It seems that the word "vagina" can finally – in 2012 – come out of the closet. Or, at least, it's been reclaimed by the media enough over the past year – the word has been making appearances on US shows like Whitney, 2 Broke Girls and 30 Rock, with autumn 2011 being hailed as the "season of the vagina" by US TV critics (both for the new season of girly television shows and the casual utterings of the word by female characters).
While the word "vagina" is hardly shocking, it still has the whiff of the indecent and the obscene about it. Saying the word on television (even in a medical context, is still problematic; Grey's Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes told of being able to use the word "penis" 17 times in an episode and struggling to get "vagina" in once) is still worthy of column inches, and in 2012, it's a creative choice that needs justifying.
Eve Ensler at the V-Day event in February 2012. Photo: Getty
In response to accusations that CBS shows in autumn 2011 delivered too many anatomical jokes and below-the-belt humour, CEO exec Nina Tassler recently responded: "'Vagina' is not indecent." Of course it isn't. Yet somehow it's a word that tampon companies have difficulty including in an advert.
So why are we still treating "vagina" like a dirty word? It's been 16 years since Eve Ensler liberated the term from captivity with her internationally acclaimed play, The Vagina Monologues, which is not only an exercise in female empowerment that reclaims the word "vagina," but became a global movement designed to raise awareness about violence towards women and their vaginas, from genital mutilation to rape to sex trafficking.
Ensler wanted to celebrate the vagina in her work, because she felt it's an "invisible" word associated with "anxiety, awkwardness, contempt and disgust... What we don't say becomes a secret, and secrets often create shame and fear and myths."
Sadly, that shame and those myths still exist, perpetuated by the very media that decides whether or not women will grow up thinking "vagina" is a dirty word or a source of pride. The vagina, like many other parts of a woman's body, is under pressure to change – through bikini waxes, vaginal rejuvenation and labiaplasty – because of the increasing pornification of our society where vaginas now look as homogenised as uniform breast implants and down-to-the-waist platinum hair extensions.
Adults aren't the only ones who bow to these pressures; teenage girls worry about the size and shape of their genitals and treat their vaginas as another body part to hate or fear. Can we blame them? In a society where hair is an unacceptable pubic accessory, but crystals are encouraged, it's no surprise women still have issues with the vagina (both the actual body part and the word).
So it seems to me that "vagina" - still - hasn't really become an acceptable part of everyday parlance. When it's peppered into a TV character's dialogue, it's done because it can get still noticed, and it has the power to shock.
Euphemisms for body parts - particularly male and female genitalia - have long existed to abate feelings of nervousness and embarrassment surrounding genitalia. Yet the thousands of pet names that have been substituted for the word "vagina," from "punani" to "beaver" to 2007's breakaway hit, the "vajayjay" (Rhimes' invention for getting around using the word "vagina" on Grey's Anatomy) seem to not only have been appropriated by women in a playful or familiar way, but also because it seems women would rather call their vagina by any name other than its actual one.
I know this to be true because I myself am guilty of it. As a parent of a one-and-a-half year old, I happily tell my daughter the word for each and every body part, but find myself blushing uncomfortably when it's time to say "vagina."
I don't know what I find so awkward about it – at university I even performed in The Vagina Monologues as the sex worker who "loves vaginas" and proceeds to have multiple orgasms on stage (I needed a shot – or five – of tequila to get through it).
Considering I am now 10 years older and have given birth in the interim, you would think I would be proudly shouting the word from the rooftops. But I feel awkward saying it, and I'm not sure why. Maybe it's the result of never really hearing anyone else say it for most of my life?
So if I've internalised whatever secrecy and discomfort surrounds the word "vagina," I'm sure other women have, too. And all the vagina jokes on television may be a step forward for the body part that must not be named, but I can't help but feel that the term has suddenly become à la mode because people still feel weird about using it and hearing it.
"Vagina" is so much more than the punchline of a joke. And thankfully we still have Eve Ensler and all the activists raising awareness of international violence against women – the vagina warriors – to remind us of that.
And hopefully, writing "vagina" so many times in this piece has liberated the word for me.