Pussy riot

Last week was Cervical Cancer Prevention Week, and the NHS’s myGP app used its Twitter account to suggest that women could raise awareness about the importance of regular screening by using the hashtag #myCat to share ‘an image of the cat that best reflects your undercarriage/flower/bits (technical term, vulva!) current look’. The accompanying image of three cats–long-haired, hairless and short-haired–was captioned ‘Bushy, bare or halfway there’.

What, we might ask, do pubic hairstyles have to do with cervical cancer prevention? An answer eventually surfaced: in a survey of over 2000 women, a third of the respondents said they would avoid going for screening if they hadn’t waxed or shaved their ‘bikini area’. So, #myCat is intended to address a real issue. But it’s an odd way to go about it: who, confronted with this survey finding, would think, ‘I know, let’s reassure these women that no one’s going to judge them by running a campaign that invites them to share the current state of their pubes on social media, through the ever-popular medium of a cat pic?’

The ‘no one’s going to judge you’ message has been conveyed in other ways too. In verse, for example: ‘The nurse isn’t fussed/ if you haven’t had a trim/ She’s looking at your cervix/ not your lovely hairy quim/ The nurse don’t care if it’s jungle or fluff/ It’s about saving lives/ not a nice neat muff/’.

As well-intentioned as all this may be, it points to a serious problem with the language of health messaging on this subject. In an effort to make the messages more ‘relatable’, their creators persistently resort to language which is either vague and euphemistic (‘undercarriage/flower/bits’) or overtly sexualised-slash-pornified (‘quim’, ‘muff’). #myCat manages to be both at once: ‘cat’ is being used here as a euphemism for ‘pussy’, which may have originated as a euphemism itself, but is now a sexualised term not only for women’s ‘bits’, but also for women themselves, imagined as men’s collective prey (‘he spends his life chasing pussy’).

To many women (as their Twitter responses made clear) this language, in the context of a cancer prevention campaign, is not relatable, it’s offensive. Are men ever addressed in such a coy and cutesy way? One woman on Twitter, @iseult, addressed that question with a male-oriented riff on #myCat:

Share an image of the chicken that best reflects your chicken tenders, beanbags, gangoolies (technical term testicles!) current look. Use the Hashtag #myChickenBalls. Tell and tag your friends to let them know

@Iseult is right: It’s hard to imagine this getting onto, let alone off, the drawing board.

But as I pointed out back in 2015, men and women aren’t in the same position when it comes to talking about their ‘bits’. Large numbers of people are profoundly ignorant about female sexual anatomy: one of the studies I discussed in my earlier post (conducted in 2014) found that 50% of women under 35 could not locate the vagina on a diagram. In another study, 65% of respondents said they avoided using the words ‘vagina’ and vulva’, which they regarded as embarrassing or offensive. Yet another study suggested that most words for female sexual organs are perceived to be degrading (the main exception was ‘vagina’). And there is little agreement on what nonclinical terms like ‘pussy’ and ‘fanny’ actually refer to.

These findings do pose a problem for health messaging, in that the language health professionals might prefer to use may be unacceptable, or unintelligible, to the women they are trying to reach. With men this is less of an issue: they might not know what or where their epididymis is, but they’re not going to confuse their penis with their testicles, or be too embarrassed even to utter those words.   

It might seem that the solution is straightforward: education. No girl (and actually, no boy either) should leave school without having learned both the relevant anatomical facts and the associated terminology. And I do think that’s important, but it’s not as simple as it sounds, and on its own I don’t think it’s enough.

The underlying problem here—the root cause of the ignorance, the reticence, the retreat into vagueness and euphemism—is shame. And school is often where that starts. Research has found that girls in school are routinely subjected to body shaming and sexual shaming, which–to quote one girl who was interviewed for a recent report–they ‘just have to put up with, because no one thinks it’s a big deal’. A teacher who was quoted in the same report specifically referred to boys harassing and shaming girls with intrusive questions about their pubic hair—how much they had and whether they shaved it. Is it any wonder young women feel the anxieties which the poem I quoted earlier decries as trivial?

Perhaps it’s to myGP’s credit that they don’t pile shame on shame by simply castigating young women for their stupidity; but what they’ve chosen to do instead is not much better. The suggestion that women should tell the world (in cat-code) if their pubes are ‘bushy, bare or halfway there’ has something in common with the kind of harassment I’ve just mentioned: in both cases women are being sexualised in a context where that’s incongruous and unwelcome. Seriously, did no one at myGP see how weird this is? If someone’s actual GP commented on her ‘bushy undercarriage’ she’d have grounds to make a formal complaint, and I don’t think the doctor would get very far by saying ‘well, I’d heard that a lot of women are self-conscious about their pubic hair, so I was just trying to be reassuring’.

MyGP is not, of course, an actual GP, but it does represent the NHS, and its mode of address to women should reflect that. I’m not saying that public health messaging has to be rigidly factual, humourless, and couched exclusively in coldly clinical language. But women are not children, and the cancers which affect them are not cute, sexy or a joke. I don’t know if #myCat will raise awareness about cervical cancer, or persuade more women to turn up for screening; but it has certainly made me even more aware than I was before of the sexism that still pervades both our language and our institutions.