School lessons on vaginal and vulval health for 11-18-year-olds will tackle stigma

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·Lifestyle Writer, Yahoo Life UK
·6 min read
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The Truth Undressed lessons. (PSHE Association/Bayer Canesten)
First-of-a-kind lesson plans on vaginas and vulvas are to be available to schools across the country. (Canesten. The Truth, Undressed)

School teachers will now be presented with comprehensive lesson plans for 11-18-year-olds about vulval and vaginal health, developed by national curriculum body the PSHE Association in collaboration with Canesten.

The lessons are designed for any students in this age group. “We want everyone, both boys and girls, to be shown the reality of how our bodies look and behave, in the context of a safe and trusted teaching environment," says Liz Laming of The PSHE Association.

"We have ensured our lesson material is accurate and inclusive, for example through the diversity represented in the imagery used and the evidence based approaches, so that this new education programme tackles shame and stigma front-on through education at scale."

As part of a campaign called 'The Truth, Undressed', the new lessons include an accurate, diverse and non-sexualised portrayal of vulvas, public hair and true-to-life depictions of vaginal discharge intended to "break down stereotypes and stigma and free people from shame and discomfort".

The Truth Undressed. (Canesten. The Truth, Undressed)
Some of the lesson illustrations are fairly graphic but with the aim to normalise bodily functions. (Canesten. The Truth, Undressed)

Full frontal imagery and scenario-based pictures are used where relevant to help with examples, but teachers can choose lesson plan versions either with photographs, realistic illustrations, or without imagery.

Teacher guidance on whether and how to use the resources is also provided. To support the lessons being taught across all schools, Laming says, "Our recommendation is that the teaching materials are shown within the usual class group setting as with other health education subject matter.

"We believe it’s important to educate both boys and girls, so that we empower society as a whole on the subject of intimate health and break down the taboo of this topic."

Only 6% of UK women (aged 16-55) learnt about intimate health conditions through school and university education, while just under two-thirds (60%) only found out about vaginal infections when they first experienced them, recent research from Canesten, the UK’s leading women’s intimate health brand, found.

To help combat this, four lesson plans with a range of age-appropriate content for Key Stages 3-5 are now available for teachers to use in all UK secondary schools (as of 11th July).

The schools that piloted the lesson plans were majority mixed sex schools, though some were single sex, with 100% of respondents saying the students were engaged by the lesson, the learning was relevant to Y7-8 students (for the plans tested) and the teacher guidance was helpful.

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 The Truth Undressed. (PSHE Association/Canesten. The Truth, Undressed)
An example of one page of a lesson plan, for Key Stage 4. (PSHE Association/Canesten. The Truth, Undressed)

"The lesson plans will support schools to teach this important health topic effectively and appropriately," says Laming.

"Until now, it has been difficult for young people to learn the facts about their bodies and understand vaginal health when historically the vast majority of images of vulvas represented in porn and other forms of media and popular culture have been both over-sexualised and depicting a societally ‘perfect’ body which is not representative of reality.”

Porn generally involves and promotes a narrow conception of attractiveness in both men and women, a separate paper on the impact of porn on young people from the PSHE outlines.

"Of arguably greater concern, free online pornography often depicts violence, exploitation, humiliation and denigration, in most part towards women," it states.

Laming says the introduction of the statutory guidance for relationship, sex and health education (RSHE) has helped to enforce a set list of content that schools have to teach. This means students have access to high quality PSHE education, which can now hopefully include these new lesson plans across the country.

While some teachers may already feel confident in teaching this type of content, Laming adds that for others who "through no fault of their own, might lack that subject knowledge or confidence to teach the topic effectively", these resources are particularly helpful.

Further research, also from Canesten, as well as sexual health charity Brook, revealed that 46% of UK women (aged 18-24) are worried about the appearance of their vulva and 67% admitted they would change something about it if they could.

This can lead to feelings of shame, the campaign points out, with more than half (55%) admitting they avoided going to seek medical help due to feeling embarrassed to discuss the issue or show their vulva.

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The Truth Undressed. (Canesten. The Truth, Undressed)
The campaign aims to help young people fell less in the dark about their own bodies. (Canesten. The Truth, Undressed)

"The truth of the female anatomy is dressed up in a societal culture of sex and defined as explicit by default," says Daria Costantini, Brand Lead for Canesten, Bayer Consumer Health UK.

"We live in a world where porn is readily available on the internet, yet many young people don’t know the first thing about what kinds of infections there are or even what the vulva is supposed to look like."

Costantini adds, "We hope that through this campaign we can start to move imagery of real vulvas away from a sexualised depiction and into an informative, educational space to equip young people with the essential information they need to better understand their bodies as well as normalise conversations.”

The Truth Undressed. (Canesten. The Truth, Undressed)
How much do you know? (Canesten. The Truth, Undressed)

Dr Ester McGeeney and Dr Elly Hanson, specialists in youth centred research on relationships and sexualities, used their expertise to help develop the programme.

Clinical Psychologist Hanson urges, “Research shows that negative feelings and inaccurate understandings about the vulva and vagina are common and can have hugely detrimental consequences especially for girls and women.

"Given this, it is vital that young people are supported with education that increases their understanding and helps them take an affirmative approach to their bodies.”

Read more: Cervical Screening Awareness Week: 12 things people wish they knew about smear tests

The Truth Undressed. (PSHE Association/Bayer Canesten)
The campaign aims to show realistic portrayals of natural public hair. (Canesten. The Truth, Undressed)

The lesson plans address the type of sexualised or promotional content related to vaginas, vulvas and health care on platforms like social media.

The materials are "really trying to help students understand first of all, what the reality is and help them to recognise reliable and unreliable sources of information," says Laming.

"Part of it is developing critical thinking to ensure the students can recognise different influences and how that might impact the way they feel about themselves."

The PSHE Association teaching lesson plans can be downloaded by teachers here.

A separate, additional resource hub developed by Canesten to broaden access to information and help young people become better at spotting and addressing their own intimate health concerns can be found here.