The Tale of the Identified Vulva.
August 16, 2010

A couple days ago, a friend and I took our daughters to a local community pool.  Charlotte was enthralled by the water, slapping it with her hands, throwing her head back and giggling uncontrollably while she splashed.  Everyone at the pool – even our friends – gave us a good ten foot berth.

After awhile, though, she began to tire of splashing.  So she snapped my swimsuit instead and pointed at things and asked DAT?!  DAT?!  DAT?!  And I answered.

That is Momma’s bikini strap.  That is a lifeguard.  That is Momma’s bikini strap.  That is a gutter.  That is Momma’s bikini strap.  That is a tree.  That is Momma’s bikini strap.  That is a whistle.  That is Momma’s bikini strap.  That is little Charlotte’s head.  That is Momma’s bikini strap.  That is little Charlotte’s shoulder.  That is Momma’s bikini strap.  That is little Charlotte’s hand.  That is Momma’s bikini strap.  That is…

Without skipping a beat, I told her.  That is little Charlotte’s vulva.

When we were laying in bed that night, the baby asleep beside us and the calm of night all about us, I told Donald about it.  We may have years before our daughter understands what male and female, sex and reproduction, vulvas and penises are all about.  But here we are, laying the foundations for the questions and discussions to come.

And DAMN IT, I want those foundations to be solid.

So the two of us lay there, turning it over.  Do we refer to her genitals as her private parts?  Girl parts?  Vagina?  And if we have a boy one day, what is the appropriate terminology with which to discuss his anatomy?  His private parts?  Boy parts?  Pee-pee?  Penis?  Balls?  Testicles?

Until a few days ago, I had a brilliant solution to this dilemma.  I thought, HEY, since I speak French with Charlotte periodically, I’ll just use a kid-friendly French term.  But as soon as my child pointed to her crotch and asked DAT?!, that idea flew out the window.  I do not want her to be ashamed of her body or to feel that discussing or understanding it is off-limits.  I do not want her to feel that we will shy away from giving her honest answers.  And as she grows older and more aware of social interactions, I do not want her to feel that we differentiate in our treatment of her (linguistically or otherwise) because of her age.

No, I want my daughter to feel confident about every square inch of her skin.  And for this family, ensuring that confidence begins by teaching our daughter that we will answer her questions about and candidly discuss her body as honestly as possible.

Even if it means saying the word “vulva” out loud in a public pool.

What do you call your children’s genitals?  What did your parents teach you?


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  1. By on August 16, 2010

    You are doing the right thing. We were not taught as appropriately as we could have and should have been. We have done better with our own kids, thankfully.

  2. By Alicia S. on August 16, 2010

    I don’t know about any other moms out there, but I personally have had fun coming up with all of the cute little names we use for our sons little winky since he was a newborn. But now that he’s two and potty trained and needs to refer to it from time to time, he simply calls it his wiener and we stick pretty exclusively to that.

  3. By on August 16, 2010

    I don’t have kids, so no advice but a funny story. When I first started babysitting, I was watching two neighbors - ages about 5 and 2. The older (boy) was taking his nap still but the younger (girl) wouldn’t. She followed me everywhere, including into the bathroom and proceeded to ask me “Do you have a penis or a vulva?“. It was all I could do to choke out “a vulva” without laughing. To this day, I can’t hear that word without remembering that day. I’m sure that girl (now in high school) would be mortified if she knew that!

  4. By on August 16, 2010

    I am totally for anatomically correct names! Although I think it’s really funny and odd that there is a huge debate raging on the web about vagina vs vulva. But nobody says to a little boy, oh that’s the head of your penis, that’s your foreskin, or that’s the shaft of your penis.

    I know the arguments for and against vulva vs vagina, but if I have little girls I will refer to their genitals as “vagina”.

  5. By Sarah Christensen on August 16, 2010

    Madeline - A little boy who lives nearby comes by to visit Hank every now and then.  His mother always stands at the driveway and waits while he comes up and gives Hank a biscuit, pats his head, and then they continue on their walk.  A few weeks ago, they came by and he came running away from Hank laughing and screaming that the dog licked and ‘tried to eat’ his penis.  Lol.  It still makes me laugh just thinking about it!

