And they refuse to do it quietly.
I was recently involved in a research study about women’s perceptions of their labia. Seven-plus pages of questions about my opinion of my labia majora. Do I think they’re too big? Too small? Too droopy? Too hairy? Do they bother me? Do I avoid swimming or sex to prevent others from noticing them? Would I like to pay to get someone to nip and tuck them to a more acceptable standard? The questionnaire was definitely something of an eye-opener and did leave me feeling somewhat depressed. Although I was often ticking at the ‘never’ or ‘rarely’ end of the scale, there were some questions where I did have to admit that sometimes I do have less-than-positive opinions about my body. Also I was fully aware that there would be some women out there who would be ticking ‘very much’ and ‘always’ to many of the given statements. There are many people out there who truly hate their labia, or other parts and aspects of their genitalia. That makes me really sad.
I’ve been umming and erring over what language to use in this piece. It’s about female genitalia, vaginas, vulvas and everything that comes attached to them. Often the word ‘vagina’ is used in a non-anatomically-correct (oh, this makes me seethe!) to mean the entire internal and external genitalia. I like ‘cunt’, though I know a lot of people find it offensive. It’s a short strong word that I think holds a similar impact to words used for male anatomy. Plus it’s an old English word, it has the history. Don’t like ‘pussy’, it’s become a little too America-porno and I’m not a fan of cutesy euphemisms, as if there’s something rude or shameful about calling it what it is. I do find myself using phrases like ‘lady-garden’ (mostly because I find this one quite funny, as is the equivalent ‘gentleman-forest’!) and girl-parts, which probably contradicts my previous statement, but it works for me. And you’d probably use different words in different contexts; though anatomical terms are the most accurate, you might not want to throw them into an intimate moment. The Vagina Monologues does a great piece all about this. But we’re talking about the same thing, whatever we call it.
I’m not a historian, but I don’t think this level of dissatisfaction with genitalia was always around. Female body-dissatisfaction is obviously not something new, though it seems to be ever-growing. Operations to ‘trim’ labia into a ‘neat’ shape have not always existed. Whereas much plastic surgery focuses on parts of the body that are immediately obvious to others – bigger breasts, straighter noses, slimmer buttocks. If you wanted to appear more attractive to others, perhaps this makes sense. But your labia aren’t (usually) on show, they’re actually hidden most of the time. Yet woman may feel this pervasive need to change this part of their body that may only be seen by themselves, their gynae and their partner.
I imagine plastic surgeons would say they are responding to a demand, they may well be right. Though I wonder what effect it has even knowing that such an operation exists. A standard is set for the ‘correct’ and ‘appealing’ labia, and the question is posed ‘Is yours attractive? Is it normal? Would you like to change it?’ Health and beauty companies thrive off the fears and insecurities of the masses. Once the customer has been made aware of their need, a product can be sold to them to ‘fill’ this need. Wrinkles, a natural part of aging, are demonised, and a magical cure is sold. Women didn’t use to buy razors. Now the sight of a woman with hairy arm-pits is often treated with disgust. Yet there is no particular hygiene benefit to shaving arm-pits (after all, the majority of men don’t), yet now for women it is considered the norm. As is shaving leg-hair. A new market is created. Special razors for women are marketed, in pretty baby-pinks and blues. A generation of girls are born into a culture where this is completely normal and grooming of body-hair is just something you do.
Looking at older pornography can be quite enlightening (all in the name of research!). I think if you showed a bunch of teenage boys Playboy images from the 70s, with their full-bushes, tan-lines and natural breast, they’d probably laugh and show signs of disgust. Yet this was the height of sexiness not too long ago. For many people, porn is the first time they get to have a really good look at the genitalia of another person. A heterosexual woman may not have many opportunities to have a close to look at another’s parts, being only able to see her own and these images in the media. Even if you do have sex with women, I don’t imagine everyone really gets an opportunity to have a really long, well-lit, inspection of another person’s genitals (doing so may unnerve your partner, so please approach this with caution!). Porn is now very easily accessible. So for many women (and men), they’ve only ever seen their own goods, and the neat and tidy presentations on screen.
