In the January 1, 2006 Sunday NY Times Magazine, there is a piece by Daphne Merkin as part of "The Way We Live Now" column that begins, "These are cruel times for vaginas." The piece goes on to describe various procedures that can be done to "improve" the appearance of external female genitalia, ranging from the "so-called Brazilian waxes" to labiaplasty, which "fixes" labia that are too big or too small or otherwise "defective."
I rather like the tone of the article: Merkin makes it clear that she finds the whole business hogwash, though I think the best section is devoted to the silliness of "hymen-reattachment surgery,"
once a desperate stratagem undertaken by young women from Muslim, Asian and Latin American cultures that demonized the loss of virginity before marriage, [which] is now being hawked as a way to enjoy a second honeymoon. If it's unclear whom this procedure is meant for--aging women hoping to catch a flagging penis with the semblance of undeflowered innocence?--it's even more ontologically ungraspable how stitching a hymen back together vitiates the psychological experience of having already lost your virginity.
Nonetheless, I was bothered by the fact that in her opening sentence, Merkin uses the term "vagina" when she should have used the term "vulva" or "pudendum."
Don't believe me? Consider these definitions:
vulva: The external genital organs of the female, including the labia majora, labia minora, and vestibule of the vagina. [Latin, womb, covering.]
pudendum: the human external genital organs, especially of a woman. Often used in the plural. [Latin, neuter gerundive of pudere, to make or be ashamed.] (The fact that the term is literally rooted in shame is the main reason I will avoid using it.)
vagina: The passage leading from the opening of the vulva to the cervix of the uterus in female mammals. [Latin, vagina, sheath.]
I know, I know: some of you are pointing out that we've covered this territory before: there's a section on it in Eve Ensler's Vagina Monologues: Ensler includes a letter from Jane Hirschman, honorary chair of the Vulva Club, membership in which cannot be extended to Ensler (much to the dismay of those already in the club), because membership is "predicated on the understanding and correct usage of the word vulva and being able to communicate that to as many people as possible, especially women." Ensler includes the letter without responding directly to it, and although she names the next monologue "The Vulva Club," once that piece is done, she goes right back to using the word vagina to mean both vagina and vulva.
I think it's good that we can talk openly about the vagina, but I wish we could talk openly about the vulva too. I think how awkward it would be if, when we wanted to talk about an arm, we never used that word--even though it was available to us--opting instead to use the word hand, which was supposed to mean both that thing at the end of your arm with fingers on it, and the arm itself, in contexts that didn't always make it clear which body part you were actually referring to.
Sadly, in pop culture, the generally accepted and acceptable term meant to invoke all of female genitalia is vagina. Vulva, apparently, is too fastidious and precise; cunt and pussy are too crude. (More about those terms later.) But that raises the question: WHY is vagina the more familiar, accepted term?