  6. By Sarah Christensen on August 16, 2010

    Corrine - There’s a debate?  Really?  We picked ‘vulva’ because it covers just about everything visible.  If, when she’s older, she wants more specific information, I’m sure we’ll start throwing around ‘vagina’ and ‘labia’ and even ‘clitoris’ but isn’t the vulva the most general term?  Like with a boy, we’ll probably say ‘penis’ and ‘testicles’ up front because that covers everything.  Then when he’s older and he’s curious, we’ll probably start identifying ‘shaft’ and ‘foreskin’ and to some extent teach a few more common references such as ‘balls’.  It’s like how you teach a kid that they have fingers and when they’re older, you explain that this is a fingernail and that is a knuckle and this finger is called a pinky and that finger is called the pointer.

    What is the debate about?

  7. By on August 16, 2010

    We’ve always called our 5 year old’s private parts her vagina.  At her 4 year old well child check, the doctor used some goofy “kid” term and my daughter looked at him like he was crazy and said, “No, dat’s my vuh-GIIIIIIN-uh!“  She’s going to be the kid on the playground teaching her classmates about their body parts.  I just know it.

    Our son is only 6 months old, but as he’s having some issues in that region as of late, we’ve been discussing baby testicles frequently in our house.  For now, it’s penis and testicles.  (And our daughter refers to it as a penis or “his diaper parts”—her description not ours.)  If that’s how she understands it at this point, I’m cool with her leading the way like that.

  8. By on August 16, 2010

    I’m interested in the vagina/vulva debate too.

    I’m with Corrine though in that I have always thought of the whole thing as a vagina and that vulva is just one of the sub-parts. And I’m more familiar with the word “vagina.“ So I think I will probably just go with that.

    I haven’t been that great about using it all the time with my Charlotte though. But then again, she hasn’t specifically pointed at it asking what it is yet.

  9. By on August 16, 2010

    When my daughter was almost three, she came home from daycare and announced that the only little boy in daycare “has a tail in his diaper”.  She wanted to know why she didn’t have a tail and if it was like a monkey’s tail and how did it get there and it’s not fair that only boys get tails. 
    Once I figured out she was talking about his penis, which she saw while he was getting a diaper change, I laughed so hard!  My husband and I still refer to it as a tail occassionally, but only for a laugh.

  10. By Sarah Christensen on August 16, 2010

    Jessica - Well now I’m curious.  I thought the vulva referred to everything - labia, clitoris, vaginal cavity, everything - and the vagina was specifically the birth canal.  Is it the other way around?

  11. By MommyNamedApril on August 16, 2010

    we have boys, they know it’s a penis and balls, but occasionally I’ll say ‘boy parts’ depending on the environment.  they know mommy has a vagina and not a penis, but, again, sometimes i just say ‘girl parts’

  12. By on August 16, 2010

    From Wikipedia:

    The word vagina is quite often incorrectly used to refer to the vulva or female genitals generally; strictly speaking, the vagina is a specific internal structure.

  13. By on August 16, 2010

    Sarah: This is where I will shame-facedly admit that I do not really know—and of course this is the problem that we’re trying to fix, right? Grown women not really knowing the right words to describe their own anatomy?

    I think that technically, you’re right. But in common use (at least that I’ve heard in this part of the country) most people just call the whole thing the vagina and don’t really get specific about individual parts unless they’re at the gyno. I wonder if this is a regional difference? I live in the Midwest.

  14. By on August 16, 2010

    I was just thinking: If we’re supposed to call it the vulva, then why did Eve Ensler call her play the Vagina Monologues? Why didn’t she call it the Vulva Monologues?

    Here she was trying to popularize the use of the correct word and she used the wrong one?

  15. By tracy on August 16, 2010

    I have very strong feelings about this issue, and actually have it on my “post ideas” list. My mom, god love her, taught me jack shit about my body. Everything I learned, I learned in 4th grade when they separated the boys & girls & gave us the “what’s happening to your body” talk. (also remember Richard coming back into the classroom where the girls were because it was his turn on the computer. memories. crazy shit).

    My mom never taught my about my body or my period, and thank goodness I had sent away for the trial back of pads & tampons in health class, because when I did get my period? After I worked up the nerve to tell my mother, not only did she BARELY acknowledge it, but she didn’t even go to the store for me for sevearl hours. WTH??