Labia show as much variation as human faces, they vary in their colouring, amount of hair, relative sizes and lengths, symmetry…they’re wonderfully diverse. Yet if you’ve only ever seen one particular type and your own, a negative comparison is easily made. (I think this is probably true for men to some extend too, and insecurities around penis size relating to the well-hung men who are sought out for porn. Although culturally men do tend to see other men naked more often – think showering and urinals, than women see other women). Hungry Beast created this fantastic mini-documentary about labia in the media, particularly relating to censorship and photo-editing. As someone who has worked in nude photography I can relate to this. A photograph that displays more labia is often considered more explicit than one that does not. Yet for a model with larger labia, the same pose may show off more than that of another model. Is this in itself inherently offensive? The result is fewer and fewer images that show the true variation of labia, leading those who don’t fit this model to believe that there’s something strange and ugly about themselves.
I once over-heard a conversation given by someone I know about a ‘scary vagina’. A ‘scary vagina’ apparently has hair on the outer labia, and the inner labia and larger than the outer. This isn’t a ‘scary vagina’, it’s a totally normal one! And it’s this kind of attitude that perpetuates shame and body-loathing.
The recent back-lash over the latest Fem-Fresh campaign has pulled this campaign for cunts of the world into the more mainstream attention. The team behind the adverts for vag-wipes probably thought they were empowering women, with their adverts of a jubilant woman saying ‘Woohoo for my froo-froo!’ and ‘Whatever you call it, love it’. It isn’t all bad, we should be able to have information about women’s body parts out there. Recently a women’s group were reprimanded for leaving ‘sexually explicit’ material around where children could see them. The material in question was a poster advertising support services and awareness of female genital mutilation and featured an image of a young woman of Africa-heritage. I have looked at the material several times and all I can come up with is that the school did not wish for children to see the word or references to ‘genital’. What message does this send, to sufferers of these atrocities, but also to young people in general? That we can’t talk about what’s between our legs?
Anyway, back to Fem-Fresh. It seems we can only talk about vaginas under cutsey euphemisms. And this is the razor story all over again. Create insecurity and need: your vagina smells bad. Sell product to fix need: here is a wipe to make your vagina smell lovely. Provided you wash regularly and don’t have an infection, your vagina smells completely normal. It isn’t supposed to smell like a flower. Vaginas are moist, it’s how they clean themselves. They have their own, natural smell. I don’t think it would be a big leap to say that many people like this smell, it’s erotic. I’m reminded of Pamela Des Barres 70s groupie memoir when she talks about using chocolate and strawberry douches (now out of favour mainly due to being particularly unhealthy and actually promoting infection). Vaginas aren’t supposed to taste like ice-cream.
It goes without saying that it is absolutely a woman’s choice to do exactly what she wishes with her own genitalia. And if that means that she wishes to have her labia surgically cut and trimmed, all the hair waxed off and for her vulva to be lightly fragranced, so be it. It’s her choice. But it should be because that’s what she wants, rather than out of a fear that her vagina is shameful and disgusting as it is and needs to reach a certain standard before it can be unleashed on others. Unless you work in the sex industry, your genitalia are probably only seen by yourself and the people you choose to have sex with. It’s something personal and private, not on show to the world in the same way that other parts of the body are. There are women around the world who are having their genitals savagely mutilated and disfigured, having their right to a natural body and sex-life taken from them, yet we’re inflicting our own private battle on our lady-parts. Owners of vaginas: Your genitals aren’t an identikit flesh-light, they’re a diverse and wonderful piece of human anatomy. You weren’t born believing there was something wrong with your body, yet somehow the idea became more and more acceptable to the point where it’s completely accepted. An entire industry thrives on making you hate what you have and buy a piece of altered perfection. It doesn’t have to be that way.
And for everyone else who loves vaginas: Show them some appreciation! Each is different and they’re not strange or scary. Go and tell your favourite vagina how much you like her, just as she is.
It’s not really in the flavour of this article, but as some of you may be at work, images below the cut.
Betty Dodson has done a wonderful series of illustrations of vulva in their many wonderful presentations, here are a few: