Tuesday 20 March 2018

Dr Ciara Kelly: We need to talk about vagina clenching...

Over 57pc of young women would rather Google gynae problems than visit the GP. It's time we were okay with talking about our bodies, says our GP

Cringing moments: Clenching happens when your child is in imminent danger
Cringing moments: Clenching happens when your child is in imminent danger

Ciara Kelly

I was watching my six-year-old skipping along a low wall recently and was experiencing that feeling you get when you don't want to stop your child from doing everything that's fun but you're also terrified he might fall - so your heart is in your mouth.

That's an interesting expression, isn't it? Because of course your heart is not physically in your mouth but we all know what's meant by it - it means you're scared or nervous. What was actually happening physically was - I was clenching my vagina.

I realised then that I had had that feeling tons of times before, when I was anxious - particularly about my children's safety - but this time I actually thought about it. I named it. I considered what it meant.

I myself have never - in my 40 odd years - heard anyone ever mention their vagina clenching in these circumstances. I mean we're all aware of what stomach-churning, heart-stopping, hair-raising or whatever means - these are universal descriptive terms for physical experiences, but no one ever mentions vagina clenching.

And being a doctor has taught me that there are no unique physical symptoms only experienced by one person - so I decided to ask other women did their vaginas clench? Particularly when they were scared about stuff, like their kids falling to their deaths off a two foot wall. And do you know what? It turns out they do.

All over the world, women are experiencing vagina clenching in response to fear and when they're feeling the need to protect their children - and no one ever mentions it.

It simply isn't in the lexicon of bodily functions that convey feelings - like blood curdling, head-spinning or gut-wrenching. These are universally used descriptively and we all know what they imply. But vagina clenching is absent from the list and I think that's very interesting and also a little bit sad. Because it means that 50pc of the population experience a physical phenomenon but are unable, unwilling or inhibited about discussing it.

"So what?" you may say. Who cares?

Well apart from it raising my feminist hackles because I see it as an example of women not feeling able to express anything to do with their sexuality or even give a voice to their bodily functions, it's also bad for their health.

Ovarian Cancer Action, a UK group, recently carried out research into women's awareness of the symptoms of ovarian cancer and whether or not they were comfortable in seeking help from a doctor for them. It found that two-thirds of young women said they were too embarrassed to use the word vagina and almost two-thirds were uncomfortable about the words labia or discharge. A quarter of young women avoided the doctor because they didn't even know what words to use.

Such terrible dis-empowerment! Here's a bit of your body - that in fairness, will hopefully bring you lots of enjoyment over the course of your life - and you can't even say its name.

Vagina, vagina, vagina.

Some 57pc of young women, it turns out, are using Google rather than their GP for gynae problems, simply due to embarrassment. It's nuts! And speaking of nuts, men simply don't have the same issue regarding discussing their genitalia and maybe we should wonder why that is? Why women don't feel it's okay to talk about their bodies? Why shame appears to be associated with it, for some reason?

Anyway back to my original point - I think we should make it completely normal to talk about our bodies - ALL of our bodies. Because the notion of shame or embarrassment is a social construct - and it needs to be challenged. And I don't think that that's scary or vagina clenching at all. The campaign starts here - it's going to be huge! #vaginaclenching.


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