A Pelvic Floor Physical Therapist’s Perspective on Why Discussing Female (and Male) Anatomy is an Important Part of Raising Kids.
I started my Physical Therapy career in the world of sports medicine and orthopedics, but after the birth of my 2 children, I found a new calling in pelvic floor physical therapy. What really drew me to pelvic PT was how it married my passion for treating and educating patients. There was so much information that women were simply just never taught about their bodies, and I wanted to take part in changing that.
A New Calling
That’s exactly what I did! I shifted gears and became a pelvic PT. Since then, I have had the honor and privilege of treating hundreds of women. It has truly been a joy and a blessing for me. But one thing I have found that always makes me frustrated for my patients is that many of them “had no idea.” Some had no idea that your pelvic floor is a group of muscles and can be rehabilitated as such. Some had no idea how to track or understand their menstrual cycle. Some had no idea that sex should not be painful. And some …. some did not even realize that there is a “separate hole” for your urine.
I wish I could say I was making that last part up, but sadly I’m not. It is my belief that we as a society have done a disservice to ourselves as women, and I think it begins in childhood. Now don’t get me wrong, I think there are most certainly topics that are not appropriate for kids. However, I think shielding them from things like proper anatomical terminology, and education on what a period and puberty are can be detrimental in the long run.
I Probably Sound Crazy But Hear Me Out: My Justifications For Early Education On Sensitive Topics
1. To Protect Them:
I’ll start by saying that most of my husband’s family are police officers or former police officers. And many times throughout our marriage they have provided advice from years of experience. One piece of advice that will stick with me until the day I die is when my brother-in-law told me “You have to teach the kids that it’s a vagina and a penis. Don’t use nicknames.” I already planned to do so, but when he said this I asked why. And his response made my stomach churn. “God forbid they ever become victim to a sexual predator, it is extremely hard for us to prove anything unless the child specifically says “He touched my vagina or he touched my penis.” If they say something like “He touched my noonie, or he touched my wee wee,” we can’t prove what that means.” Now, I pray to God every night that we are NEVER in that situation. But if we are, I surely would want the perpetrator to be convicted.
To remove the shame:
When we create nicknames for the vagina and penis, it can imply that the anatomically correct terminology is somehow “bad” or inappropriate. It can make patients (especially young ones) apprehensive to seek help when something is amiss in those areas, and be ashamed to discuss these things. But in truth, these are just scientific / anatomical names, and therefore not inappropriate or shameful at all. Calling these body parts what they are from the start can help make conversations about these areas more comfortable in the future, and may help your kids be more willing to discuss questions or concerns they have.
3. To make them feel less afraid:
I started my period at the ripe old age of 11. I vividly remember when, because it was the summertime and I was on the swim team. So, I had to learn to use a tampon. I can remember my mom handing me a tampon, trying to explain how to use it as best she could, and then being in the bathroom by myself …. horrified. Here I was at 11, already scared because I didn’t really understand what a period even was, and now I had to insert this thing into my vagina. I was terrified, embarrassed, and completely unsure of myself. I don’t remember exactly how long I was in the bathroom, but I know it was a LONG TIME. And I’m pretty sure I ended up skipping practice that day and for several days after because I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. Now, I’m a mom to a little girl, and that is not at all how I want her experience to be. I want her to understand what a period is, and why it’s important. I want her to feel confident rather than horrified when she gets her first period, and most importantly …. I want her to know that she can talk to me about all of it. I want her to feel comfortable asking me questions, and I most certainly don’t want her to be afraid. I also plan to talk to my son about the menstrual cycle. I feel the more I can teach my son about women, the more compassionate and respectful he will be. Hopefully, that knowledge will help him to be an empathetic partner to whomever he chooses to spend his life with. (I’ll also add that we will have a similar, albeit different, discussion with him about the changes that happen to males when they begin to go through puberty).
4. To prevent them from suffering later in life and empower them to have full body autonomy:
As a pelvic PT, I’ve worked with many patients who (as I mentioned earlier) just don’t know a lot about their bodies. And that’s not their fault! Heck, there are gaps in the medical field when it comes to knowledge of the female body and the menstrual cycle. (Side note, did you know that the vast majority of research done on athletes and their tolerance to exercise is done on men because researchers often don’t want to have to account for how the female menstrual cycle will affect their data?) All that to say, I have had patients who have been on birth control for decades to manage heavy / painful periods, but were never told that long-term oral birth control use can cause menopausal type changes to their vulvar and vaginal tissues. I have had patients who have had endometriosis for decades without knowing because they thought periods were just supposed to be that painful. I have had patients who are in their 20s and have never seen an OB/GYN because no one really told them how important that is. And unfortunately, I have had patients who have not felt comfortable expressing their concerns because they had no frame of reference for what “normal” really is in regards to their period and anatomy.
Imagine how different things could be
Now imagine how much suffering those patients may have been spared had we, as a society, felt more comfortable discussing female anatomy and menstrual cycles. Imagine how comfortable they would feel expressing their very valid concerns to their medical provider. Imagine how empowered they would feel having complete body autonomy. And imagine how much progress the medical community might make in both research and clinical practice if more patients demanded better care through this desire to have more knowledge about their bodies. All of this is possible, and it can start right here in our very own homes. We can be the ones to empower our daughters (and sons). We can be the ones teaching full body autonomy. We can be the ones removing the shame associated with discussing completely natural parts of a woman’s life. And we can be the ones to change the narrative.