Vaginas are revolting

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.

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Warning: May contain triggers

When does sensitivity turn into censorship?

Apparently you know you’re on a feminist blog when an article is prefaced with a warning for ‘triggers’. This usually means that the piece contains mention of topics that might upset the reader. The warning suggesting that reading about particular topics (such as abuse or mental illness) might provoke a distressing emotional response (such as flashbacks of a traumatic event, urges to self-harm or binge-eat).

Whilst I do have respect for individuals who wish to avoid coming into contact with material they find difficult, I think this attitude can be taken too far. I saw a ‘feminist blogger’ post that she thought that there were some topics that you can’t make jokes about, such as rape, murder or eating disorders. Her rational was that the joke might be triggering to someone, even if they as not involved and only overhear it. While I think jokes like that are pretty bad taste, I was interested in her point that we must at all lengths avoid saying things that might trigger others.

Many people enjoy quite dark comedy. Have you ever heard a dead baby joke? Been on Sickipedia? Or seen pretty much any of Frankie Boyle’s stand-up material? Controversial, morbid and often down-right offensive humour is pretty popular. People seem to enjoy laughing at the topics they feel they really shouldn’t! Maybe it’s a bit of a survival mechanism, there are many awful things in the world, and maybe it’s better to laugh about them then to dwell and cry. Should we censor comedians from from making these kind of jokes? There’s been considerable research into how depictions of beauty in the media can contribute to low self-esteem and poor body image. Should diet and beauty magazines be on the newsagent’s top shelf, where they won’t be seen by impressionable young people?

It’s a sad fact that to someone who has mental health difficulties or has experienced a particular trauma, there are many situations that could trigger difficult feelings. But should we wrap that person in cotton wool and try and try to prevent them coming into contact with any potentially triggering instances?

I’m not sure I agree with that. I attended an eating disorders clinic where there were no fashion or gossip magazines in the waiting room. The only publications they had were on topics such as interior design and animal welfare. The toilet doors could only be locked with permission from the staff and there were no mirrors within. I do appreciate that their intention was probably to create a safe space away from elements that sufferers may find difficult, but it did feel rather patronising. Did they really think I was so fragile that I couldn’t look at my own reflection? What if I caught sight of myself in the glass of one of the windows? Should eating disorder sufferers be prevented be prevented from coming into contact with any reflective surface for fear of triggering them?

Once you left the clinic, you were back in the world of billboards advertising beauty products, diet books, weight-watchers and Heat magazine. That is, the real world. A world that does contain a number of things which can be difficult to come into contact with for various people for various reasons. But that’s life. I have worked with survivors of trauma who have gone to great lengths to avoid coming into contact with situations that remind them of their trauma. It doesn’t work. The avoidance only served the prolong their distress, whilst imposing great restrictions on their lives.

Part of recovery and coming to terms with your experiences usually does involve coming into contact things that might remind you of them, or trigger related thoughts. Even if you have very sensitive friends who never mention said triggering thing, there will be films, events, television programs, that you might not be expecting and ready to avoid. You can’t go hide on the moon from these things. While I’m not advocating that a someone struggling surround themselves with things they find challenging, coming into contact with it in small doses may be part of the process of learning to live with it and react to it in a healthy way. This kind of ‘positive risk-taking’, where someone accepts a bit of uncertainty, can be very empowering. To tolerate coming into contact with a trigger, to feel the difficult feelings, but to live through it, to survive. We can’t always be afraid of feeling bad and these experiences can help a person to grow stronger. Feeling sad, distressed, remembering difficult times in the past, these are normal experiences. We cannot completely control the triggering elements that are out there and I think they’ll be all the harder to deal with if you spend the rest of your life entirely shielded from them. Individuals may feel they need to avoid certain things until they are in a stronger position to come into contact with them, bur this is their own responsibility to look after themselves. Being sensitive to their needs needn’t mean overly censoring their world.