    I never felt comfortable with my body, in my body, and was especially embarrassed of any and all bodily functions. Still am. I vowed that things would be different, more open, with my daughter, and at 2 years old, I think I’m rocking in that department.

    She knows virtually all of her body parts (she has a vagina & boobies), and she nows that her cousin Hunter (also 2 yrs old) has a penis. I called it her vagina, because at age 35, I’m still not entirely certain what all my lady-parts are called & their exact locations. (How sad is that?)

    It’s so incredibly important for her to not be embarrassed of her body, and to know what her parts are called in case she gets hurt or someone touches her inappropriately. (haven’t had the good touch, bad touch talk yet, tho)

    I love my parents dearly, and I don’t fault or blame them for a thing. I just know that there are things I want differently for my family.

    (I feel like I need to make a qualifying statement everytime I say anything negative about my parents)

  16. By on August 16, 2010

    lol There is a debate regarding which area the vulva actually refers to and what the “vagina” actually is. I’m not going to take Wikipedia as the source for this because, well it’s written by regular people. I have NEVER heard anyone refer to a girl’s anatomy as the vulva. Until I saw this raging debate on all these feminist blogs lol

    Michael is a bio major and in none of his anatomy classes was the female sexual organ referred to as the “vulva”. The vaginal canal may be internal, but I think it’s the part of the female genitals which is actually different from a penis; it is also the largest part of the genitals. 

    I think Jessica must be right and the descriptive word changes based on where you live.

  17. By Sarah Christensen on August 16, 2010

    Honestly, I couldn’t tell you about the regiona differences thing because I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anyone discuss their vulva/vagina.  Except with kids.  And then I’ve really only heard ‘girl parts’ which I don’t mind in some more formal settings but I feel minimizes the truth to some extent.  That said, I did look it up in my college anatomy text and Donald’s old bio books and in all of those, it says the vulva is external (labia, clitoris, vestibule, and vaginal opening) and the vagina is specifically the internal/birth canal.  And what I’ve found on the web (both on and off wiki sources) seems to say the same thing - that ‘vagina’ is misused in vernacular English, that it is anatomically the birth canal and that the external anatomy is the vulva.

    So I guess the question is whether we want Charlotte to use what is commonly accepted but technically incorrect - so people will at least know what she’s talking about, even though it’s the wrong word - or if we want her to use the correct term, but then nobody will have any idea what she’s talking about.  Wow.  What choices.

  18. By on August 16, 2010

    Sarah:

    Look on the bright side, at least these choices are better than in previous generations when women didn’t have any words for their “girl parts” at all.

  19. By on August 16, 2010

    Don’t laugh, but my parents called a vagina a “bippy” and one day my mom’s uncle was over and I hurt my finger and he said, “come let me kiss your bippy” which I guess was a Finish word for Boo Boo. Needless to say, I was quite FREAKED OUT!!! ha ha!!!!!
    I had 5 brothers and they called their penis a “dingle” LOL!
    we just refer to them as private parts, but my girls know what the real terms are and we taught that to them very young, age: 2…..
    tara

  20. By Cambria on August 16, 2010

    I can’t rememder a conversation or calling it one thing and not the other. I do remember my mom referring to our areas ss “who-has”

  21. By Megan R. on August 16, 2010

    Until Finnley has a concept of pretty much anything in general, we use the slang “hoo-ha” to refer to all parts of her nether region.  I don’t know why, we just do.

    And, I am of the “vagina” camp.  Not because it is accurate, but because that is the term that was most commonly used while I was growing up.  I NEVER heard the term “vulva” until later in life / anatomy class / etc.  Isn’t that funny?  I think vagina has just become the catch-all phrase, regardless of its accuracy.

    So, to be with the “cool kids” (or so people don’t look at Finnley strangely down the road), we will more than likely use the word vagina for her “parts”. 

    How funny…I didn’t realize their was a debate, either.  Isn’t the Internet wonderful???

  22. By Tracy Roberts on August 16, 2010

    I think it is very important to use anatomically correct language and I also think vagina counts too.

    The problem isnt that these words are dirty or private, the problem is that there is fear behind using them, fear that we need to teach our children is silly and help them to understand that they are not funny, dirty, or bad.  The only way to do that is to use the correct terms.

