I remember the day at school the girls in my class were taken to a separate room. As we filed out of our class, there was a buzz of curiosity from the boys speculating about this excursion they hadn’t been invited on. That day, I learned about a phenomenon that would change my life in more ways than one: menstruation. I was 12. I also learned that many of my friends had already got their periods. That was the extent of my sex and relationships education.
Looking back, it stands out to me how woefully inadequate it was and as a result, how stunted my understanding of my own body has been. Even though my parents always made me feel like I could talk to them about everything, my father’s voice would inadvertently drop to a whisper when he would mention the word ‘period’, well-into my adult life. That he mentions periods at all in front of his daughters more progressive than other men his generation. My mother was less reserved, but that was the extent of my conversations about my reproductive anatomy with my parents. And they aren’t alone- research by The Eve Appeal found that 44% of parents replace anatomically correct words like ‘vulva’ with euphemisms like ‘flower’ and ‘fairy’ in conversations with their children, and that only 1% of parents use ‘vulva’ in front of their daughters.
I’ve had to put in work for demystifying my body. Learning about correct names of my body parts, charting my period cycles, knowing how much blood in one period cycle is normal, understanding what my body’s normal looks like well into my mid-twenties feels like the epitome of learning on the job. My knowledge of risks that gynae cancers pose to my life is recent and it’s an ongoing process to unlearn my embarrassment in talking about my body and become more aware. If I have kids, I don’t want them to inherit this embarrassment. I want them to be equipped with a sound understanding of their bodies, and how to take care of them. I want to raise them knowing that it’s as important to get a cervical screening as the COVID-19 jab. And the truth is, children today are growing up with monumentally higher access to information, and disinformation, than we could dream of. I would rather have them getting factual information about normal body parts from me, than an unreliable online source.
At its beginning, UK government’s new Sex and Relationships Curriculum declares that while education in school is important, parents and carers are prime educators on many of these matters. But The Eve Appeal’s search found that 1 in 3 parents felt uncomfortable talking to their children. These figures are connected. While it might be challenging to have these conversations with our children, and to find the right answers to direct questions in the moment, trust your parental instincts to navigate them and tap into the many great resources offering advice. They could be life saving for your child.
Building a safer world for our girls and children will take long-term effort and a sustained effort at a societal level. But having direct, fruitful conversations with them about reproductive anatomy is one step we can all take as individuals.
Here are some tips on talking to your kids about their bodies: eveappeal.org.uk/educatingeve