Georgia O'Keefe paintings

Michigan Teacher Fired for Saying the Word “Vagina” in Art Class

Apparently mentioning the word “vagina” — even in the not-sexual context of an art class — is a violation of one Michigan middle school’s antiquated sex education policy. ThinkProgress reports:

A Michigan art teacher said she was fired Friday for addressing a controversial symbol art historians have studied for centuries: the vagina.

Allison Wint, a substitute art teacher at Harper Creek Middle School in Battle Creek, Michigan, said she was hoping to spark a thoughtful classroom discussion on controversy in art. But her description of a Georgia O’Keeffe painting apparently went too far. The next day, the school’s principal told her she had violated its policy.

Wint told the Detroit Free Press that she had asked her students: “Imagine walking into a gallery when [O’Keefe] was first showing her pieces, and thinking, ‘Am I actually seeing vaginas here?’” Surrounded by middle school students, Wint said she expected giggles — but told the Free Press she thought the discussion remained educational and productive. She had no idea it was against school policy to “get advanced approval when discussing any form of reproductive health.”

I’m really not sure how discussing vaginas in the context of Georgia O’Keefe’s work has anything to do with “reproductive health.” (In fact, O’Keefe herself actually adamantly resisted the interpretation of her work as vulva symbolism, including by feminists, so no doubt she’d be particularly pissed about this whole vagina “controversy.”) As the half of the population that has one well knows, the vast majority of the time, vaginas are not doing anything particularly “reproductive” — they’re just hanging out. Hopefully, they’re in good health, though given the criminally negligent state of sex education in this country, if they are, it’s probably no thanks to the school system.

In Michigan, it’s not just students who supposedly can’t handle hearing about vaginas. A few years ago, the state made headlines when a state lawmaker was banned from speaking on the House floor after she said the word in her speech in opposition to an anti-choice bill. A male colleague explained, “It was so offensive, I don’t even want to say it in front of women. I would not say that in mixed company.” Because obviously the people who mostly have vaginas are especially too delicate to hear them named — that makes sense.

What does it do to girls and young women to have a part of their bodies — one as inseparable from their being as their hands or ears — equated with sex so automatically, reflexively, that it’s apparently impossible for the word to simply be a non-sexualized noun describing a part of human anatomy? And what does it do to them to have it treated as shameful, “controversial,” something that even the adults in their world are not allowed to say?

I read this article right after reading this one about how the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists is warning of growing demand from teen girls for cosmetic labiaplasty surgeries. Kids are risking nerve damage that could affect their sexual responsiveness to trim their labia minora into some idealized version of how a vulva is “supposed” to be. You can blame mainstream porn, of course, and, more generally, the photoshopped media world we live in, feeding us a warped, narrow vision of what bodies look like. But I’d argue those more immediate causes rely on a more foundational bedrock of shame: A sense, reinforced since childhood, that your vagina exists for one purpose and that it has always been, in some essential, implicit way, wrong.

Header image: Georgia O’Keeffe’s Black Iris Series 1926 

St. Paul, MN

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director in charge of Editorial at Feministing. She is the author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick (HarperOne, March 2018). She has been a fellow at Mother Jones magazine and a columnist at Pacific Standard. Before become a full-time writer, she worked at the National Institute for Reproductive Health. A Minnesota native, she received her B.A. from Carleton College in 2008.

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Editorial.

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