    I give a workshop called the Untouchables: Discussing Sex, Death, and Masturbation with children.  I always start it out by saying there are 150 different names for a penis, but only one name for elbow.

    Lets get over our nurture/societal issues with these words and do better for our children. 
    Right on Sarah for trusting your instincts.

  23. By on August 16, 2010

    Sarah, I’m impressed you took anatomy…and here I’d begged you for a an “artsy”.  Also, I think it’s funny that the only textbooks that we really reference still are those belonging to Michael; his good old bio books lol. I think you’re probably safe with vulva; most people will probably know what Charlotte’s referencing. Unlike if you had decided to teach Charlotte that her “girl parts” are her insert nonsense word here.

  24. By on August 16, 2010

    Thanks for this post.
    This is something I’ve been thinking about lately too.
    My 3 1/2 year old son has asked a couple times about the differences between him and his 10 month old sister…he knows that boys have a willy but has wanted to know what girls have and I have been at a loss

  25. By Felecity on August 16, 2010

    What a wonderful response. I hope I have the same determination when my 4.5 month old daughter asks. I’ve always “planned” to give to the kid name and the term will grow with her. After all, they do grow don’t they? LOL

  26. By Lauren @ In the Pudding Club on August 16, 2010

    While I think I’ll use vagina or vulva there’s a part of me that thinks it would be really funny to teach her to use “front butt” instead.  A friend overheard a little girl in park say to her father. “Daddy, my front butt leaked” and it’s had me chuckling ever since.

  27. By Andrea on August 16, 2010

    It’s always been his penis.  Sometimes a wenis.  He knows that boys have them, that he needs to hold it to pee in the big potty and he just learned yesterday that the very tip of it s called foreskin.  He’ll be three soon. :)

  28. By Amanda Brown on August 16, 2010

    We are totally Team Vulva ‘round here. I want my girls to know the proper names for their parts: nose, eyes, VULVA. Good times. :)

  29. By Elle on August 16, 2010

    My mom called mine a tutu. You could only imagine how confused I was when I started ballet class. ;)
    We use Pikachu with our daughter. What can I say, I’m a Chelsea Handler fan.

  30. By Amber @ Nater Tot on August 16, 2010

    Nate is 12 months, has a PENIS, and plays with it often. I have never had to say PENIS in a public pool, but if you were standing outside our bathroom during bath time you would hear, “belly button, penis, penis, penis, belly button.“  My mom grew up calling it a BOODLE, which my husband thinks is hilarious. So I have to keep reminding him - not boodle, penis!

  31. By Sarah on August 16, 2010

    I have 1 son and 3 daughters. we use slang (hoohas for girls & peepee for boys) we taught them the “real” terms, but I nickname everything!! I don’t think it is wrong to call them by slang, body image gets messed up when a parent freaks out if her kid asks her about his body or touches himself. I think that is the most important thing.I used to work in a daycare in the 3 year old room and we had one boy who was VERY proud of his penis. He would want to pull it out in circle and everything. His mom freaked out because he did it in front of family and asked me what I did when he touched himself in school. I told her that I said” W, that is your private part and is not for everyone’s eyes. If you need to touch it, please tell Ms. Sarah and I will take you to the bathroom so you can handle it and then we can wash your hands afterwards” It worked fine.

  32. By Sarah Christensen on August 16, 2010

    Sarah - I don’t think it’s wrong to use euphemisms at all.  At the end of the day, it’s all semantics, and as long as we instill in our children a confidence in their skin who cares what each respective body part is called?

    I just don’t think that euphemisms are right for me.  I grew up saying ‘private parts’ and although my parents ensured that I knew the correct terminology as well, I felt enormously uncomfortable referencing my ‘private parts’ becasue they were supposed to be ‘private’.  Right?  Otherwise why were they called that?

    It’s not such a bad thing for a six-year-old to have that idea burned into their brain, but it’s probably not a great idea to have a teenager horrified at the prospect of her first pap smear on the grounds that she isn’t supposed to discuss her ‘private parts’ with or show her ‘private parts’ to anyone ever.  Because they’re private.  And it’s probably even worse to have a twenty-something-year-old woman too horrified by saying the proper words out loud to communicate with her sexual partner what might help her and what hurts.  I can remember being shacked up with someone and still calling my vulva ‘private parts’ in all seriousness just so that I wouldn’t have to say the real term.

