We've Gotta Have it
Beauty & Fashion
The Beast in Beauty
Are vaginal beauty products empowering, or just another tool of the patriarchy?
Every other week or so, I call the spa director of my family’s hotels to discuss her division’s performance and related concerns. Recently, as we ended the call, she cryptically whispered that the woman who sold us bathrobes wondered if we might like to sell the “V” products she carried as well. “’V’ products?” I was confused. “Yes,” the director explained, “toners, moisturizers, and highlighters for down there.”
“Down there? Where?”
I was trying to conceive of what V had to do with feet. Highlighters?
She clarified. There was an emerging interest in beauty products and services for the vagina. I knew that delicate eye and lip skin benefited from specific products, so it made sense that vaginal skin might also require individual attention. I just hadn’t imagined that vaginas needed toning and moisturizing. I thought they mostly took care of themselves.
One reason our spas were successful was that I had a knack for understanding my customer. But I didn’t have that confidence with vaginal beauty products. Would they be inclined to moisturize vaginal wrinkles? Who were the women investing time and money in a product regimen devoted to vaginal care — a percentage of the one percent? The hotels’ spas were luxury. Were our clients sourcing these products elsewhere?
I also couldn’t visualize the application protocol. The notion of sitting open-legged in front of a mirror and applying highlighter or mask hadn’t occurred to me, and quite frankly, it felt vulgar and unbecoming. The truth was that at 58, I didn’t know much about beauty and vaginas. I didn’t know much about my vagina at all.
My Journey to Self-Discovery
Though I remember vague Kindergarten instances from the 1960s where my sister, cousins, and I explored each other’s vulvas under the darkness of sleepovers and became jumpy as we stumbled on clitorises, vaginas remained mysterious. I couldn’t even name all of their distinct parts.
When I was seven or eight, we visited my paternal aunt in Greece, and I asked her about her bidet, which looked like an insufficient toilet. “That’s where people from here wash their feet,” my Catholic mom inserted before my aunt had a chance to respond.
“Some people don’t wash their hands either,” my aunt snapped, slamming the door to her bedroom behind her.
When my older sister disclosed that the foot-washer was where European women cleaned their privates, I was so fearful of anything vagina related, I walked around it as though it were diseased.
At age 12, I was startled, as the children of Catholic mothers sometimes are, when I discovered my blood-stained panties. Mom brought me a fresh pair and instructed me that I was a young lady now, that the discharging blood was where a baby would one day grow, and that young ladies trimmed their pubic hair and swooshed water between their legs to clean the area while sitting in the tub.
When I think of it now, boys are necessarily holding, touching, and examining their genitals all the time. But I was 13 before I considered exploring the contours of mine. That Christmas, in 1973, my maternal aunt — the radical sister — gave me a copy of the newly published Our Bodies Ourselves. Somewhere, the narrator queried if the reader had ever seen her vagina. I hadn’t. The proposition seemed alarming and impractical, and I was stunned by the suggestion. How, I wondered, could you even see your own vagina? The notion intrigued me, so I followed the book’s advice and squatted panty-less over a hand-held mirror to sneak a glance.
I couldn’t see much, and afraid that I’d “get caught” looking –- a seemingly punishable offense — I soon lost interest.
My mom died when I was 17, in the middle of my sexual awakening and amid the rising sexual revolution. Her reticence to discuss my private parts even as I came of age left me with the impression that good girls didn’t touch, look at, or use their vaginas other than for bathroom purposes. And so, my private parts remained mysterious to me.
I wonder why all those times I straddled my legs in stirrups at the OB/GYN, covered with a sheet and left sensing in contrived blindness what the doctor was doing — “I’m going to insert the speculum, this might hurt; I’m going to swab your cervix, you might be sensitive…” — why didn’t the doctor hold up a mirror for me, show me what they were doing?
My first encounter with female genital mutilation was in Ayann Hirsi Ali’s book, Infidel, where she describes this ritual as a rite-of-passage that she believes is a part of becoming a woman. More importantly, in the 1970s she is indoctrinated to believe her uncircumcised vagina is ugly. As disturbing as this is to digest, more disturbing still is that FGM thrives today. FGM is a standard not just in Muslim countries, but also across Europe, Asia, and in America. The practice transcends all states and many religions. When Renee Bergstrom, a white Lutheran woman from North Dakota, was found masturbating at age three (in 1947), her doctor advised her mother that a solution was clitoridectomy.
I began to wonder if this misogynistic view of the vagina and women’s sexuality had been so culturally ingrained that women themselves were soliciting vaginal cutting in the name of beauty. I wondered if, as Maya Salam says in her review of Carol Gilligan and Naomi Snider’s book Why Does Patriarchy Persist?, whether “Women and men …internalize patriarchy without realizing it, pushing aside their best judgment and sacrificing their needs in order to fall in line with how they think they are supposed to behave.”
It wasn’t until I was 40 and divorced with four children that a new lover expressed the notion of vaginal beauty.
We stood under the bright light of his vestibule kissing when in one experienced motion, he slipped my panties away.
“Let me see. …Let me see,” he whispered as he gently nudged my clasped hands away from myself.
I had been used to making love in the dark, under the sheets, a little tipsy.
“I’m embarrassed,” I said.
