Two fifths of parents frequently use euphemisms such as ‘bits’, ‘front bottom’, ‘flower’ or ‘fairy’ to discuss female body parts with their daughters – rather than the anatomically correct terms.
Less than a fifth use the word ‘vagina’ and less than 1% use ‘vulva’ in front of their female children – a third said this would only be appropriate to do so once their daughters were age 11 or older.
The new research from the Eve Appeal, a gynaecological research charity, in partnership with YouGov, highlights how much parents shy away from talking honestly with their children about their bodies.
Whether this is out of embarrassment or replicating their own upbringing, the Eve Appeal said parents being unable to talk explicitly about women’s bodies causes a “stigma” around them, which carries into adulthood.
The research also found children want to talk more to their parents about their bodies – but embarrassment and lack of knowledge can get in the way.
“We all need to use the right words about our bodies from the start,” said Athena Lamnisos, CEO of the Eve Appeal. “We must address both the lack of knowledge and any stigma by opening conversations across the generations about women’s health now, to give women the best chance of living healthy lives. This is what will make a difference to prevention and early diagnosis.”
The study, which surveyed more than 2,000 adults, also highlighted generational differences in how women talk about their health and bodies. Less than half of 18- to 24-year-old women feel comfortable talking about gynaecological cancer, compared with 63% of women aged 55 and over.
Similarly, the number of young women who feel comfortable talking about cervical screening (56%) was lower than older women (76% of over 55s).
Mandy Broadbent, 56, from Lancashire, was diagnosed with womb cancer last year. When she first saw her consultant, she used the term ‘lady garden’ – and the nurses laughed at her. “I wasn’t sure about the best term to use,” she recalled.
Broadbent said her mum was great at “nagging” her to go to the GP when she had heavy bleeding last year, but she doesn’t ever remember her using the words “vagina” or “vulva”.
“I think my generation was brought up with parents not giving body parts their true names, perhaps due to embarrassment, and then it’s harder because terms for body parts can be misrepresented when you’re trying to explain to a doctor what’s wrong with you,” she said.
However, Broadbent said now, all her nephews and her niece know about her womb cancer, adding: “And, as a family, we’re now quite open about talking and using the correct terms.”
Lucy Emmerson, director at the Sex Education Forum, said parents and carers should be encouraged to take a moment to plan how conversations with their daughters about their bodies might sound.
″[They can] use advice from the Eve Appeal, including their ‘Educating Eve’ tips, to talk more often and accurately about gynaecological health,” she said.