Women, for the sake of your health, I need you to say this word

Using euphemisms will only lead to confusion, which can result in poor understanding.

Women, for the sake of your health, I need you to say this word
Alice Duffy sitting at her desk, wearing a black blouse and trousers, there is a computer and flowers on her desk. She has blonde hair and is smiling to camera.
We should all be using the right words for our anatomy (Picture: Alice Duffy)

‘There’s something wrong with my lady garden.’

‘Doctor, I’ve got a problem down below.’

‘I need to talk to you about my private parts.’

As a doctor specialising in female health, these are the things I hear day in day out from patients who are trying to describe their problems to me.

In fact, in my 30-plus years as a medical professional, I have very rarely heard a patient refer to it as their ‘vulva’.

Yet that would be the right term, and we really should be using the correct terminology.

Doctors always aim for good communication and that means confronting language head on. So I’ll often respond with, ‘Do you mean you have a problem with your vulva?’

Even with this approach and me having said it first, most women will still avoid the use of the word in the consultation.

But we should all be using the right words for our anatomy to ensure there’s never space for misunderstanding. Using euphemisms will only lead to confusion, which can result in poor understanding. Poor understanding leads to poor care.

As GPs, we have approximately 10 minutes to assess a patient and offer care. This small window is not a huge amount of time to get to the bottom of what a patient needs, and as a result of time pressures in the NHS, most requests for a GP appointment will be triaged to assess the urgency of the problem.

Are you comfortable using the term ‘vulva’ when discussing your health?Comment Now

To get the most out of this, patients need to be able to clearly communicate the nature of their problems so they can receive the appropriate diagnosis and care.

If you are unable to state the part of your body that is causing concern, your doctor or medical professional may misunderstand, and this can lead to misdiagnosis and incorrect advice.

You may be incorrectly triaged to self-care when in fact you need to be seen for examination and assessment, and to receive medication or further support.

Perhaps the best example of the damage that can come from women’s societal shame of using the correct terms – and thus failure to understand their bodies – came after I made a prescription. 

I gave my patient a cream to be used in the vagina to treat dryness and pain with intercourse.

However, she was applying the cream to her vulva, not her vagina, as she had confused the two, meaning her symptoms didn’t get better.

Her vaginal dryness and pain with intercourse persisted, all because of an embarrassment or knowledge gap around her anatomy.

Our reluctance to name our genitalia is curious. We are happy to talk about our lips, mouth and throat as the separate parts of our body that form the opening into our gut.

What is what?

  • Vulva: The external female genitalia surrounding the vagina. The vulva include the labia, clitoris and more.
  • Vestibule: The area around the vaginal opening, enclosed by the labia minora.
  • Vagina: The muscular canal that leads from your cervix to your vulva.
  • Labia: The folds of skin around your vaginal opening – these consist or outer and inner lips.
  • Clitoris: A sensitive organ at the top of your vulva, which contains thousands of sensory nerve endings.

Yet so many people struggle to talk about the vulva, vestibule and vagina that form the opening into the female reproductive tract.

These are simply anatomical terms that should be used appropriately.

In my experience, the taboo around female genitalia starts early.

We need to start using the word ‘vulva’ with girls from a young age, and remove the hush-hush nature of these conversations.

Whether it’s ensuring age-appropriate education at school, or via our parenting, we need to ensure that children are comfortable with these terms before they become adults.

We all need to take responsibility for phasing out the nicknames and false language so that we can refer to our bodies correctly.

Sadly, there is cultural discomfort with female sexuality and this means that we shy away from words like ‘vulva’ or ‘clitoris’.

The fact that the clitoris is associated with female sexual pleasure makes this a part of the body that is rarely referred to; this needs to change.

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As a doctor who champions female health, I use the word ‘vulva’ on a daily basis and I need all of us – women and girls and men and boys too – to get comfortable with using it too.

To stop using infantile terms such as ‘foo-foo’ or ‘lady bits’ or ‘vajayjay’ and get comfortable with talking about female health and the anatomy that goes with it.

By doing this, we educate girls that it is important to name body parts correctly and that there is no shame in knowing and naming the different parts of our body, no matter how intimate. 

By using the right words in everyday conversation, we communicate that this is simply a correct anatomical term, no more, no less.

And it’s not just girls it’s important for. Understanding the parts of the vulva, their function and how they change as we age, becomes even more important in perimenopause and menopause.

The fluctuation and ultimate decline in the hormones oestrogen and testosterone can lead to changes in the structure and appearance of the vulva and cause symptoms that can lead to distress.

Unlike many of the other symptoms associated with menopause, these symptoms will not resolve unless they are treated.

If you have itching or burning in your vulva, we want to know. If vaginal dryness is causing painful sex, we can help.

But we need you to help us by using the correct words so that we get to an understanding of the problem quicker and those precious 10 minutes result in you getting the right care so that you stay healthy ‘down below’.

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