I Heart My Vagina- Vaginoplasty and the Spiritual Circumcision of Women

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Have you taken a close look at your vagina lately? How ‘bout your neighbour’s? Have you pulled out a hand mirror and really checked things out down there? What do you liken it to, fancy folds of an oyster? Tucked in little dinner rolls? A plucked chicken?

Do you have a nice vagina? You know, like a pretty one? I challenge you to think about that for a Iheartvaginamoment. How would I know if I had a pretty vagina? Compared to what? How does one discern what their vagina should look like? Have you even thought about it? I’m not talking about how you groom your pubic hair, I’m asking about the shape of your vulva, the folds, the discrepancy in size between your labia majora and your labia minora. Do you have an innie or an outtie?  Do you even know what the hell that means? Do you discuss how your vagina looks with your girlfriends? With your mom? I don’t think I have and well, as you might be able to gather from the topic I’m diving into here, I’m not one to shy away from a juicy conversation. It has just never occurred to me to wonder if my vagina is adequate.

Last I checked women weren’t showing their muffins at book club, or at their mom group, or at physical education classes. Ladies even keep their panties on at pole dancing lessons. At my women’s group, where we have discussed many intimate topics, including our relationship to beauty and sexuality, we certainly haven’t gone so far as to play show and tell with our Shakti bits. It’s just not really what we do. Vaginas are, well, private. And since vaginas are private, it wouldn’t occur to me to be concerned with whether mine is prettier than yours. And I find the very notion, frankly, not only absurd but also offensive.

This is apparently not the case for many women (and girls as it turns out). It’s probably pretty reasonable to assume that any notions we may have about how our genitals are supposed to look would likely come from porn, given that porn is the only place they are so openly on display. So if we wanted to put our bits under scrutiny, judge their prettiness by how they shape up against others (which is how our lovely culture likes to judge prettiness), we could look to models and actresses who are showing them. Or we could ask our girlfriends or our partners or even our aesthetician, because, you know, clearly we don’t have enough to obsess over with our bodies, we might as well pick apart our intimates. If we discovered that perhaps our vag is subpar and wanted to take things a step further, we could even seek out a professional opinion. That’s right ladies, you can just hop on over to your local plastic surgeon and they will consult with you about your imperfections and the hideousness of your sacred goods. Then for a vagina_moldsnominal fee of $2,500-$12,000; they'll kindly chop up your cunt for you.

Yes, I did actually just use that word. Too much? Too vulgar? Did I go too far? Good, then we’re right in line with the theme of this article, which is about the shocking vulgarity of what we continue to do to ourselves and our bodies as women, and the way these violent and invasive practices are being continually normalized as we seem to only become more desensitized. This is an inquiry into just how far is too far, what may be at the source of our compulsions and a look at how we can grow beyond them.

The Perfect Vagina

Inspiration for this article came when I first heard about the 2008 documentary called The Perfect Vagina. Lisa Rogers, a Welsh actress, is the author and presenter of the film and she takes the viewer into the world of the fastest growing cosmetic surgery in the UK: Vaginoplasty. Vaginoplasty is the umbrella term used for cosmetic surgery performed on the various parts of the female’s external genitalia. Yes, I am serious. Have you heard about this? I hadn’t. I don’t know where I've been, living in an idealistic hole apparently, given that I haven’t been privy to this amazing service being provided to women. I mean, in a culture where very little remains sacred; we might as well go for our goodies.

It seems the most common of these surgeries is labiaplasty, which is the reduction of the labia minora. Women claim to be having this surgery in order to have a more ‘normal’ vagina. But of course, our understanding of what is normal is rather skewed, since we don’t actually look at each other’s vaginas. Lisa Roger’s documentary takes a look at what is considered “normal” genitalia (like medically, y’know) and also explores what brings women to believe that theirs is inadequate. She gets into the minds and hearts of many young women and girls and follows 21-year-old Rosie through the process of having her labia minora reduction surgery. That’s right, you get to watch it. I’ll admit it…I cried. I cried out of shock and heartbreak as I sat in a cozy little coffee shop with my lap top watching a young beautiful girl be circumcised for the sake of vanity and in an attempt to patch together her self-esteem.

 

Female circumcision rears its cosmetic head

If you spend a bit of time on the fabulous interweb checking out female circumcision, you’ll find a whole slew of initiatives to stop the circumcision of women in developing nations. Female circumcision, which is primarily done in Africa, is said to be performed for ceremonial and religious reasons. Because there's no practical purpose for these circumcisions, and because they're performed primarily on minors, it'sno_women_symbol considered to be a human rights violation. And so we have ‘the more progressive’ cultures, moving in to educate communities on why they should stop these practices.

And yet, while we can look over with horror at a tribe of women who claim that if their five year old happened to bleed excessively after having her clitoris cut off, that she must have been a witch, here in our own back yard, we give it some fancy name like vaginolplasy and somehow it's less archaic? Goodness, we’re so civilized. There are cultures over the world trying to break free of the horrific mutilations performed on female genitalia and here we are the most educated, empowered and free cultures of women, cutting up our vaginas for the sake of beauty. Liberated indeed. How do we find ourselves here?

Brazilian Waxing…the gateway drug

At the beginning of the aforementioned documentary, Lisa says “If I’m going to get my head around this thorny subject, I’ve got to look at my vagina. Time for a Brazilian.” Hmmm. Right. It’s hard to know what all those parts look like if they are covered in hair. I can’t help but wonder if, as a culture of women, we were still sporting pubic hair, perhaps vaginoplasty wouldn’t be quite as popular. Now that it’s in fashion to remove that particular aesthetic ‘barrier’, our vaginas are exposed to yet another level of scrutiny. What this makes me wonder is how long it will take before this is normalized, before the reaction of my peers when considering the matter of vaginoplasty goes from ‘WTF?’ to ‘But of course’.

My attention was drawn to this article and I think it’s really worth the read. In it, author Jennifer Armstrong offers the reader a history of the Brazilian wax and its move into popular culture. I appreciate Jennifer’s sharp voice and connect with her attempt to fiercely challenge what has become a very pimpmyvadgecommonplace practice for women in our culture. I found the article confronting, and it challenged beliefs that I held about myself, and some of my own aesthetic practices. After checking with some girlfriends, the general consensus was: yes, we do all feel sexier and cleaner after a wax, or at the very least trimmed up. But why is that? I do find it fascinating when I can’t separate my own subjective experience from that of a cultural assumption. Do I feel sexier with a primped and preened bush because it actually feels sexier? Or do I feel sexier because Carry Bradshaw told me she feels sexier? Or is it because my girlfriends feel sexier? Or is hair just gross? Man oh man; it’s a bit of a rabbit hole.

A little twist

This brings me to a point that I want to explore, which trips me right the fuck out to be honest and it goes like this…When I first heard about this documentary, part of why I was inspired to dive into this topic is because the whole mess of beauty is so complicated, so multidimensional, and so vast that even considering taking it on is overwhelming. But when I heard that women were getting plastic surgery to make the perfect vagina I thought, ‘now that’s just absurd. We’ve gone too far. If there is anything that we as women can still claim as sacred on our bodies, please please please let it be our vaginas.’ This is about as black and white an issue as you can get in the realm of beauty, right?

Well, I went into watching this film digging in my righteous heals, prepared to be all fired up and horrified and drop a few ranting paragraphs about it. But what happened has left me with more questions than answers. There’s a point in the film where Lisa is interviewing a plastic surgeon who says “I have a picture of a 16 year old here that explains why I do this work.” My reaction shifted from feeling contempt towards the doctor for tampering with a 16 year old, to a disturbing reaction indeed.

