Mine recalls how she came to think that the appearance of her vulva was something to be worried about, after boyfriends started using terms like “sloppy joe” or “meat curtains” for her labia (75). Another recounts how a boyfriend told her that he wouldn’t perform oral sex on her because her “pussy was unusual and not uniform,” suggesting she have her labia surgically altered (87). Aimed at pre-adolescent and adolescent boys, Gravelle’s What’s Going on Down There? Answers to Questions Boys Find Hard to Ask (1998) prepares boys on what to expect when they explore the naked body of pubescent girls, providing a positive detailed description of girls’ genitals and how they change during puberty.
For ourselves, we ought to take pride in our bodies. In turn we serve as positive role models for children. But we must further take responsibility and provide children with accurate information on what to expect as their bodies develop, in addition to positive and honest images of the human body and its parts. This is even more important in our photoshopped media culture where—with the bombardment of altered images and the residual effects of such imagery—more and more women and even ten-year olds girls are turning to cosmetic surgeries such as labiaplasty.
Anne G. Sabo, Ph.D., left a tenured position as Associate Professor in 2009 in order to focus on her family and the greater public. Her research and writing are devoted to topics related to sexual health and parenting. She is currently completing two books, one on feminist pornography (New porn. By women, for women and men) and another on the sleep habits of children (The Sleep Question). She is the founder of the online resource center lovesexfamily.com devoted to holistic human sexuality information, and blogs about the politics of sex and parenting at newpornbywomen.com and quizzicalmama.com. She lives in a small Minnesotan college town with her husband and toddler daughter. (Photo credit: Agnete Brun)