You can’t move at the moment for vaginas. For something so private, the vagina has never been more public. Walk down the high street, whomp, there’s a massive one made of felt, winking at you from a Waterstones window. Turn on the telly, kerflump, there’s an earnest conversation about them before the breakfast news. Books with covers in pink and red pile politely beside my desk, a user’s guide, a re-education, a history, one with a lipsticked mouth printed vertically. Crowdfunding has opened to build the world’s first Vagina Museum. Silver vulvas hang around feminists’ necks on fine chains, slogan T-shirts imply Vagina is a hot new band.
I could go on. In fact, I will. This month, makeup shop Cult Beauty launched its Vulvalution campaign by urging customers to “stop beating around the bush”. Under the vast and fleshy umbrella of “wellness”, they’re selling “everything from pH-balanced cleansers to lubricants, pelvic-floor trainers to sex tech by way of libido-enhancing ingestibles” with 10% of profits going to a charity that promotes awareness about gynaecological health. In New York recently, I trotted up subway stairs papered with adverts for period underwear – suggestive photographs of grapefruits, split. I feel a little like I’m seeing the world through the eyes of a pubescent straight boy. But, it’s not just me. Vaginas are in fashion.
A funny thing happens when attempts are made to demystify women’s bodies. The reasons such attempts are being made are important – one is that uptake for smear tests is the lowest it has ever been, at about 70%. A third of women in the UK are currently overdue a screening, and cervical cancer is the most common cancer in women under 35. This is partly to do with the lack of education about our bodies, and a residual shame, a fear of the abject. But when a movement to re-educate women begins, especially one focused on something so sexualised, seagulls follow the trawler. Now, in a time when every liberation has a price tag, the universal campaign to demystify the vagina inevitably comes with added extras.
Today’s confusion of messaging is a muddied grey, as if three plasticines have been squeezed together in a hot hand. There is the straightforward medical message, which encourages openness and knowledge with health in mind – in a 2016 study, only a third of women could identify correctly parts of the female anatomy, while 70% could correctly label the male. There is the political, too – a conversation, highlighted by the #MeToo movement, about female sexual pleasure and consent. Then there’s the message of wellness and empowerment, which overlaps with the others, but costs significantly more.
The new vagina marketing almost makes me nostalgic for those gentler days when the humble vajazzle gave way to vaginal glitter pills that made sex more princessy. At least those developments were easier to argue with. Unlike Goop’s vaginal egg, or Khloé Kardashian’s vajacial recommendation, those My Little Pony diversions never covertly claimed to free a woman from the shackles of patriarchy. The current iteration, where skincare products designed originally for the face appear repackaged for the vulva (a sheet mask containing activated charcoal that promises to “detox and soothe”, or coconut-scented wipes) sit amid uplifting quotes about womanhood is far, well… fishier.
It trades on the new openness, but what it sells are products tied to the shame feminist campaigns are trying to obliterate. Vaginas are famously self-cleaning. Feminine hygiene products are at best unnecessary, at worst deadly, yet thrive due to the way they tug on women’s fears. Fears that start early. Girls as young as nine have reportedly requested surgery on the NHS to change the appearance of their vulva. Cosmetic gynaecology is the world’s fastest-growing sector of the cosmetic industry – in the US there was a 40% increase in the number of women undergoing labiaplasty surgery between 2015 and 2016. To deliberately ignore the pornified path that brought us here, to a place where political intervention was necessary, is horribly offensive.
The tension between feeling good and looking perfect is never higher than when telling stories about women’s bodies, yet it’s so often accepted that the second (with its fallacy built-in) is a requirement for the first. The different strands of the new vagina industry, Big Vulva if you will, need to be untangled, because knotted like this they obscure rather than enlighten. It doesn’t matter how many fascinating books on vaginas are published – sold alongside products that promise porny perfection with added 2019 empowerment, their message that everything’s fine will be lost. Drowned out by the suspicion that only if your fanny is cleansed, exfoliated, moisturised and coconut-scented will you be confident enough to join in with the conversation. Liberation costs more than £15.99.
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