They showed the image and I felt myself recoil. Racing to hold onto my view that under no circumstances should we cut up our genitals, I watched my thoughts rest on the sentence, “well now, that I can understand.”

And in that moment, my heart broke.

Why can I understand? Why do I think to myself that although slicing off a piece of your vagina is a blatant act of violence not only to the body but to the Goddess herself, that there is a time when perhaps this is a reasonable course of action? We're talking about the part of our bodies that receives our lover and offers up new roselife, can’t we just leave it alone, let it be precious?

And yet, when my eyes landed on that image, I understood this girl’s desire to change herself. I saw that it’s easy to be anti-vaginoplasty if you’ve got a pretty pussy. Sadly, I conclude that I'm little more than a product of our culture. As I caught myself in this moment, I had to confront how automatic and habitual these patterns are, moving towards ideals and recoiling from that which is too different or doesn’t fit in with what has been deemed acceptable. I didn’t know that I had an aesthetic standard for vaginas until I saw one that didn’t fit it. This little twist isn’t to tell you that I'm endorsing this practice, quite the contrary. This little twist is to expose myself as being among the culture of the mentally ill when it comes to beauty. I’m interested in a path for healing.

I want to explore this collective pathology with you a little but first want to point out a bit of a trend that I see in these discussions and create a new context for how this discussion might move forward.

 

Perspectives, elitism and taking our position

There's an impulse I notice within myself to take a position around what is and what is not acceptable when it comes to beauty practices. I see this in other women as well; that is, we all (or most of us) have a line that we just won’t cross. This is a good thing, having discernment, conviction, and making vag_coverupconscious choices. And yet, something occurs when we take a firm position that I'm concerned is dangerous for our collective growth. That is: elitism, arrogance and double standards.

It’s the ‘you have got to be f-ing kidding me, what is wrong with those women?!?’ position. I noticed it happening in the comments thread on that article about Brazilian waxes that I linked to earlier. People begin slinging righteous mud. Trimming pubes, no prob, waxing them? It strips women of their feminism. Botox injections? No biggie. Face lift? No no. Vaginoplasty because you’re a self-conscious 16 year old? Get therapy. Vaginoplasty because birthing your triplets shredded your hoohoo? Have atter mama!

I bring this up because I notice in myself an impulse to hold many of the beauty practices that are being normalized in our culture in contempt. Perhaps they should be. But if I look a little deeper, I could argue plastic-surgery-plastic-surgerythat holding harsh judgment and distain towards a particular practice (and more importantly the women who engage with it,) allows me to dissociate from the darker parts of our culture’s obsession with beauty that are within myself because there’s something outside of me and my own experience that I’m able to project that onto. As though I am separate from this culture.

I feel this tone from many who speak out against the brutality of the beauty industry and I want to challenge it a little. Challenge the impulse to speak like we’re above it and instead look for the common roots that we share so that, together, we can look for a new way to engage healthy growth. Otherwise we just end up with another layer of competition and cattiness, which is an all too common way of relating between women. I believe these impulses, though expressed in a variety of ways to different degrees of intensity, are very subtle and deeply engrained. When we scoff at the extreme, we give ourselves an out. We can project our own dysfunction around our relationship to beauty and not have to look at the ways in which we’re enslaved by some of these deeply rooted patterns.

And so it is that I am writing this article. I'm not writing this as an elitist or as an expert. I'm not writing this as an authority on this topic or as a leader in a particular industry. I'm not writing this from a critical stance, though I have given that voice room here.

I'm writing this as and for the most evolved of women on this topic all the way to the most ill and suffering. I write this as and for the six year olds who are dieting, the girls who are holding in their bellies, holding_hands_in_alinethe tweens who can’t leave the house without makeup on and the teens who spend the better part of their adolescence with their fingers down their throats.

I write this as and for the young women whose worth gets all wrapped up in the size of her jeans or her breasts or her nose; who spends more time concerned about what to wear than how to make a difference in this world. I write this as and for the mothers who felt culturally demoted when their bellies were shredded with stretch marks and breasts drained for the life of another. I write this as and for the women who are mostly ok with themselves, but would like to ‘tighten up’; the women who don’t think they’re all that effected by what’s going on here and the women who can’t escape it. I write this as and for the women to pluck and preen and poke and slice and ache and choke and starve and inject. I write this as and for the women who spend more time trying to improve their bodies than their minds and who feel it’s more important to have a great rack than an open heart, or flawless skin over deep wisdom. I write this not as an outsider, not as someone looking at culture, but as the culture itself. I write this as a plea, as a cry from the inside, here in the insanity of the obsessive self-critiquing and the violence and self-loathing. I write this from within, kicking and pounding and desperately searching for some weak links in this confounding structure so that maybe we can evolve out of it and bring this beast to its knees.

 

When we find ourselves ill

There's a great emphasis on the root problem with our collective beauty illness being in our cultural systems; that is, media, advertising and the industries that profit from the undercutting of our self-esteem and sense of personal power. I would tend to agree that our beliefs about how we look, how we should look and what we find acceptable in altering ourselves in order to get that perfect look is communicated to us externally.

I agree with the criticism towards these systems and that educating ourselves and particularly young girls about what's going on here is one way to defend against the relentlessness of it all. I also admire the commitment of those who want to take on these systems and challenge them, expose them and attempt to change the power structures. Because shifting the systems that perpetuate our obsession is certainly a valid path for change. However, I personally feel quite small and powerless when approaching these challenges from this particular systemic context simply due to the enormity of these industries.slave

Jennifer Armstrong, author of the Brazilian Waxing article states at the end,

“That leads to the key point any feminist -- card-carrying or otherwise -- must consider when deciding whether waxing is for her: For every Brazilian you get, another woman might feel more pressured to do so. Symbolically speaking, you’re not alone on that salon table, with your ankles up around your ears as you exhale with each rip of the wax strip. And that takes sisterhood to a whole new level. That’s what makes waxing such a slippery-slope of a feminist question -- it’s never going to be a feminist act, but, should you decide to get one, you need to ask yourself some tough questions to make your salon visit at least a little kinder to the sisterhood.”

I appreciate her call to the collective. What I see her suggesting here is causing change through conscious intention and our action or inaction. Both the moves towards shifting our systems and towards shifting our behaviours are important moves indeed. But what I’m particularly interested in is: What's going on in the interior of a human being that even has us compelled towards trying to meet an ideal in the first place? Rather than simply dealing with the symptoms before us, dealing with what we should do with our plight, let’s look at what impulses are at play deeply within in us that makes it so easy for us to be manipulated towards these obsessions.

 

Spiritual circumcision: when the impulse to evolve gets cut off

I’m going to make a bit of a leap here and say that at the very bottom of this obsession towards becoming more beautiful, beneath the painful ache, is an incredibly elegant team of spiritual impulses. If we feel into these impulses, get to know and recognize them and honour them with more fullness, perhaps we can begin to pull the hook out of our pretty little mouths and fumble our way towards a healthier relationship with our beautiful, natural, god given forms.

There are four impulses that are immediately apparent to me, which exist outside the context of beauty and that beauty itself may just be a construct that these impulses can hold onto and use when they have no other means of expressing themselves. These are the impulse to evolve, to commune, to be seen, and to be of service.

The impulse to evolve.

The move towards looking prettier, the unrelenting attempts to achieve a particular ideal, can be looked at as a pathological expression of our very basic impulse to evolve, to become. That is, move from where you are currently towards a better you. In beauty obsession this looks like becoming an aesthetic ideal. third_eyeStrip this of the beauty context and this looks like, quite simply, the desire to become a better person. In a spiritual context this looks like the ache to return to God, or to become enlightened or live as the divine. If I stop to listen, I can feel it. There's a stirring within me, a pull towards something, a dissatisfaction with now and a wanting to move towards something else. When this pull or this impulse isn’t being honoured, isn’t given play in the field of life, it will look to objects outside of itself to glom onto and can become an endless void to be filled—thinner, longer hair, less hair, bigger breasts, better vagina. I’d argue then that if we were deeply engaged on a path of our own growth and evolution, that some of these automatic and habitual ways of relating to our bodies would start to break apart a little and start to lose their grip because the impulse for better would have an expression other than our external aesthetics.

The impulse to commune

The lines that women are trying to play within with fashion and beauty can be narrow. On the one hand, there’s the desire to stand out, to be radiant, to be seen. On the other hand, there’s the desire to fit in, be liked by others. In The Perfect Vagina, we met Rosie. Rosie was having labial reduction surgery because she was mortified by her genitalia. How does one come to be embarrassed about a part of their body least likely to be seen by another? Why, by being made fun of, of course. By her own sister as it turns out, and by extension of what the sister has shared, by her peers. I think what’s going on for Rosie actually has little to do with her vagina being unacceptable, and mostly to do with being ostracized. The problem withcircle being ostracized is that we all have the ache to belong, to belong to our tribes, to our families, an ache to be with our people. In the collective, we find our Self.

When we feel that there's something inadequate about us that we feel will keep us from being accepted and loved, it becomes a barrier between us and being intimately connected with others. These feelings of inadequacy keep us from truly feeling like we belong. The impulse to commune, when not realized can get tripped up into pursuing an aesthetic ideal in hopes that the attainment of this ideal will bring a sense of having arrived, and thus feelings of acceptance and belonging. Of course the nature of these beauty ideals is that they’re unattainable and when we find ourselves failing, the feelings of being separate intensify.

If we can really get to know this ache, and know that this is within others too, perhaps our hearts can reach out to each other, finding ways to meet this need for community, connection, shared space and resonance.

 

The impulse to be seen.

‘The light in me sees the light in you and we are one.’ Can I get a Namaste? We ache to been seen by another, as if being truly seen confirms that we exist. The irony is that this very impulse, wanting so badly to be taken in by another, to have them see and honour our deepest and truest beauty, is exactly what gets thwarted when we’re engaging with aesthetic obsession. When I worked as a stylist, I would encourage the use of products, tools or beauty practices as a means of creative self-expression, to ‘support the external expression of your internal self’ as opposed to ‘covering up and hiding who you are’. Sadly, this is where many end up when the use (or abuse) of the practices, tools and products become compulsive. When insecurity and performance take over, you can see it. Eyes dim, personality dampens; maskthere's falseness and a discomfort in one’s own skin that's very apparent. A feedback loop is created when hiding behind the illusions of beauty. The less one is able to fully show up in their own body, the less they're going to be able to be fully seen and connected to by others and the more this impulse to be seen will fight to be fulfilled. When all one knows what to do with this ache to be seen is to put on more makeup or wear a tighter top, the internal self or authentic radiance dissolves even further into the background.

Allowing ourselves to be seen by others can look a variety of ways. I offer that the very thing that will satisfy this impulse is the very thing that feels counterintuitive to the beauty obsessed. That is, looking ‘bad’ or being vulnerable. The more we can open ourselves to others, allow them to see the mess and the dirt of us, the wholeness of who we are, the greater the possibility of feeling seen. Aesthetic beauty can be tricky because even if we feel that we’re appreciated for looking beautiful, the nasty little mind can play all sorts of tricks like “but if they really knew…” Trying to get this need met through dressing ourselves up can take us right off the path of intimacy, which is what we're truly aching for.

The impulse to be of service

Have you ever felt so hot that when you walked into a room you wanted to say ‘You’re welcome?’ If you haven’t, I’ll bet there’s a part of you that would like to feel that. Beauty is an offering. We are drawn to that which we find beautiful like a moth to a flame. When people are really radiating, really shining, really offering themselves up in particular ways, it's a complete gift to others. I can see part of the impulse to look beautiful for others is not only about ego gratification or wanting attention and energy to come ghostdancetowards oneself, but also to have attention and energy radiate out of oneself, in service of others.

If we aren’t connected to the desire to be of service, to offer ourselves up, we may do this by offering ourselves up in destructive or pathological ways. We offer up our bodies for scrutiny and dissection, mostly by our own minds, in hopes that with the right fixing, we may become something worth offering at all. If we can find richer ways to offer what is stirring within us, perhaps our attention won’t be so focused on where our own lack is but more on the void that is calling for our unique gifts to fill.

So here we are

As I come to the end of this article, I've given myself a lot to contemplate. This very piece is my own stumbling with these impulses. My ache for evolution propelled me into this tender topic and my impulse to commune has me articulate it in a way that feels into the collective sisterhood that's dealing with these issues. The impulse to be seen finds the written word as the vehicle to honour that voice that says ‘you must’. And this little ditty is my offering. May we grow together. To close, here’s a little Richard Pryor, intended without the misogyny and a whole lot more sisterhood.

"There is no such thing as bad pussy. If any of you ladies have been told you have bad pussy, meet me after the show and I will give you a second opinion."

 

Vagina wall image, courtesy of Great Wall of Vagina

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38 comments

  • Comment Link Chloe Thursday, 24 February 2011 18:48 posted by Chloe

    FANTASTIC ARTICLE!!!!!

    I am reminded of something I read about in one of my books for Doula training where docters used to (maybe some still do) make what they call a 'husband's stitch' when repairing women's tears/episiotomies after childbirth. This is basically an extra stitch that resticts the size of the vaginal opening. The book describes that many women end up having more problems and therefor less sex after birth because it is so painful after this artificial narrowing that they can no longer receive penetration comfortably. Do doctors not know that vaginal tissue is stretchy and (mostly) goes back to shape eventually? How about suggesting some pelvic floor excercises instead of manipulating women's bodies for their husbands (who may have never wanted such a thing done)?
    My dad almost decked the doctor when after my birth he turned to my dad and said 'don't worry I'll sew her up good and tight'.

    This is different that what you are talking about I suppose because it is usually done without a women's consent so it has little to do with female perceptions of beauty but more to do with the brutal things that are done to women's bodies for the indended benefit of others/men.
    Another reason why women must make sure to be informed and ask for exactly what they want in relation to how their bodies are treated in hospitals and especially during birth.

  • Comment Link Elaina Thursday, 24 February 2011 19:18 posted by Elaina

    I really enjoyed reading the article and, Chela, I appreciate the raw honesty that you show here. It's hard to do that- it's really tough when you realize how much your mind is "colonized," especially when you feel like you're a person who's pretty hip and savvy, if that makes sense.

    Something that isn't mentioned here, which I think is really important, is the way that the beauty industry compounds body dysphoria for people who are gender variant. Cisgender women (women who are socialized from birth as women and do not experience a need to transition to another gender) feel as though their bodies are not "feminine" enough- hence the waxing, the cutting, the augmentation- according to beauty standards that they had no say in establishing. When a woman who is gender variant looks at her own body, she not only has to deal with palpable revulsion because her body does not fit into this "norm," she is *expected* to do so in order to be considered legitimately female; in most states, a woman who has been through a gender transition cannot legally document herself (with a state-issued form of identification) without being able to afford a very difficult surgery to change her genitalia. I am not saying that no gender-variant woman wants to have this surgery, I am saying that the institutions that exist do not allow this woman to have another choice.

    I should also mention that I am talking about the situation in the USA. I know that standards of care for gender variant people are different in other parts of the world-some better, some worse. I think it is important to look at the requirements that are imposed upon gender variant people because it really reveals a lot of the "norms" and "expectations" that are imposed upon women as a whole.

  • Comment Link Sarah Olson Saturday, 26 February 2011 00:30 posted by Sarah Olson

    Thanks Chela, for this unique, insightful, articulate, and appropriately vulnerable piece.

    I am so glad we are having this conversation, and there is so much in what you wrote that I really deeply appreciate.

    I am especially excited about the call you made to the kind of conversation you are wanting to have, which I think is something that is strong here at Beams generally. The righteousness and disdain that women can have towards other women is pretty profound, isn't it? I can feel it in myself, but as you described, there is something sadder, more vulnerable and more honest underneath that impulse, which is that we are all profoundly in this together!... we are all exposed to and co-creating these pressures and mis-guided approaches to our own relationship to beauty and sexuality. I deeply agree with you that the only way forward is together in sisterhood, rather than separated by dissociation and disdain.

    I share your stumbling on this topic, and even trying to squeak out a coherent comment on your piece feels strangely difficult.. like there is so much to say that my mouth just opens and nothing comes out!

    I do want to share that I was reading an article yesterday in my local independent news magazine and came across a woman who seems to be right in line with the cause you are taking up here. Here name is Wrenna Robertson, and she is an exotic dancer (and university grad x3) and has just put out a book of photos and stories all about vaginas called "I'll Show You Mine." Read her introduction to the project here: http://ubcpsych350.wordpress.com/2010/09/16/ill-show-you-mine/

    Her whole aim with the book is to broaden the diversity of our exposure to normal vaginas so we are not left with only porn stars as a reference point. She was motivated by encountering several dancers she worked with who were considering vulvoplasty. A pretty cool project, and inspiring to connect with another woman fighting back against these trends.

    And THANK YOU for putting this all in a context of spiritual circumcision, as you nicely put it. For me this move brings this issue into the light, so to speak. It's not some dark, messed up thing we women are doing to ourselves, but a mis-guided expression of something way more interesting and even holy. The crazy thing about being human is that, if looked at from the right angle at the right time of day, almost everything we do as individuals and collectives can be seen as a deep desire to do all of those four things you mentioned in your article (evolve, commune, be seen and be of service), even something that can feel as crazy-making and superficial as striving to meet beauty ideals...

    Thanks for taking these risks and getting this issue out there.

  • Comment Link Scott Payne Tuesday, 01 March 2011 21:10 posted by Scott Payne

    Chela,

    As has been mentioned by the previous commenters, great article. Thanks so much for the contribution.

    Your conversation here reminds me of a strange experience I had lately. As some of the folks at Beams know, my wife and I have recently found out that we are expecting our first child. So there are a battery of appointments and tests that we have to go through as we to open to the full experience of this process and event in our lives.

    At our first sonogram, the baby was only six and a half weeks old, so we couldn't get a very good look using an external sonogram. Instead, we had to switch to an internal sonogram. This was warmly welcomed news to my wife who could finally empty her bladder of the more than one liter of water she had to consume prior to the appointment.

    Upon her return, the sonogram technician instructed my wife to undress from the waist down and then position herself on the chair and cover herself with a large paper towel. The technician then left the room to give us some privacy.

    When the technician returned, she prepared the internal device and then handed it to my wife, under the towel, to guide in herself and then pass off to the technician. Now, maybe there are medical reasons for doing this, Sarah could probably say more on this. But the whole thing was extremely awkward. Both my wife and the technician were flying blind because of the efforts to make sure that the towel never slipped or moved out of place, thereby revealing my wife's vagina.

    Now, this technician is a trained individual who, by all accounts, does sonograms all day. The technician also happened to be a woman. But her manner in this regard seemed almost like she was afraid of my wife's vagina, as if it was something that had to -- under ALL circumstances -- remain hidden.

    I'm sure that the process was at last in part designed to respect a woman's privacy not to have her vagina exposed during the process. But for me, the impetus to hide the vagina at all costs just caused the entire thing to be much weirder than it felt like it needed to be.

    I mean, we have my wife, her husband, and a technician who is performing a sonogram on my wife' uterus in the room. Who is supposed to be getting nervous about a vagina in this scenario?

    Taking two seconds to flip the towel up and help insert the sonogram device without unease or embarrassment would have fundamentally changed the situation. But such candid and straightforward treatment of my wife's vagina seemed to be a strict no-fly zone.

    As a result, I think we all suffered (albeit pretty minor suffering) needlessly.

  • Comment Link Chela Davison Wednesday, 02 March 2011 02:36 posted by Chela Davison

    I love the diversity of the conversation that has been started here. Perhaps we're all hungry for some vagina talk. There were a number of themes that I touched on in this piece and it's great to see them picked up here.

    Chloe: Even though I stated in the article that I didn't want to take an aggressive stance towards many of these issues, when it comes to something like a 'husband stitch', all I can say is that's f-ing disgusting. I hadn't heard of that, but I have had a child and tearing and stitches and all of that was incredibly painful and thankfully my tender, female midwife took great care through that process. I'm not surprised your father almost decked the doctor, I can't imagine how your mother must have felt!
    A great book I read while I was pregnant is Misconceptions by Naomi Wolf (author of The Beauty Myth) and I would highly recommend it to any pregnant woman. She speaks both about her personal journey through this transition into motherhood but also about a lot of the cultural constraints and assumptions that women face through this process. There is a great call to become educated and be the master of your own body and birth.

    As you pointed out, the article was more around beauty, but I do think these points are important and what does overlap, which I didn't touch on in the article are the pressures women may feel from men to look a certain way or have a certain 'tightness'. (Another surgery out there is where they put your hymen back so that you can give the gift of your virginity all over again! wow- thanks medicine) I had considered going down this road, but, well, the article was already really long.

    Though I am curious about what men feel is their responsibility (if any) in the evolution of these issues. Most men that I converse with about such topic tend to lean towards appreciating the natural beauty of a woman and are a lot less consumed with how we actually look than we are (though perhaps I just run with a sophisticated crowd ;-)
    There are a number of men whose comments I have read in threads on these topics who have pretty gross things to say about women, our bodies, how they should look, the use of them for their sexual satisfaction etc.
    I do wonder, not only what men see is their role in perpetuating these issues, but what could be their role the evolution of this topic? MEN?????

    Elaina- Thank you so much for your comment. I must say I have never even considered this perspective that you offered and of course these issues would be even more compounded for gender-variant women.
    I am a little confused by this part of your comment:
    When a woman who is gender variant looks at her own body, she not only has to deal with palpable revulsion because her body does not fit into this "norm," she is *expected* to do so in order to be considered legitimately female;
    Are you saying that she is expected to have surgery on her genitalia? That if she doesn't, she can't be considered female? Now that certainly is a can of worms in the realm of aesthetic ideals. On the one hand, there may be that pressure if they don't want to transition completely and have the surgery, as you mention. On the other hand, the advancements of medicine does offer a unique opportunity to these people who do want to transition. I can see within myself my own perspectives arising of when these types of practices seem appropriate and when they don't and does bring me back to the exploration of the interior, to the inquiry about what is the source of our impulse to change ourselves.

    Which brings me to...

