Vagina, vagina, vagina! It is okay to say the word vagina.
Vagina is actually a noun found in most respected dictionaries across the world. Vaginas are reproductive organs, and they should also be metaphors for the strength and power of womanhood –– for their owners. That basically is the summary of an interview I did with Tracy Fowler and Sharon Richards, co-hosts of the popular Hey Vajayjay radio show.
Hey Vajayjay started as two best friends trying to find the right probiotic for a yeast infection. Their conversation about the treatment, the yeast and the general troubles of vagina was overheard by someone who encouraged the duo to consider turning their discussions into a more tangible idea.
The pair had to work to find a home for the programme, which ended up being the Beat 104.1 FM. Tracy and Shaz have kept the basic format of two friends supporting each other as they explore various elements of womanhood, from discussing female sexual pleasure and needs to menopause to egg freezing. The success of the concept was not without its initial challenges, the major one of which was to refine their subject matter so as to stay within the parameters of Barbadian sensibility.
The original ad for the show had Shaz saying the word “vagina”. A female listener to the station called in to voice her dissatisfaction with the word “vagina” being aired in broad daylight on a radio station in Barbados! This is the same Barbados where a woman who has more than five children is crucified for her actions.
If we can’t say the word “vagina” on national radio, chances are we are not doing enough to teach owners of vaginas about vaginas.
Chances also are the men who partner with women, who own vaginas, have no clue how to count a menstrual cycle, as a basic step in family planning. If women are allowed to own their vaginas, and vaginas can be demystified for men, I think we would be in a better position to help couples negotiate birth control, child spacing and child numbering.
This is why the work which Tracy and Shaz are doing is so significant to the development of comfortable spaces for women in Barbados. Their work moves beyond a talk show on radio. The major sponsor for the Hey Vajayjay programme is Always feminine sanitary products.
Through the collaboration with Always’ Like A Girl international outreach programme, the process of making Barbadian girls more aware of their bodies and vaginal health has been started across schools. Always creates a safe space where girls are taught about the onset of their menstrual cycle, and how to use sanitary products, as well as to ask questions and receive age-appropriate responses to their queries.
Shaz and Tracy have also been a part of these types of outreach sessions with the I Am A Girl Barbados initiative of the Stars Foundation Charity. The I Am A Girl Barbados project was set up to mentor at-risk girls, young survivors of rape and other adversity, and girls with low self-esteem. Shaz and Tracy worked with the girls to help them relearn positive views
of girlhood/womanhood and the ownership/responsibility of femininity, and their vagina as a symbol of it.
The outreach component of Hey Vajayjay will be strengthened this year out of a partnership with UN Women. The Tracy-Shaz duo will be doing more pop-up sessions across communities to create safe spaces for women and men to talk about relationship and sexual health issues. This kind of work is very needed across the Barbadian and Caribbean landscape.
It is worth mentioning that these two friends were able to convert a simple life experience into a growing and viable entrepreneurship endeavour. The homegrown approach to giving women permission to own themselves is an example of how people’s reality can become an impetus for economic activity. The network which the initiative is building across Barbados is a collection of professional women, entrepreneurs, mothers, aunts, girls –– Barbadian females who wish to turn up as Tomorrow’s Women who are completely comfortable with femininity and womanhood.
I participated in an Always Pad Party outreach session which Tracy and Shaz hosted. At the beginning of the session, the approximately 100 women gathered tried to name the parts of the vagina. We got it about 80 per cent right! We are talking about a roomful of grandmothers, mothers and young women in their sexual prime.
And as if that was not surprising enough, next came the question about how many women had ever looked at their vaginas in the mirror. Far too few had.
The topics which will be covered in outreach programmes geared to make women more comfortable and knowledgeable about their anatomies cannot, by virtue of what they are, be agreeable across the board. However, Tracy and Shaz have created a sophisticated and tasteful product that gels well with the products of their sponsors and those of other entrepreneurs. I look forward to the continuation of their significant work, and I am elated UN Women has associated itself with the work.
Tracy and Shaz have expanded their project to include men. They will shortly launch a male version of the radio show, hosted by men and geared at dissolving some of the myths about manhood.
These ladies are about the empowerment of women, but they both believe that female empowerment must happen in an environment that is inclusive of men. Like me, they both stop short of identifying themselves as feminists, preferring the womanist identification. They reserve the right to like men, as much as they reserve the right to discuss vaginas.
Shaz is the mother of a four-year-old son who keeps her very busy, and Tracy is, at the moment, every bit of a free-spirited 21st century woman. The duo are determined to produce out-of-the-box programmes to break the taboos that have kept women and men ashamed of certain body parts. I affirm these two Barbadian women who are doing necessary work to continue to forward
the Barbadian female.
Money will fix an economy, but to reshape a fully productive Barbadian society we must pay attention to the issues of self-esteem and self-identification of our people. If we are serious about building families in Barbados, then we should be elated that these two entrepreneurs also happen to be va-geniuses!
Have you ever looked?
(Marsha Hinds-Layne is a full-time mummy and part-time lecturer in communications at the University of the West Indies.