How to Be a Woman

06/09/2015 02:04 pm ET | Updated Jun 09, 2016


When I was 21, my then-husband and I were hanging out with our couple friends -- the sole couple we were friends with, because we were of that age when all our friends were 20-something single men.

That is a phase, right, of your early 20s? Or was it just that I was socially inept and chose, instead of making friends of my own, to befriend the guys my husband was friends with in high school, unknowingly trapping myself in a marriage that would stop working after three years because leaving him would mean losing my whole life, and I didn't have the audacity to believe I would be capable of building a new one on my own? Maybe that.

The man-half of this couple said to us, "Guess what Mandy did in the shower this morning!"

I didn't change her name. I kind of should have, but that's her real name, and I'm not changing it. Like six people in the world will know who I'm talking about, and probably none of them are reading this because they left me along with my divorce.

My husband and I, randy 20-somethings that we were, were all, "Oh, yes, please do tell us what Mandy did in the shower this morning..."

"She cut her nipple shaving."

And Mandy blushed all to hell and stammered an explanation: "I nicked it. I wasn't shaving my nipples. I was going from one armpit, you know, over to this armpit, and I -- see? How that could happen?" She promptly swatted said man-half in the shoulder.

And I realized, Holy shit. She shaves her nipples.

When you're a girl about to be a woman, no one pulls you aside and shares all the secrets of being a woman with you. They don't seem to do this with being a man, either, but there is the classic learning-to-shave rite of passage that boys seem to go through.

We don't have that. That's why girls' legs are covered in Band-Aids all through middle school -- remember that? That's us learning how to shave. And apparently we're all idiots, because we're constantly nicking something.

The legs are just the parts you can see.

It's not that we're idiots, but probably just that we don't read the instructions. I'm a woman now; I'll know how to do this by instinct. Razors come with instructions, but those are promptly tossed in the trash with the package as we climb in the bath and think about some boy running his grubby 12-year-old paws over these soon-to-be-smooth stems holding up this body shaped like nothing but a bunch of awkward for the next three years.

We do the same with tampons. Sit in a bathroom for 45 minutes trying to wedge a tube of cotton up there the wrong way because we didn't read the thing that said to angle it back a little. Or maybe we tried to read it, but that diagram doesn't make any sense, because no 12-year-old girl knows what the female anatomy actually looks like. We don't learn that until, maybe, college. Some girls never learn it.

I was in college, in some women's studies/biology course before I ever looked at my vagina. I had a grasp of the basic map, so I was ahead of a lot of adult women already. But no one had ever told me to go look at the thing until this course. Just pop into a bathroom once, prop a leg on the toilet seat, and aim a mirror in there. I'd had the thing for like 22 years by this point -- why had no one suggested this?

I got my first sort of look at a vagina like I assume many of us do -- at a strip club.

Or is that just me?

I've never been super into porn, so that never came up, but I started going to strip clubs with my boyfriend and all those male friends as soon as we were all 18.

I didn't know whether I was gay, and I had a friend who also kinda didn't know but she was too shy to try it out on me, so we spent a lot of time talking about it and going to strip clubs with boys.

She wasn't gay.

I figured out I like girls during my first lap dance. My husband and I won a lap dance in a raffle from a stripper named Desire.

Desire was tiny, just topping five-feet tall without her platform stilettos. She placed one on either side of us and rubbed her body all around us for a couple of songs. She sucked on my ear and breathed down my neck, and I was totally turned on, and I left like, "Yeah, I like girls."

I could smell Desire's vagina while she danced, which was bizarre. I get it now, but at the time, I'd never smelled a vagina before. They totally smell, not bad, just distinct; and no one ever told me that. Hers was clean-shaved and pierced on one of the pieces I didn't yet recognize, and it danced right in front of my face when she stood up a little on the crushed-velvet couch.

It's a fascinating piece of anatomy. Absolutely disgusting if you think too hard -- as is the rest of our anatomy -- but fascinating. Most interesting is what happens when you touch it. All the pieces look kind of unassuming, but they're like firecrackers when you touch them.

I had touched my vagina before looking at it, and before seeing someone else's, but I was probably older than most before I went down there.

No one in real life mentions girls masturbating. A 12-year-old boy wanking every chance he gets -- that's a running gag. It's also easy; just put a hand on the knob and pull. To masturbate as a girl, you have to find something no one tells you about until, maybe, college.

So it didn't really occur to me. I was never taught to be repelled by sex, or masturbation, or my body, or anything like that. I just always assumed that my desires were to be directed to boys, who would ultimately be responsible for fulfilling them, once I could muster the self-confidence to be in a situation where they might be able to do that, or even speak to a boy, maybe, or dance with one without my friends watching and giggling.

I didn't realize I could just take care of it myself.

Women learn these things in odd situations. It seems like boys learn from The Media, or porn, or some official source like that, which dictates the society we live in. Girls are left to learn about our bodies and sex and the smell of vaginas the same way we learn about all the other important things in life: through gossip.

I learned about shaving the hair around my belly button because I was eating pie at a diner with a group of girls who were gossiping about the red stubble on Krystal's belly in gym class.

A lot of the revelations are about places where we have hair growing that needs to be removed.

I started shaving my legs because of Emily's Snoopy-Band-Aided knees in the seventh grade, but didn't go above the knee until the girls were giving Heather grief about not shaving her thighs our sophomore year. I started shaving my armpits when Sara mentioned at cheerleading practice freshman year that she forgot to do hers that morning, and was really grossed out about it.

They snickered behind Morgan's back about hair on her upper lip when we were 13, but I didn't have to worry about that until I was in my 20s. I started plucking that one chin hair when I saw them talking about it on Orange is the New Black second season.

Miranda was the first girl I had sex with, and she was partially shaved down there. I liked it. I started shaving the next day, and I've stuck with it since. I have a very grown-up looking, well-groomed vagina-area, and I'm proud of it.

The coolest thing I learned from (having sex with) women is how different all these vaginas are.

Seriously, girls, you need to know this: There's no one right vagina.

The pieces are all different shapes and colors and sizes -- and smells, as we've established -- and the way they react when you touch them is different on each one.

Somehow, we've created some image of the perfect vagina in our heads -- from where, I don't know. No one talks about them, so what is this gold-standard vagina? Whatever it is, our vagina is not that one. It feels absolutely shameful -- until you run into another vagina somehow and realize it's totally weird, too, but not at all like yours.

Then you realize, your vagina is probably just fine.

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