    Sarah: I really appreciate your comment and yes, it was articulate ;-)
    I appreciate the term holy being brought into this and since writing this article I have been connecting more and more to these impulses that I described in this piece and not only in the context of beauty. I notice that I have almost been listening for them, in myself and in others. I am beginning to feel into these impulses when sensing the pain or frustration of another. I am noticing them beneath all sorts of pathologies or moves towards self destructive habits. In moments where I notice myself in a pattern that doesn't really serve me, I have started asking, What impulse does not have healthy expression in this moment such that I am behaving in this way?

    Scott: Great to hear from you! What a fascinating experience, those vagina's sure are frightening aren't they? This made me think of Sarah's article on iatrogenic suffering.
    http://beamsandstruts.com/articles/item/289-treating-the-physician-an-exploration-of-iatrogenic-suffering
    Makes me wonder what's going on inside this technician that makes it such a taboo and uncomfortable experience. I think that the individual can definitely make all the difference in such moments. I recall when I first started getting bikini waxes and it was very uncomfortable and embarrassing for the both of us. Then I had this one esthetician who, sensing my discomfort said "Honey, do you know how many vaginas I see? This is as common to me as a foot, relax."
    I would assume that part of this technicians job would be to put everyone at ease around this.
    Congrats by the way! Have you guys read Misconceptions? I think it's a very important book.

  • Comment Link Elaina Wednesday, 02 March 2011 06:08 posted by Elaina

    Chela,
    With that comment, I don't mean to say that a woman "can't" be considered female without genital surgery, in the sense of "being considered female" amongst people she knows and loves, etc. I was referring to legal and documentation issues.

    I live in FL, where a woman who is gender variant or goes through a gender transition can't get a female gender designation on her birth certificate or on her driver's license without showing a notarized letter verifying that she has had genital surgery. Some women are able to do it by "convincing" the person at the DMV- but it is sheer luck of the draw when that happens. They will usually ask to see the letter so that they can upload it to a database before they will change the gender on a driver's license.

    Most of the states in the USA have similar laws. It makes something as routine as getting pulled over by law enforcement a nightmare; it can make things like interacting with medical professionals incredibly difficult, because the standards of care developed to "legitimately treat" gender variance are pretty strict, and the medical community here is largely uneducated about the experience and existence of the gender variant. Also things like employment are complicated without the "proper identification," i.e. if you present as female and your documents say otherwise, it's really easy for prospective employers to classify what you are doing as "fraudulent," especially when they have no experience with folks other than cisgender people.

    Also, I know that in FL if you do happen to get incarcerated, you are put into the facility that is deemed "appropriate" according to your identifying documents. You can opt for protective custody (a.k.a. solitary confinement, something that Amnesty International has described as a form of torture) or you can choose to be placed in the general population. I don't think it's hard to imagine what it would be like for a woman to be placed into a prison facility that is made for males.

    Shelters for survivors of domestic violence will oftentimes not permit women who are gender variant to live in them, also.

    These are all situations that are further complicated when a gender variant person is not able to be "legitimized" by the state by providing confidential medical information that "proves" her "femaleness."

  • Comment Link Shauntelle Wednesday, 02 March 2011 17:27 posted by Shauntelle

    All I can say is "Wow!" My first visit to your blog and you completely describe a struggle I've been having internally for years. When I was younger, I tried to "drop out" of the beauty race by not participating at all... becoming "dowdy" to avoid being compared, measured, and made to feel less than.

    Which, in a way, seemed to lead to me feeling that way in the long run anyway... all the "you'd be so pretty if..." comments wore away at my self esteem as much as being part of the "pretty cliche" and worrying about having everything look "just right."

    The most relief I have ever experienced from this continual push and pull has been recently when my developing spirituality has led me to be MORE myself... as I share my personal gifts and mission with the world more... as I RECOGNIZE and CELEBRATE them more... I find I'm less influenced externally or internally by that whole beauty judgment process. I'm not dropping out or purposely taking any stand... I just feel better as I am more myself and that, I believe, allows my true beauty to radiate outwards... and lets me appreciate the beauty of others so much more. Real beauty that doesn't fit some perfect standard, but comes from our distinctness and shared qualities.

    Thanks for sharing your voice and your thoughts!

  • Comment Link Amanda Wednesday, 02 March 2011 18:02 posted by Amanda

    wow - fabulous article and discussions, conversations starting, evolving...each one of us offering something to the complexity that is experienced by so many of us women and our young women and girls around what is OK what is not OK when and where, who and why...and also then impacts our lovers and our interactions...and so many diverse persepctives each one with its own message to add to the pot - I have enjoyed times in bathhouses in countries/cultures where women from the age of toddlers to great grandmothers spend weekly times together, scrubbing washing bathing relaxing talking silent reflection massage sauna and more and I enjoyed how quickly looking at each other drops away and women together all naked becomes women together caring and sharing, and within that, every body shape colour form type style development is present and beautiful in its own unique way, shaved, unshaved, a little line of hair, piercings, short, tall, wide, slim, round, bony, more years, less years, grey, silver, red, black, brown, blond, strawberry...and another time, in an exploring our own sexuality, eroticism and spirituality, those who chose to be naked each class or not, each one at home taking a mirror and drawing her sacred vulva, and another time forming our vulva's out of clay, eyes closed in the image of greatest blessing and celebration - vulva shaped or other shaped, then for those of us who chose, towards the end of our time together over 3 months, naked and together (or not if you choose to), one by one lying back and having our trusted female facilitator, as an artist, take a photo with a polaroid camera of our beloved vulva...and our celebrations as we more and more easily could truly love all of ourselves and be truly seen in our totality...really quite extraordinary and wonderful, at times edgy and totally celebratory experiences! We have so much ahead of us to discover and uncover and reveal on all levels of our beings...and for our daughters and their daughters as our mothers and their mothers found ways to evolve and grow and lay the pathway before us - lets keep the conversation and the curiosity and the openess unfolding dear ones and thank you to all

  • Comment Link MARGARITA FELIX Wednesday, 02 March 2011 18:58 posted by MARGARITA FELIX

    Chela,
    I love your point. I shared it with my girlfriends in FB. Thanks, thanks, thanks!!!

  • Comment Link Alex Thursday, 03 March 2011 14:12 posted by Alex

    Thanks for this discussion!

    I do prefer the word CUNT though, its a little more vulgar and sexy.

    Hey Brazilian waxing is not all that evil. I´m in Brazil and women here are not at all interested in Plastic Surgery for their Vulvas.

    The problem is not in the lower regions but much higher in the psychological self.

  • Comment Link Richard Munn Thursday, 03 March 2011 20:29 posted by Richard Munn

    Thanks for the article Chela. I really appreciate the perspective you bring to this and the voice you speak with and find myself breathing a little deeper while reading it.

    I'd like to post two links to bring in something that looks at men's experiences. The hope being that both men and women can connect in this space of vulnerability and courage.

    The first is a shorter piece from the second link, which is a documentary about men's relationships with their penises.


    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jV8iir4WDng (8 mins)

    http://vimeo.com/11094452 (55 mins)

    The eight minute clip starts with an odd looking mechanical tool. It doesn't mention that the doctor showing this tool informs the crew that a man cut into the base of his penis, pushed this rather blunt and wide nozzle into that hole, and then injected/forced grease into his penis in an attempt to make it bigger.