“Don’t be,” he kneeled and kissed my tummy.
“Wow,” he said as my hands released, “That is beautiful.”
I replay that scene over and over again in my head, convincing myself that my vagina is beautiful because an eyewitness told me so.
Making a Vaginal Beauty Decision
So when the spa director asked whether we wanted to carry beauty products for “down there,” I certainly did. I reasoned that products that made women feel more beautiful in this controversial part of their body could be empowering. I intuited that along with swooshing water in the tub, vaginal skin might also benefit from specific care.
When the vaginal beauty products arrived, I discovered the line included exfoliators and brightening creams, which confused me. I set out to research the onslaught of vaginal spas erupting in wealthy urban areas. Vaginal steams seemed like an intense version of the foot bath I’d feared, but as I dug deeper, I found more invasive treatments. I wondered about the “MonaLisa Touch” treatment that lasers the vaginal tunnel, injuring its tissue and claiming to generate collagen in the healing process. How would the scar tissue impact vaginal sensation, I wondered? The MonaLisa Touch almost, but not quite, promised women better sex. Better sex for whom, I wondered.
In “My Vagina is Terrific. Your Opinion About it is Not,” Jen Gunther writes, “Vagina steaming, douches, glitter, tightening sticks – these are all born from the same need to tame the female genital tract…the intent is the same: to monetize intimate fears about intimate places…”
As I watched a video clip of a giddy beauty editor film herself during a laser wand treatment, I wondered about the growth of vaginal plastic surgery. It seemed as though now that tummy tucks and breast jobs were standard plastic surgeries among the wealthy, and even the not so wealthy, vaginas became new scalpel territory. I wondered if societally we were telling women not only that a demurred sexuality was more marketable, but also that signs of their miraculous birthing bodies should and could be erased. I wondered why Americans, in particular, had devised an industry formulated on “restoring” the post-birth bodies of women, not just restoring youth, but eradicating the signs of childbirth, as Pope Pius had done to Mary. As I saw vaginal rejuvenations offered in abundance, I wondered, who is pulling down their panties?
I searched for vaginal plastic surgeons on the internet and found one who posted before and after photos of the surgeries. Vulva wings were clipped, clitorises unhooded, vaginas refashioned to look — juvenile.
I found an Oprah all-star symposium on vaginal rejuvenation which left me in tears. I listened to Dr. Oz, with his trusty pink terry-cloth model of a vagina, ask a woman in the audience post-childbirth why she would ever want to embark on such a dramatic surgery. After he explained the procedure he told her, “…trust me on this one issue, that most guys, a guy you’re gonna want to be with, isn’t going to care about that appearance.”
“See, I think they would,” she says.
“We have spent the last one hundred years getting women to be embarrassed by what’s going on down there. That’s why we don’t talk about the vagina and the uterus and the vulva…because we are ashamed of it as a culture. Just because we’ve given those instincts off to you, doesn’t mean that you should take them to the operating room.”
I wanted to take my clothes off for Dr. Oz right there. He was a man who understood the integrity of beauty.
Dr. Phil questioned whether there was any reason why she shouldn’t do this if it makes her feel better? (The comments below the YouTube video muse that Dr. Phil’s enthusiasm over vaginal procedures resonates from Mrs. Dr. Phil’s enthusiasm for plastic surgery procedures.) “You want to put your best foot forward,” he continues, “it’s not always going to be your foot.” The audience laughs.
Gayle King counters, “I don’t know, I’m 56, and no one’s ever told me, ‘Gayle, you have a beautiful vagina.’” Why not? I thought. Why ever not?
Dr. Oz uses the word “instincts,” but human instinct is to admire and take pleasure in our respective genitalia. The shaming, contouring, and destruction of the vagina come from another place. Perhaps a place of systemic domination.
I left the video thinking we have told women that their accrued laugh lines are unattractive, that their breasts aren’t big enough or taut enough, that when the areola turns brown after childbirth we can “pink these,” that when their tummies stretch and loosen post-childbirth they can be tightened and lifted. Now, the organ that demarcates women seems to be condemned rather than celebrated. That the perpetual attack on how we look and how we mature continues to be quietly, or not so quietly, an effort to shame us into thinking that we aren’t young enough or beautiful enough, to the point where mothers and adult women are prepared to mutilate themselves rather than demand from the men with whom they couple a celebration of this miraculous organ. Dr. Oz says that we have absorbed cultural vaginal shame. Perhaps what he means is that misogyny is so ingrained in our culture that women look to how they can physically change themselves to please men rather than change men to learn to care for and worship the life-giving goddesses that we are. And maybe we can begin by reinforcing the beauty of aging women among each other.
After I ordered the V products, I decided not to restock them. Rather than empower women, these products could message there was something wrong with vaginas just as they are. I thought of the man kissing my tummy and nudging my hands away. “That’s beautiful,” he said. Isn’t better sex about the better education of the men who make love to women?
“What’s wrong with my vagina?” a girlfriend asked as I tell her I am investigating vaginal spas and plastic surgeries.
“Nothing,” I answered. “It’s beautiful, absolutely beautiful.”
Georgette Culucundis Mallory is a writer living in Connecticut. Follow her on Twitter @childrenofmetoo.