Who’s afraid of vaginas?

I can’t remember a time when my friends and I weren’t in conversation about vaginas, hormones, penises and all that jazz.

We throw the “v” word and the “c” word around at all most all encounters over a glass of wine in the midst of roaring laughter and revelations.

However, through the conversations I’ve encountered with women outside of my immediate circle I’ve noticed that a number of young women are much less likely to find themselves inclined to talk about their sexual organs and sexual health.

Somewhere between misogyny and patriarchy we have created this vagina Narnia that deems lady parts as a mystical part of the body that is covered in flowers of which flows an endless supply of rainbows and fireworks. When in reality, the vagina is the muscular passageway that connects the vulva to the cervix. This “thing” we don’t want to talk about, comes in all different shapes and sizes.

Why is it that we see women’s bodies on our TVs, in movies, and all over the internet yet we seem to have a problem actually talking about them in real life?

For a long time anything that is related to women’s bodies has been responded to negatively. There is an internalised fear of discussing women’s sexuality and a male-dominated society has deliberately constructed the idea of femininity to keep men in control.

It was Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex who argued that women have historically been treated as inferior to men for three reasons. Firstly, society teaches women to fulfil a male’s needs and therefore exist in relation to men. Secondly, to follow external cues to seek validation of their worth.

Lastly, women have historically had far fewer rights and therefore less public influence.

Did you even know that it’s normal to have bacteria in your vagina? Did you know that even healthy bodies have a scent and it is actually a good thing because that scent is your pheromones?
But you wouldn’t know that because you aren’t bothered to discuss these things with your doctor, let alone your friends.

Another concerning aspect of this internalised fear concerns going to the gynaecologist. It seemed to me that the women who are afriad to talk about their vaginas were more afraid to go to a doctor about a sexual health issue than an older woman.

Visiting a gynaecologist is a pro-active approach for preventative care of which pap smears and annual exams are very important. According to some health practitioners advise, a woman’s first pap smear should be done within three years after first having sexual intercourse or by age 21. In all honesty, Pap smears are simple tests that can detect abnormal cells on the cervix. Wouldn’t you want to know if there was an abnormality in the “v” thing you carry around?

Whether you have body image issues, concerns about the way it looks and smells or anxiety about achieving orgasm, conversations about sexuality and sexual organs would be a beneficial social activity for all of us.

Surely if you can’t talk about vaginas, then how in the world are you going to take care of one responsibly? Maybe if we talked about the vagina a little more we wouldn’t be so scared of it. Maybe we would have more respect for it and we wouldn’t think it was so “icky and gross”.

OPINION: I am white and I am an African

OPINION: I am white and I am an African

Samantha Camara. Photo: TJ Lemon

Samantha Camara Photo: TJ Lemon

One of my guilty pleasures is the movie Mean Girls.  In the movie, a character named Karen asks the lead character Cady: “So if you’re from Africa, why are you white?” Although the question is asked in a funny way, the idea that there are no white people in “scary, dark Africa” is a stereotype that has often annoyed me.

Does the unavoidable pigment of my skin really exclude me from being a member of the continent I call home?

I have been extremely privileged to represent South Africa overseas in international competitions. Every trip has come with countless stares, mumbles and tactless questions from strangers about my obvious lack of expected blackness.

I can remember two accounts in particular, the first round of questioning came from a young Texan man who was fascinated with the strange mixed group of South Africans, to which I belonged. To his absolute amazement, not only were some of us white South Africans but we were all dressed in “real clothes”, were well-groomed and could speak fluent English.

He then launched into a list of questions about what it was like to live in huts, how we felt about being fully dressed instead of wearing animal skins, the difficulties of driving elephants to school and what we feed our pet lions.

In his defence, we all wove elaborate stories of what life in wild Africa was like. After a few minutes, the stories became too elaborate and we felt bad so we told him the truth about life in Johannesburg and that most of the wild animals were kept safely in zoos and game parks.

“Often I feel like I am not allowed to be proud of being African because my skin is too light.”

The second incident happened in Malaysia a few years later, while I was walking in the city to get food with friends. A local woman, seeing the South African flag on my backpack as I walked passed, stopped me and with genuine confusion asked me why I was white if I came from South Africa.