  • Comment Link Rebecca Friday, 04 March 2011 04:30 posted by Rebecca

    Fabulous article Chela!!!!! You've done an excellent job of reviewing this documentary and bringing the latest trend in female 'beauty' into the public domain with facts, emotions, insight, and humour.
    Did this obsession with perfect vulvas begin with the Brazilian wax? And why are we calling the outside genitalia vaginas anyway? Is it because we're so uninformed of what's down there that we don't even know the correct terminology? Also, why do women want to look like pre-pubescent women (aka-young girls) by taking all the hair off their vulvas? Perhaps this is a way to get to the core of our genetalia, have a good look at them,and move on. 'Down there' is a big mystery to many. By totally exposing ourselves, the mystery can be taken away. It's unfortunate that in the process vulvas will be disfigured and conformed to society's expectation of beauty.
    Back in the 60s the big beauty question was whether to shave your legs or not. We've come a long way baby!

  • Comment Link Chime Friday, 04 March 2011 21:25 posted by Chime

    I am not so sure about this article. Also sorry for my english.

    I think there are good reasons to touch up the V that are not necessarily health related. The first time I heard about the surgery is when a woman with one of the inner flaps (forgot the name in English) being so large it sometimes chafed when she walked. Did she cut? no. But I can see why she would want to.

    Humans are very physical people - and the problem is we didn't get to customize our bodies. Some people want to stretch their ears or make tattoos or re-arrange their Vee, because those parts are important to them to be seen even if by themselves, and I don't make the distinction.

    And honestly I would feel slightly miffed if some feminist told me I am propagating low self esteem because I want to wax my pubes so down there will fit my shaved head.

    We all have our own opinions, its when people start acting like everyone mom and telling me I think like this because of that or other when I become annoyed.

    Do guys wonder if their dicks are pretty? sometimes they wonder about size, sometimes not. But perhaps it is a sort of a female equivalent. And guys do cut off foreskin if its in the way or if they're religious. I'll tell you the religious reason for that as well - aesthetics. Yeap.

    and you are right we are not alone on the table getting waxed. And every time I eat ice cream a girl with eating disorder might just feel bad and every time I do this someone else might feel this. This is how a society works, we cannot help but affect how someone sees us according to their personal life history, but perhaps it is time people would take more responsibility how they personally feel and work on that instead of saying "all those other women doing this makes me uncomfortable and pressured".

    Well tough shit, I say.

    weather I am going to shave or cut or pierce, whatever, I think the women saying "no no its bad to women" all the time are making it worse. They make the vulva, the vagina a thing of taboo to touch, a part of body that is not my own to manipulate freely as I desire like my hair, my ears, etc. And then shame women who took charge of it as being victims to media. Yeap great .

    I never bikini waxed or cut it and don't plan to, btw, so this is a bit of a devils advocate comment for me.

  • Comment Link Elaina Friday, 04 March 2011 21:43 posted by Elaina

    Chime-

    The problem with your analysis, for me, is that it assumes a completely politically neutral environment in which women make these decisions, without feeling pressured to do so. If a woman *wants* to do whatever to her body, then yes, it's her body and she can have at it. That doesn't seem to be what's happening here- women are responding to cultural pressures and being pigeonholed into making "choices" when the options they're given aren't really that palatable.

    It is bad that we live in a world that makes women feel like they have no other choice. Some women might want to do these things but I don't think it's safe to presume that they can speak for all women any more than one particular feminist with a critique of a cultural practice can speak for all women. I don't really get how it's bad for women to critique these practices- it's not an attempt to "shame" or "accuse" women of hurting other women, it's an attempt to understand the full context in which women make these decisions.

    I'm all for a world where women simply say "I want it" and there's no other meaning behind that. Unfortunately, it's not the world we live in.

    I mean, you could take your eating ice cream analogy and sort of turn it about; would you eat an ice cream in front of a woman with an eating disorder if 1. you knew she had an eating disorder, 2. you knew she looked up to and admired you, 3. you knew that if she were watching you, she might be triggered into a binge or she might go home and self-mutilate from the depression? I mean, nobody's asking anyone to do anything other than think about the implications of the practices and think about what their actions might mean to other people. How's that unreasonable? What's wrong with talking about the "why" behind the decision, and why is it presumed to be better not to question desires?

  • Comment Link Rio Friday, 04 March 2011 22:00 posted by Rio

    This is one of the best articles I have read in a long time, you are a very talented writer. Keep writing, you are making a difference!

    Rio xx

  • Comment Link T Saturday, 05 March 2011 00:26 posted by T

    this is the best, most courageous, necessary and honest piece I have read in a long time. Every woman should read it and maybe we could together find a way out of this madness.

  • Comment Link Chela Davison Saturday, 05 March 2011 00:37 posted by Chela Davison

    Wow- Lots going on here. Thank you all for joining the discussion!
    Just a quick one and will be back later.

    Shauntelle- I really appreciate what you've spoken to here and I think it's really important. This notion of real beauty, which I touched on in the impulse to be seen, is far more that what's happening externally.

    A number of years ago I was at Cosmoprof, a huge hair and beauty convention in Italy. I had an experience there that was striking. The women present on the first day, before the public could attend were either models or women on the business end of this industry. The models were all young, tall and conventionally stunning. The 'business ladies' were all in their late thirties and older, shorter and fuller figured.

    What was striking was that the models seemed so consumed by being a particular way, adjusting their clothes, fixing their hair, totally awkward in their own skin. These older ladies were rockin' it, at ease with themselves and truly radiating.

    The contrast was intense, the women with confidence and humour and the ability to connect were so much more radiant that the 'conventionally' gorgeous.

    I find this for myself as well. The most beautiful I have ever felt is when I had a shaved head. I was actually looking to renunciate some of my aesthetic preoccupation and what ended up happening was that strangers would stop me to tell me how beautiful I was. It was as though when I stopped hiding my inner beauty came out. Or something. Someone once said "wow, you're so beautiful with a shaved head, I can't imagine how stunning you must be with hair!" My response? Not quite so pretty as it turns out :-)

    Thanks again for joining in and for daring to be fully you!

  • Comment Link kat Saturday, 05 March 2011 01:03 posted by kat

    Very awesome article. Something I definitely struggle with - why we are so willing to use surgery to manipulate our bodies to fit some perceived ideal that perhaps isn't really that big of a deal when you really get into it.
    Does anyone really care what size your labias are? And if they do why, and why allow them to dictate what your body should look like?
    This kind of thing must be in the air at the moment coz I keep running into discussions on the subject- here's a really good link to a guys perspective on labia size:
    http://thehairpin.com/2011/02/cheating-pregnancy-terror-and-the-pot-belly/#more-4628

  • Comment Link Chela Davison Sunday, 06 March 2011 02:24 posted by Chela Davison

    Elaina-
    Please allow me to acknowledge how much I appreciate having your voice in this discussion. Thanks for being here.

    Chime-
    I echo what Elaina has said here. Also, though, much of what I sense you're getting at here is around free will and being able to do what we feel is right for us. I agree, to an extent.

    If you read back over Perspectives, Elitism and taking our position, perhaps you will see that we're pointing to some of the same things, that is I don't think it is very helpful to shame others or tell people what they should be doing or not doing. That's really not the point of this article. But inquiry, as Elaina points out, is really what I am pushing for.

    Also, there is a problem with just doing whatever the hell we want because there are actually consequences to that. I don't mean that we should all grow out our bushes because our friend down the street might feel pressured (in fact, I got waxed just a few days ago- and directed my esthetician to check out this article!) But questioning what we're doing and why and taking a look at what we call our 'free choice' is imperative.

    One of the problems I have with what you are suggesting is that this way of being in the world assumes no responsibility for the collective. The whole 'you do your thing, I'll do mine and we're all empowered' is a bit misguided in terms of our collective growth.
    What I am suggesting is our responsibility to one another in this issue isn't around not doing certain things, but in being willing to inquire, talk about, share about and most importantly become acquainted with these impulses we're talking about so that when we do make a free choice, it's actually conscious.

