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The woes of “health education”

A hand shot up in the air, grubby and painted with blue nail polish, the way kids’ hands sometimes are.

“Yes, you there,” called the old woman sent to our 5th grade class to divine our fates as beings blossoming into human females.

Rebecca leaned forward, poised and ready. “Well, MY mom says that putting a TAMPON in feels like HAVING SEX. Is THAT true?”

Silence ensued. We all turned to Rebecca in awe and veneration, then to each other. It seemed right, we whispered to each other. Putting a tampon in logically must feel similarly to sex, we reasoned, waxing rhapsodic, contemplative. 

But the old woman paused, ahem-ed, deflected. Absolutely no adult in the room (and there were multiple) said that no, this was not what sex feels like, sorry to disappoint, and honestly really sorry for your mom, Rebecca, but sex actually should not feel like a small plug of sometimes-TSS-inducing absorbent cotton-rayon blend! We returned to discussing an old, barely-in-color, short film about the journey of the sperm to the egg. Fan-tas-tic.

The year was 2010. Exhibit A: our 5th grade so-called “sex-ed,” aka “the birds and the bees.” A stupid name, I thought to myself as my friends and I played with food-shaped erasers in the back of the room during the lecture. Said erasers were thereupon seized and confiscated by our teacher (pay attention, girls).

What was disconcerting about this lesson was not just that the volunteers or whoever the heck had been chosen to teach this precious unit for two weeks refused to directly answer Rebecca’s question, but that: 1) like something out of Lois Lowry’s “The Giver,” we were divided by gender to learn about sex, as though it would both traumatize each student in the room and also greatly hinder mankind’s progress if *gasp* a boy learned about the vulva in the presence of *gasp* a girl or vice versa, and 2) in favor of traditional values, the teachers and volunteers mangled every opportunity they had to actually instruct us as students. Our instructors upheld the antiquated, religious notion of virginity and refused to talk about female masturbation, resulting in most of us thinking it was some kind of hush-hush sin for a big chunk of our adolescence. No one even mentioned gay or lesbian sex or thought to tell us that it’s also okay if you go your whole life without wanting to have sex or be in a relationship.

And, as the years went on (because we oh-so-fortunate souls had the luck to study “health” not just once but five times! before the end of high school), this morphed into actually presenting us with pseudoscience and chucking abstinence-only propaganda at our faces. 

On the less sexual side of things, we students were told by our junior high PE teachers that if you had acne, it was because you touched your face or didn’t wash your face enough. As if every kid with acne wasn’t already washing their face twice a day with any kind of facial cleanser they could get their hands on, cutting out chocolate from their diet and drinking tons of middle school fountain water every day! Evidently it was too much work to empathetically touch on the nuances of genetics, hormones and environmental factors in an individual’s life, and how all of this might give rise to acne, rather than “you’re not doing enough to correct your problem.”

Health class in high school was better, I’ll give them credit. By now, this class was co-ed, and our teacher was more informed and not abstinence-focused. I was fifteen. By the end of that class, I learned that not only was it uncool to know what smegma was and what the average age of menarche for U.S. females is, but that it was like, really super what-is-wrong-with-you uncool to know that (Marianne, why do you know that?).

Unfortunately, people still walked away from this high school health class thinking that a) they should monitor their body fat with the intensity of religious zealots (we were made to keep food diaries and measure our body fat percentages), b) the vagina is the extent of female anatomy; there is no vulva, c) none of them were going to be negatively impacted by an STD, and that d) using condoms for blowjobs is a major faux pas.

Looking back on these health classes now, I just think about how everyone’s time could have been used better. Our teachers could have taught us about antibiotic resistance, how to incorporate more fruits and vegetables into our diets inexpensively, and the pros and cons of different birth controls—not just in terms of efficacy, but in terms of the impact on the body. They could have told us to treat our bodies kindly, to not worry so much about the fat or muscle or look. 

Where were they when we needed them to tell us about trans health? Who showed up to tell us how to navigate health pseudoscience, especially what’s targeted to girls, like what Gwyneth Paltrow puts on her website Goop (which is now marketed to millions of people in the form of a show on Netflix)? Did they think to tell us that for all of us organ-havers, there is no such thing as a “detox” drink (and that no, you should not do a juice “cleanse” for two weeks before Prom)? And amidst all the chatter about how gross and annoying periods are, did any adult stop to tell us that something way worse than getting your period is not getting it—in a condition called “amenorrhea?” There were a lot of girl athletes in our health classes, but I don’t ever remember anyone telling us about the female athlete triad.

And yet. The fact that I lament my own health education, that I acknowledge most of what I know comes from reading reputable sources on the Internet in my teens (thanks, KidsHealth from Nemours!), means that many others do as well. Recently, there have been initiatives at universities known as “peer health exchanges” in which students teach health or sex ed at schools near their colleges. 

This needs to continue, as many of us in college are painfully aware of where those who taught us went wrong, and what needs to happen to help the next generations learn what really matters. 

Above all, though, topics in health need to be more out in the open, talked about in friend groups and families and classes, because you know what? Everyone has a body. Most people don’t have a good understanding of health, and being embarrassed to talk about topics like acne, PCOS or urology leads to no good outcomes.

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