Fighting back the urge to give an offensively sarcastic and dramatic answer of “Oh my gosh! I’m white? I never noticed! All my life is a lie!” I opted for the more polite response that there is actually a reasonable amount of white people in South Africa (Surprise! We are not a bunch of unseen yeti-like creatures of legend who have all immigrated to Australia).

Despite my often humorous or sarcastic responses to questions about race, I find that these questions, which often come from a place of sincere misunderstanding, cause me to question my identity as an African. From a young age, I saw myself as member of a diverse and abundantly beautiful country.

I have jumped at the chance to make friends with people from other African countries and dreamed of exploring this beautiful continent I am lucky enough to call home.  I was born in South Africa and have lived here my entire life, does that not classify me as South African? According to my I.D book it does, but I feel that society has a different opinion.

Often I feel like I am not allowed to be proud of being African because my skin is too light, like I should be ashamed to be a white African because it does not fit the common global idea of what being an African means.

I am fully aware that I am not black and that my South African family tree does not span the ages of history. But, I am an African. I am an African because this is where the roots of my identity lie, this is the land I love and this is where I will always return when home is needed.

SLICE OF LIFE: White riches, and white guilt

SLICE OF LIFE: White riches, and white guilt

Oh, what it is to be white and middle class in present-day South Africa! The struggle is real. People, do not brush aside my pain. You do not understand my hardship in trying to convince people I have not benefited from my low-level melanin casing.

Okay, perhaps I need to admit that denial is not just a river in Egypt. I may not like to say it, but hi, I’m Robyn, and I’m a member of the white privileged elite in this country. Luckily, I am not alone in my plight. You’ll see a lot of us around. We’re generally hanging out in places like Sandton City, getting ridiculously over-priced haircuts.

Don’t believe me? Clap your hands if you’ve heard a variation of this argument before:

“I’m tired of hearing about apartheid. I’m tired of feeling guilty for being white, and being made to feel like racism is my fault. I didn’t cause it, why should I suffer through affirmative action/Black Economic Empowerment/*insert other complaint here* in order to fix it? It’s time to move on from the past.”

Robyn Kirk

This statement is an amalgam of conversations I’ve had with many people over the years, and is even an echo of what I used to believe myself. It is also completely and utterly wrong.

When I say that white privilege is still prevalent in South Africa, please try to understand why I say it before you sharpen your pitchforks. I know white privilege exists because I probably wouldn’t be here if it didn’t. Perhaps it’s easier to see the privilege entwined with my skin colour because my roots aren’t as deeply entrenched in this country as other people’s.

I am first generation South African, the daughter of Irish immigrants. My father sometimes tells the story of how our family got here. He was working at a textiles factory in Carrickfergus, Northern Ireland, 40 years ago. There was a man there named Greg, working as a machine operator, and my father started up a conversation with this man.

“Oh, you’re an electrician?” Greg said. “So am I. I can’t find any of that kind of work though, which is why I’m doing this. There aren’t enough jobs in this country for us … Do you know where there is work, though? South Africa.”

And so, to South Africa Brian Kirk came. He worked on six-month contracts during the 1970s, doing electrical work here for half the year, and returning home for the other.
In 1982, he and my mother got married in Ireland and moved out here a few months later. They’re still here 32 years later with four daughters and one grandson.

They gave us a good life. We grew up in a nice house, went to excellent private schools and had the opportunity and funding to go to university. I don’t mean to take anything away from their love and devotion – they worked hard to provide.

But did they work harder than a domestic worker, who left home at 4am to get to the madam’s house to cook and clean? My parents’ hard work had more material reward because my dad was a white, skilled worker at a time when the “white” part mattered an awful lot.

“I know white privilege exists because I probably wouldn’t be here if it didn’t.”

My story may not be exactly the same as other white South Africans’ stories but, if you look at them critically, you’ll see a common thread running through them all.

Not so long ago, race was a deciding factor in the work and pay you could expect, the humanity you were shown and the standard at which you could take care of your family. We, as the children of those who went before, need to realise and admit this.

Yes, it is not mine or any other young white person’s “fault” that apartheid happened, but we need to accept that we have benefited from it, in small ways and in big.As a country, we need to keep talking about the wrongs and hatred of the past, not in order to assign blame, but rather to create understanding and move forward. I will quote William Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Everything exists now because of what was before.

We need to understand where we’ve come from to find the right path to where we want to go. Sometimes this means admitting we’re complicit in something we wish we weren’t, but if that’s the only way to move forward then I think it’s worth the pain.