  • Comment Link Sarah Olson Sunday, 06 March 2011 02:41 posted by Sarah Olson

    Some great ideas and dialogue here.

    I wanted to pick up on something alluded to, by Amanda I think, which links to a key point in Chela's piece.

    Something that I think plays heavily into our confusion about beauty/self-image (at least in Canada where I live) is our lack of exposure to nudity and diversity in physical forms.

    I don't know about you, but I grew up in a family/culture where naked-ness was not actually dirty or anything, but certainly not around a whole lot. Whether at home, in the women's locker room, at the lake or at the beach, I have found that women have been for the most part, well, covered up.

    Reminds me of Chela's point at the beginning of her article that most of us don't even know what our own vagina's look like, let alone have a good solid appreciation for the diversity of normal.. and yet there is this idea developing all the same of the right, or pretty vagina.

    I have been struck in recent months by my experience at my local yoga studio, where women seem to be much more comfortable being naked in front of each other. It is really a wonderful thing to see so many (strong, healthy, fit, beautiful) bodies in all their diverse glory and not a single one of them looks like any magazine cover I have ever seen... even the super-fit woman I just saw transitioning from handstand right into chataranga has the odd roll... imagine! :)

    The underlying reasons for what we are experiencing are complex, but the reality is that the images of beauty (women's, in this example)we are surrounded by in popular culture are for the most part fake, photo-shopped, augmented.. and the women who are doing the "best" job of actually meeting these ideals are often obsessive and actually seem to lack the grounding and radiance that at our core all of us are aching for (as in Chela's example of the more mature women at the beauty show in Italy)(and for sure there are plenty of women really authentically doing both.. don't want to get into some kind of shadow-laden bashing of conventional beauty :)

    I am not advocating for collective vagina-gazing necessarily, nor rampant indiscriminate nudity, but I think we here in North America could learn something from other cultures in Europe, South America, etc where naked-ness seems so much more, well, normal!

  • Comment Link Chela Davison Sunday, 06 March 2011 23:18 posted by Chela Davison

    Sarah-
    I really appreciate you picking this up and yes, Amanda, what you wrote is beautiful, I found myself aching to be there.

    I recall being in Thailand at 18 and seeing all the European women on the beach without tops on. The diversity of breasts were amazing. It really opened my eyes as I had been loathing my own breasts and realized that the majority of naked breasts I had been exposed to was sneaking peaks at my brother's nudie mags and those were all fake! I wasn't comparing mine to reality at all!

    I appreciate you picking up this point Sarah and I think it's one worth exploring in the 'what now'? context. That link you posted before to the article in Georgia Straight 'reality check: This is a Vulva' is interesting. This woman doing a project where we get to see the diversity of female genetalia out there...
    And yet...I am torn. Part of me wants it left alone, wishes that we could really just leave our bits alone and not look at them. Not because I think there's anything wrong with that but because there's something that feels sacred about keeping them private, keeping some mystery. But I guess our culture is beyond that now and that getting better acquainted with diversity may support us all in loving our own.

  • Comment Link Chela Davison Monday, 07 March 2011 18:50 posted by Chela Davison

    Richard!
    Thanks so much for posting those links and bringing us into the male experience.
    I am half way through the documentary and will certainly have something to say about it ;-)

    But there's something that's come out of the woodwork with men since posting this article that's fascinating...

    First, the different threads of discussion that are happening are great. What has been interesting since posting this article is the influx of voices through other medium, facebook, e-mails, live conversations etc.

    From my friend in Brazil saying she doesn't know any women there who get Brazilians, to long time girlfriends telling me how they feel about their vaginas in ways that I was not expecting, to gratitude and cries from women who felt touched and connected to.

    But something happened yesterday which has connected me to the great potential of collective intelligence. A man in his early forties who read this piece joked about how when he read the line "have you looked at your vagina lately?" he chuckled and said "nope".
    But as he read on, what he did start to ask himself is what private and intimate parts of himself does he not look at, or feel at odds with or doesn't know how to reconcile?

    He began talking about the more vulnerable and emotional aspects of himself and where our culture doesn't allow for that particular exploration and maturation to happen for men. He shared that he is in a quandary around what it means to be a man in the world today.

    This isn't the first man to tell me this as of late. It seems to me that I can't have a meaningful conversation with a man these days without him divulging how challenged he feels in relationship to his emotional self and how excruciating and limiting this is.
    Most of these men are in their forties or older (some younger) and are now challenged by all this man-ness they have been working towards only to arrive somewhere to discover that a great part of who they are have been left behind in terms of their development.

    Now, not being a man, I feel I have little to offer in response to this except, well, here I was writing about vaginas and the plight of the female and suddenly I am getting to connect, rather deeply with men on topics that are meaningful to them. I guess I am offering an ear.

    So...few things on this...

    1. Beams and Struts...an experiment in collective intelligence...something is emerging here...let's keep writing, speaking, sharing, opening up and pushing forward...

    2. You have no idea what your offering might open up for someone else. I have a card above my desk that says 'your work is to discover your work, then with all your heart, do your work.' Sometimes the what or the why are just the beginning of something you couldn't have conceived of while keeping your work to yourself.

    3. These evolutionary impulses that I spoke of in relationship to this beauty predicament just keep showing up as the undercurrent for so many predicaments. As this man shared with me what was triggered in him by this article and what he was starting to see I could hear his impulse to evolve, to be seen, to commune and to be of service.

    4. Rock on

    5. More about penis size later...gotta get back to class!

  • Comment Link Jackie Wednesday, 09 March 2011 05:18 posted by Jackie

    Great article!
    I am a waxer and a laser hair removal tech so I see many vagina's and am aware that no two are alike. However I am the one letting my friends know this as it's not common knowledge and that's what makes women insecure. I am not for or against the surgery as long as there are solid reasons backing you up and making YOU happy.
    I did stumble across a book full of courageous women that are sharing their confidence and experience regarding the vagina that would be a great visual for this article. http://www.showoffbooks.com/products/ill-show-you-mine
    Enjoy!


    http://www.showoffbooks.com/products/ill-show-you-mine

  • Comment Link M Thursday, 10 March 2011 12:01 posted by M

    Sure social emphaty is a fair thing to ask. But I ask you as well - is it fair to make any decision a woman does a political one?

    There is a good evidence to suggest that some aspects to beuty are universal (such as symmetry, youth) and that your reaction to that 16 year old girls' was actually a natural one.

    I think saying "I want to change something about myself because I want to look like *some mainstream beauty standard*" is not necessarily a bad thing to say, as long as it corresponds to what the woman actually wants.

    vanity is vanity, and pretending to say one is more important than the other is perhaps a bit misleading.

    And everyone says inner beauty is more important anyways, but I dont see discussions open on how inner beauty is actually also culturally and media prescribed as well.

  • Comment Link Richard Munn Thursday, 10 March 2011 18:21 posted by Richard Munn

    Hey Chela,

    I'm feeling happy that the male experience is coming up in your awareness recently and that you're happy I made that contribution.

    I feel there are two main streams in the gender conversation, the particular and the universal.

    The particular is that where a woman may feel insecure about her vagina a man might feel insecure about his penis.

    The universal is that underneath both of these concerns is an appreciation of what level of Being each person is identifying with, that's to say whether they identify with the insecurity or genuinely (and therein lies the rub!) can be lovingly aware of and bigger than that insecurity.

