This ad has been everywhere in the blogosphere lately. We open with an attractive, light-skinned Indian couple sitting on a couch, the man sipping his coffee and ignoring his wife, who looks despondent and lonely. Then, she jumps in the shower, uses her special wash for “fairness and freshness,” and when she returns it is all smiles and spinning in his arms in the living room. The gist of it is: your vagina must be fresh enough (and what does that even mean, really?) and also light enough in color in order to get approval and love. Colorism, particularly rampant in Indian society, really deserves its own post and I’m not well-equipped to discuss it in this one. Pam Spaulding wrote an article about the colorism in the ad and the damage skin whitening products can do at Pam’s House Blend. You can also read this excellent post on skin bleaching and colorism in India at Bitch Magazine. As for me, I’m fascinated by this commercial not only because of the colorism, but because its another entry in the long social trend of teaching women that their vaginas are incorrect in some way, and must be corrected in order to win the love of a man (and, therefore, by happy). The two big social forces at work here – shame over your anatomy and the need for male approval – are long-standing toxic messages that have been around for a while. Even the fact that douche is still on the market is an ever-present indicator of our culture’s issues with our vaginas – though I guess I’m somewhat grateful the advertising has become more about vague references to freshness and summer and less about getting your easily-disgusted-by-vaginas husband to love you again. Back in the ‘50s, Lysol was advertised as douche, with print advertisements almost identical to the ad above:
(Of course back in the day the same tactic was employed to sell everything, even coffee – If you’re into it, you can find more advice for women from that era in Lynn Peri’s excellent book Pink Think: Becoming a Woman in Many Uneasy Lessons.) To get back on track, the cultural pressure to have a perfect body has had a strong effect on how we feel about our vaginas and our vulva’s appearance, maybe because it’s an area of our bodies we don’t easily have a way to compare to others and see what’s normal. When we do see images of vulvas in our society, they usually have been Photoshopped to meet a particular image.
In fact, Australia has been in the news recently because its new Classification Guidelines disallow explicit depictions of the vulva, preferring them to be, to use a common pornographic magazine term, “healed to a single crease.” What they mean is, a vulva must not have visible labia, only a small crease may be visible. The phrase itself makes me crazy: healed! As if an average vulva with labia is damaged or sick! I was willing to make the argument that Australia’s rule is simply prudish, that maybe they just find non-edited vulvas too graphic, until I learned that the same board also banned the appearance of 18+ but young-looking women with small breasts in adult publications, apparently due to concerns about these women encouraging pedophilia. Given that the growth of labia minora is a part of puberty, if they are so concerned with the maturity of their performers why would they insist on editing vulvas down to a more pre-pubescent, labia-free state? I’m not buying it. This is just another area where a Photo-shopped body has become the aesthetic norm, and women of Australia will have more opportunity to find their bodies as they are to be wrong, or unappealing.
So, say you look at porn or advertisements, and then look at your body and think, “Something’s wrong with me!” Don’t worry, there’s surgery for that. Labiaplasty is the practice of reducing the size of the labia minora so that they are smaller than the labia majora (diagram here for those uncertain exactly what I’m referring to). To be fair, some people may have labia minora long enough to cause discomfort, particularly while participating in sports or wearing tight fitting clothes for example, and for them this surgery may improve their quality of life. But there are also a lot of people who seek the surgery do so because they think something is wrong with the appearance of their vulvas as they are. A 2009 Guardian article talks to women and cosmetic surgeons and found that many “patients are not willing to accept that the physical appearance of their vulva is perfectly ordinary and healthy,” referring to their appearance as “hypertrophy” if the labia minora extend past the majora, although there is nothing pathologically wrong with them.
I personally am a supporter of body modification, and ultimately I support a person’s right to alter his/her body to reflect how they feel it should look. However, I also firmly believe that we don’t make choices in a vacuum and I think it’s worth examining what social forces are at work encouraging us to make some decisions over others, and whether we are harming ourselves by changing our bodies to fit a narrow cultural ideal. It’s clear that just like our stomachs, our skin and our noses, our vulvas are another area we are supposed to measure and compare against other (photo-edited) bodies. Ultimately, the problem here isn’t vaginal lightening creams or shortening our labia, it’s the pervasive cultural message that your vagina must meet some beauty standard (or men won’t love you).
So how do we fight back? The path to loving our bodies in all their variants is long and difficult for some of us. But if you’re curious to see if you’re normal, or want to see the wide variety of colors, sizes and shapes that vulva and labias come in, it may help to check out a body project like Vulva101. In their words: “Designed to help society overcome its fear and shame regarding vulva, Vulva 101 features close-up photos of one hundred and one women’s vulvas, ranging from 18 to 65 years old. Each page focuses on one woman’s vulva from three different angles. It also highlights the thoughts, feelings and experiences of the women involved, and the natural, unique beauty of the female form.” Projects like these are great for combating media images of the vulva as having only one appropriate form.
So, Feronia readers, what do you think? Would you get labiaplasty? Have you ever been worried a sexual partner would think your vulva looked wrong, or felt like your vulva looked wrong after comparing it to someone else’s? Let’s talk vulvas.