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Hands off our vaginas

I lament the use of terms such as “liberation” and “empowerment” to sell women more and more product. In this post I want to particularly question the use of terms implying female empowerment in the growing trend to convince women to change what is surely something quintessentially female — our vaginas.

Case in point?  The latest series of advertisements for Schick Quattro’s TrimStyle all-in-one razor and bikini trimmer. The ads invite you to “celebrate your inner confidence” and, using the language of liberation, “free your skin”.  According to the company’s PR blurb,  five everyday Australian women were photographed and filmed for the campaign wearing nothing but lingerie, in and around some very public locations in Sydney’s CBD.  Men are shown gawking at them, whilst other women look on admiringly. The women do have inspiring stories — there is a single mother and a cancer survivor — yet surely as the advertisement is for a bikini razor and they are seen posed in lingerie, we can only assume that their confidence actually comes from having well-groomed vaginas.

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Speaking of well-groomed vaginas reminds me of one of the most flabbergasting moments in talk-show history. In January last year Jennifer Love Hewitt famously discussed on American TV that she had devoted an entire chapter of her new book on relationships to decorating her hairless vagina with jewelled decals — a practice known as “vajazzling” that is gaining in popularity here, too. Hewitt told her host “Women should vajazzle their vajayjays . . . It really helped me.” She went on to say, “After a breakup, a friend of mine Swarovski-crystalled my precious lady . . . and it shined like a disco ball.”  It really “empowered” her, she insisted  (although apparently she was not quite empowered enough to use adult terms for her anatomy).

Forget the war on terrorism — if the amount of ads for decorating, shaving, waxing and electrolysis are anything to go by, it is the age of the war on women’s vaginas.

Actually, it is not just grown women who are being told they should doubt their own genitals. During the formal season last year, beauticians noted a huge increase in the number of young women wanting “intimate” grooming treatments. Girls as young as 14 were asking for Brazilian waxes. Enlighten Education’s Program Manager for New Zealand, Rachel Hansen, who is also a women’s health and sexuality educator, tells me of a school in NZ for Year 1 to 13 students that ran a beauty salon’s ad for Brazilian waxing in the school diary. Imagine pulling out your five-year-old daughter’s homework diary and an ad for Brazilian waxing jumping out at you.

It seems teens no longer even know what “normal” is. In episode one of the UK’s 2009 Sex Education Show, when teens of both sexes were shown images of women with pubic hair, they gasped in what seemed to be shock or disgust. The producers had set out to show that in reality “we all come in all different shapes and sizes. From penises to pubes, bums to boobs whatever you’ve got it’s all perfectly normal.”

Cosmetic surgeons would have us believe otherwise. As if waxing, plucking, electrolysis and decorating is not enough, far more serious procedures are being widely promoted by surgeons as  important for restoring women’s “confidence”. Researcher Karen Roberts McNamara argues that women are going under the scalpel to have their vaginal openings tightened and their labias made smaller because they have been convinced this will “normalise” them and thus give them confidence:

The sanitized ideal of the clean, delicate, discreet vaginal slit, so widely used in the plastic surgery industry discourse, functions in such a way as to cast the bodies who have not undergone these procedures as necessarily dirty and unsightly . . . Scholars have noted that in years  past, women rarely had the opportunity to see other women’s vaginas and thus had no sense of how a typical vagina might look. Yet with the mainstreaming of the adult entertainment industry, the situation has changed dramatically. Now, a beauty standard has emerged, one established primarily through porn actresses, nude models and strippers . . . The irony of this situation is that in pornographic films and photographs, everything from eye colour or stretch marks, to genitalia, can be modified digitally.

Amanda Hess, in her excellent piece “The Problem With Defending The Sacred Choice To Vajazzle”, concludes with a call-to-arms of sorts that I am taking up, and that I urge all girls and women to take up.

For now, the more extreme performances of femininity, like breast implantation, vaginal ‘rejuvenation,’ and Vajazzling aren’t considered the norm for women. I’m not going to be met with shock when I remove my pants and reveal to my sex partner that I haven’t converted my pubic mound into a shiny disco ball. But these days, it wouldn’t be out of the ordinary for him to be shocked that I’m not perfectly waxed. The body hair ship may have sailed, but vaginal modification is at a point right now where we are still in a position to fend off the tide. And my greatest fear is that someday, we will wake to find that our girls are being routinely Vajazzled upon puberty, and realize that we never stood up to say, ‘This…is . . . ridiculous.’

Published inAdvertisingBeauty IndustryBody ImageFeminismMagazinesPlastic SurgerySexualisation of children

10 Comments

  1. Vanessa

    Shame (of being different, of not being good enough) should never be a reason to buy a product or service. You’re right, Danni, it IS ridiculous!