    Obviously I’m probably just a freak, but I figure that there’s probably some sort of genetic propensity toward freakishness that I’ll pass on to my kids, so I should probably do with them what might have worked better for me.  And although I could be wrong, I think I probably would have fared much better without any euphemisms as a child.

    Jessica - TRUE.

    Corinne - Anatomy and most other sciences enthrall me.  I don’t generally have the patience for math, which is why I never pursued science exclusively, and why I particularly hate physics, but I did always enjoy anatomy.  Also, genetics.  I love genetics.

  33. By Catherine on August 16, 2010

    I had no idea there was a debate, nor have I really given it much thought.  I am 100% positive my parents either a) never referred to my genitals at all, and b) if they did, they used some wonky term.  And yet, at 33, I use the proper terms if inclined to speak of them.  For my son, he picked up “doober” from his older cousin, we haven’t clarified foreskin and testes at this point as he’s just turned three.  My daughter, only 15 months, we vajay, as in Vagina, only because we shorten everything.  HA!  I’ll probably call it vagina, or whatever when/if she asks, and point out that there is one, because let me tell you, I did not know there was a vagina down there on me until FIFTH GRADE.  That’s eleven years old folks.  Yes. Gasp now.  I won’t keep my children in the dark about what’s going on below the belt, KWIM?

  34. By on August 16, 2010

    Although my kids, all under the age of 6, know the proper terms for their private parts, my sons have taken to calling them “boys” and my daughters have taken to calling them “girls”.  (As in, “Awwww, you hit me in my BOYS!“)  Funny stuff.

  35. By Elly on August 16, 2010

    I really respect this, hey. It’s a tricky situation, but I admire the way you dealt with it, no nonsense, just honest. Good for you, hey :)

  36. By on August 16, 2010

    My mother never taught my sister and I our “private” body part names and hoped that school would teach us that.  Ha!  I am so glad my sister is now teaching her two daughter and one son the proper terms straight from birth.  I still laugh when I think about my 2 and a half year old niece coming up to me stark naked and pulling her privates apart for me to see.  Then she yelled “GINNA”.  I just looked on with a straight face and said “yep that is your vagina”.  She was pretty proud of herself. 
    I definitely will be teaching my 9 month old daughter all of the proper body part names as well as everything else (sex etc.).  I don’t want to follow my mothers example and hope she learns it all from someone else.

  37. By Cynthia Krajcarski on August 16, 2010

    We’re going to teach Isla ‘vagina’. Once she’s old enough to understand anatomy, we’ll lay it all on her… But until then, it’s vagina. Vulva is a cuter word though… So, I guess we’ll see.

    The biggest reason for teaching her the real name is because I want her caretakers to know what she’s talking about if something ever did happen to her.

    I don’t think you’ll have a problem with vulva, it’s common enough for people to know what she’s talking about.

  38. By ivf doctors on August 16, 2010

    Vulva, known as pudendum femininum, is external genital organs of the female. The vulva has many major and minor anatomical structures, including the labia majora, mons pubis, labia minora, clitoris, bulb of the vestibule, vestibule of the vagina, greater and lesser vestibular glands, and the opening of the vagina.

    From: Isaq - Kediri, Indonesia

  39. By on August 16, 2010

    We have always been upfront with our 2 girls and 1 boy about the PROPER names for their parts.  Why beat around the bush?  It is what it is.  My mom was appauled when she heard our first say that she has a vagina.  My mom immediately called me to say “she knows the V word!“ As I uttered “vagina?“ I heard her have a slight heart attack.  But I’m the daughter whose mom refused to even tell her about periods until I got it an hid it from her cause I thought I was bleeding to death.

  40. By on August 16, 2010

    Around the time I was starting to read, my parents bought a high school / college anatomy coloring textbook and sat me down with some crayons (We are pretty big nerds in my fam).  I definitely learned vulva for the external parts and vagina for the internal parts.  Twenty- something years later, these definitions are being reinforced at Hopkins.
    Kind of random, but on gyn-rounds the other day I was talking to a pt who explained to me how wonderful it was that I, a female, was interested in OB/GYN.  She shook her head as she recounted her mother’s views that her ‘woman parts’ should only ever be seen by a man, as what would another woman know about anything down there?  Things have definitely changed.