  2. Glenn Buesnel-May

    OK, my reply is not rocket science, but it’s touched a very, very raw nerve.

    The day vaginas become marketable property is the day women accelerate down the slippery slope of losing all rights to their sense of individual propriety. This inevitably means women are further reduced from integral and meaningful identity to a narrow expression of ‘worth’ via their vagina! Society is already stripping women of their gender ‘worth’ through marketable mythologies such as body image, emotional generalisations and downright nasty sexism. To commodify vaginas just continues to turn women into that 2-dimensional convenience both marketing and men so dearly thrive on.

    Look, I’ve got two daughters. My partner and I are in this daily battle between their natural instincts, their family values, societal values, and the damned marketing phenomena. No wonder so many families struggle.Commodifying my girls vagina’s just strips that little bit more from their intrinsic self-worth and plays right into the hands of those that couldn’t care less for them as valuable, valued individuals.

  3. Jane Higgins

    Hmmm … great topic to expose (excuse the pun!) and I agree with Karen Roberts McNamara’s take on how p#rn is affecting our view of “what’s normal!” Young men are devouring p#rn in record numbers and the fact is women don’t look like that – it isn’t real! What do they think when they see a real vagina – how do they react and how do they make a girl feel about hers may affect a girl for a very long time. We have been told we aren’t thin enough, sexy enough, pretty enough and now we are told our vaginas don’t bling enough. Give me a break! I want my partner to be dazzelled by my eyes, my soul and my spirit not my sparkly vagina.

  4. Paola Yevenes

    I agree, Danni; women are not sure about what ’empowerment’ is.

    I know it’s not stripping off your clothes, uploading images of your breasts, adorning vaginas, pole dancing, consumer obsession, etc.

    In my opinion, I would love to see many more real examples of ’empowered’ women; women who have seen a great beauty within themselves and are not frightened of it, women who are proud of their achievements in education, careers, community and life choices, women who look into themselves to feel good, women who may be afraid to attempt but do it anyway, who are not too proud to learn from failures (theirs or someone else’s). There’s a Marie Bashir and a Melinda Tankard Reist within all of us.

    Wise women know that ’empowerment’ does not come instantly; it comes from hard work, courage, resilience, profound love (of others, of self). These qualities are far more enduring and substantial than any ingredient that can be found in a can of spray tan.

    We allow ourselves to be distracted by the ridiculousness of magazines and celebrity gossip, we allow them to have authority over the standard of ‘normal’, we pay millions to allow them to make us feel worthless, unloved, insecure. An empowered woman looks at these interferences and walks on by.

    Another inspiring article, Danni. Beautiful job.

  5. Danni, I have heard of the dazzelled phenomenon recently, and as an extension of this story, I was appalled to hear of twin girls of 14 having Brazilian waxes, encouraged and paid for by their mother. What sort of message does this send? In my opinion, this sexualities these girls at a very tender age, and for a mother to endorse it makes it all the more disturbing… But again, I am appalled every day by walking down the street – young girls dressed like cheap hookers (apparently the trend) and seeing men ogle them when they are still at an age where they have no idea what their sexuality means. Where will it end? 🙁

  6. Lisa Betker

    I’d like to know what women with these surgically enhanced vaginas do when it comes time to give birth? Do they have to get it all undone and then stitched back up post-natally? I’m so tired of the body’s natural appearance and function being perceived as wrong, unnatural or in need of change… the body is such a beautifully designed vessel, and everything is there for a reason. And it is a vessel for who we really are – our mind and our soul reside there. Without the mind and soul being nourished and developed, what is outside is only an empty shell. It makes me so sad that my daughter will come up against all of this. But glad that she’ll be educated and hopefully innoculated against the poison.

  7. I’m a fourteen-year-old girl and I do shave my vagina, but purely because I prefer the way it feels.

    Since when is bejeweling your vagina supposed to be empowering? As I was reading this, my main thought was “Imagine Joan of Arc, an inspiring and revolutionary leader. Now imagine Joan of Arc waxing and bejeweling her vagina. How empowered does she seem now?”

  8. zelda

    we are getting to the stage where vaginal/genital modification is going so far that soon it will be normal to have that pesky clitoris removed. after all, what is it good for?

  9. anna

    When discussing the subject in PDHPE at school – the boys in my class said they would NEVER have sexual relations with a woman who did not wax or shave. The girls in my class felt inadequate feelings as though no man would ever want them if they didn’t wax. My opinion is if you want a woman you get a real woman – hair, not a little girl

  10. […] whatever they want to their vulvas. Hey, if bejazzling your vajayjay is your thing, go for it. (Just don’t package it in terms of empowerment PLEASE!). My problem is also not with pornography – sexuality is to be celebrated and although […]

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