  41. By Mailis on August 16, 2010

    Jude has a peanut for now. When he points at it and asks “s’at?“, I will tell him about his penis/testicles, etc. But, until then, I’ll call it as I see it…lol.

    When I was little, I had a “front bum” and a “back bum”. I knew the proper terminology, but chose to identify my parts in that way. I will also give Jude the correct terminology, but allow him to call it whatever he wants. It is his body after all.

  42. By on August 16, 2010

    I’m a strong believer in “the younger they are, the simpler ya make it”. From a very young age I wanted my children to know that their “personal parts” were personal. Theirs. No one had the right to touch them there. As they grew, they asked for the correct names of things and we gave it. I think it’s whatever you are most comfortable with. But whatever you decide upon, stick with it. Giving made-up names to parts and given names to the same parts sometimes makes a child confused. We found it good to answer only what was asked…and not go beyond that. Once when I got really into explaining reproduction to my daughter…I finished and asked if she had any questions. She looked up at me and said “Yes. Can I have a popcicle?“

  43. By Sarah Christensen on August 16, 2010

    Lynn - HA!  One time my nephew asked a question about the sun.  I got out tennis balls and a flashlight and went to work explaining the solar system.  I explained how the sun ‘woke up’ and ‘went to sleep’ and how the moon did the same and how the planets orbited, etc.

    Afterwards, I asked if he had any questions and he said, “Yes.  Are you done yet?  Can I play Legos now?“

  44. By Jaimey on August 16, 2010

    we use peeper and gIna, though he knows the appropriate names. At 3.5 I don’t feel that he has a firm enough grasp on when things are appropriate in public for my comfort level. If he screams PEEPER in a restaurant I will not even blink and eye, VAGINA on the other hand I may die. :) We also call them boy/girl parts and privates if there is too much being seen.

    Funny (not really) story. The other day G said to a little friend, HEY, look at this. (showing his penis- cause its SO cool! LOL) mind you were were at Noah’s bagels. And his friend was a girl. Oy. Again, I almost died. I thought I had seen it all when Iw as a nanny. So much worse when it’s YOUR kid!

    Good luck. Oh and btw- I can’t say Vulva with out a giggle- yes I am 12. :)

  45. By Organic Crib Mattress on August 17, 2010

    I haven’t quite reached that point yet, but I know what you mean. I think we should just be real with them. My mom still acts weird about saying the word “panties”. I mean, what is wrong with the word, “panties”, right? I think you were right on to say it and to not act embarrassed or ashamed. That teaches them there is something to be ashamed about.

  46. By on August 17, 2010

    I have to say, as a sex ed teacher, using the correct names when your kids are young is GREAT!!!  You should see how many embarrassed kids there are in the room when you start spewing out words like “vulva”, “vagina”, “penis”, and “scrotum”.  And it takes a while for everyone to remember that they are called “testicles” and not balls.  Although, if all the parents out there DID use the correct names at home, I may well be out of a job.  That’s not cool.

  47. By Sarah Christensen on August 17, 2010

    Lauren - Next time you and Missy and I get together (which needs to happen SOON because, um, IT HAS BEEN FOREVER!), I have a great story for you.  I know you guys will laugh about it, seeing as you’ve known my family forever, but it doesn’t really translate well to print lol.

    So when we get together, REMIND ME.  Awesome story about balls.

    Pardon me.  About testicles.

  48. By Tracy Roberts on August 18, 2010

    I have to say Sarah that using euphemisms in the first place or even private parts teaches children that something is wrong with the real word and once you start that as a child you cant just switch over and have them start using the correct words with confidence especially by the time they are a teen in the OB’s office.

    The time for correct terminology is now.

    I do not think you sit children down with anatomy texts though until they ask all the questions it answers.  I think answering only what is asked is correct, they will ask all the important questions if they trust that it is OK, it is not embarrassing, and you are truthful.

    Or…. they will learn it somewhere else.
    Sorry to be so straightforward, my passion sometimes…ugh!


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