    Reading your article reminded me of the time partners of mine have been self-conscious that their labia were too large. Remembering back to this their concern was so COMPLETELY outside my experience that I almost didn't know what to say. Perhaps if this happens again I'll be that much more able to be with that fear if it arises. Thank-you.

    Rich

  • Comment Link oceanicthunder Sunday, 13 March 2011 03:25 posted by oceanicthunder

    Fantastic article. i love when i find kindred souls who think of generations ahead, from a birds eye view and say as it is.
    i forward your article link to my 17 yr old daugther and I am confident that you will open her eyes. thank you.
    As a mother I realized no matter how much you try to prepare your daughter(s) with the tools to survive as a confident, informed, beautiful, independant woman you are competing in an environment that twists, destroys and consumes collective, creative, and compassionate spirits. It tough to reclaim the sacredness of our centre, our vagina, in this world.
    SO Thank you so much for reminding me and others.
    many smiles to you

  • Comment Link Elaina Sunday, 13 March 2011 09:18 posted by Elaina

    Women's bodies are politicized before they are even born, because we live in a world where women comprise an underclass.

    "There is a good evidence to suggest that some aspects to beuty are universal (such as symmetry, youth) and that your reaction to that 16 year old girls' was actually a natural one."

    There is also good evidence to suggest that beauty standards change according to the whims of whatever masculine establishment figures are in power at different times. Have you read through the article and the comments? I asked earlier what it is that's wrong with questioning presumptions; why do you think it is more appropriate to have a certain reaction to seeing a particular kind of labia than it is to have another kind of reaction?

    (I get the sense from the way that you use the word "natural" that there might be better words- such as "appropriate" or "correct"- that would better convey your meaning. There is no such thing as an "un-natural" reaction, because human actions cannot physically exist outside of nature. What I've found is that the word "natural", in relation to the beauty-industry discussion, is invoked in order to impart an air of authority- the presumption being that if something is "natural" it is static or unchanging. That really doesn't make any sense, if you think about it, if it weren't for adaptation, no creatures on the planet would exist... "nature" constantly changes, as do the natures of varying types of species and organisms.)

  • Comment Link Despairing Wednesday, 16 March 2011 10:13 posted by Despairing

    Hi, Chela.

    I didn't originally want to read this. I'm really not interested in most conversation about sex and gender these days. Mostly I just end up feeling sad and violated - by all perspectives.

    And I think I just figured out why.

    It has to do with "The Image". As in: a picture. Something which can be looked at and becomes judged as an "It". Sometimes it is taken away from it's Host/ess and sometimes it is still connected to them - as in, live bodies with all manner of parts on display. Either way, we are invited to look at the parts.

    Your story of what that Dr. did with the picture of that 16-year old girl caused me to recoil in horror. Even if she consented to let him show that picture to potential clients, her consent is just as much a violation to my dignity as him showing it.

    Looking at parts and images of parts does something to the brain. We all understand this. It triggers some really deep stuff. Deep in the sense of primitive and automatic and not subject to "executive function". It is this stuff that I feel violated by. Not because its bad/dirty/etc. But because I can't choose it. The "I" who wants to choose is not consented, not respected, called all sorts of names like "Prude" and "Sex-negative" and such and there is just no place for this "I" to be without feeling violated.

    I love sex as much as any 17-year old boy. But I want to have *some* say about what impulses and feelings to have. If I don't comply with the normalized ideas of what sex is supposed to look like, feel like, what I'm supposed to like and desire, then there is something wrong with me.

    And the truth is, there really isn't. Not in this regard. I have so few sexual hang-ups it's freaky. But because I don't want to be triggered by or compared to the common fare of images regarding sex and gender, I feel like an outsider and as if I don't deserve to swim in the same pool.

    My personhood is gone. There is no one who has not seen images, no man who doesn't compare my body to what he's seen elsewhere - whether he says so or not - and precious few who don't think being triggered into having unchosen impulses and feelings *is* what the sexual experience is actually all about.

    I'm actually considering just quitting sex. I'm not getting any in my r'ship anyway and the whole atmosphere now just feels too dehumanized and disrespectful. Ever since I turned 40 I've been trying to find partners who want what I want and it's just not happening. Soon I'll be too old to appeal to anyone who's not into novelty sex with the elderly.

  • Comment Link Paul Paddon Thursday, 17 March 2011 17:54 posted by Paul Paddon

    Hey there Chela,

    Big, bold, bodacious article!

    I really get that you are opening up an inquiry into a topic that isn’t talked about much at all and I applaud the energy and enthusiasm you bring to your own personal evolution and the mirror you hold up for others to do the same.

    I’d like to pick up on a couple of threads I’ve seen in the comments. First,

    Chela’s comment:
    “I do wonder, not only what men see is their role in perpetuating these issues, but what could be their role the evolution of this topic? MEN?????”

    Well, I find it interesting that the words man, men or boy do not appear once in the article. (except in the phrase “Man oh man”). I’m also told that the article is not written for me, it’s written for a long list of groups of women and girls and from your embedded perspective inside of a culture seemingly composed only of women. It’s not written for the fathers, brothers, husbands or sons of these women. So as a man, I don’t feel exactly (or perhaps directly) invited to the inquiry. Not this particular one anyone. And yet I do feel compelled to chime in. Perhaps it’s one of those yearnings you referred to in your article.

    I liked Chime's comment:

    “perhaps it is time people would take more responsibility how they personally feel and work on that instead of saying "all those other women doing this makes me uncomfortable and pressured".

    I agree with this perspective whole heartedly. It seems to me that the healthy cultural change that you appear to be yearning for can only be affected by individuals taking personal responsibility. This applies not only to the sexy issues raised in your article but cultural change in general. Sure there are cultural pressures. There will always be cultural pressures and yet I am not aware of any other mechanism, approach, strategy, stance, whatever you want to call it, that works to effect healthy change that does not include this element. Is there one?

    Chela wrote
    “One of the problems I have with what you [Chime] are suggesting is that this way of being in the world assumes no responsibility for the collective. The whole 'you do your thing, I'll do mine and we're all empowered' is a bit misguided in terms of our collective growth.”

    I don’t believe we have a responsibility “for the collective”; I believe we have a responsibility “to the collective”. As parents we are responsible "for" our children because our children are dependent on us. As adults in a collective we are responsible to each other. We are not dependent on each other; and we need to stop treating each other like children, in my opinion. Knowledge of self and communication of this self-knowledge to others is the key point here. That’s the part that I love about your article, actually.

    Consider Elaines example:
    “Would you eat an ice cream in front of a woman with an eating disorder if 1. you knew she had an eating disorder, 2. you knew she looked up to and admired you, 3. you knew that if she were watching you, she might be triggered into a binge or she might go home and self-mutilate from the depression.”

    Is the implication here that the answer “should” be no? There are alternatives, methinks. And the fundamental position that I try to come from is to hold people capable of knowing what is best for them. If I felt like eating an ice cream and didn’t because I was in the presence of a woman with an eating disorder, then I would be assuming that she can’t handle it. AND I would be suppressing my true desires in that moment. Limiting my experience and expression for what I assume another’s needs are, is caretaking (and possibly arrogant in the extreme), which fosters dependence. Perhaps the responsible thing to do is to acknowledge my own needs and say some thing like, “I’m thinking about having an ice cream because I really like ice cream. Would you mind if I did?” That acknowledges the truth of the situation for both adults. The other is allowed to respond with what they actually need. With information via communication we can make decisions and choices that are responsible to each other.

    I completely agree with Chela’s later comment:

    “What I am suggesting is our responsibility to one another in this issue isn't around not doing certain things, but in being willing to inquire, talk about, share about and most importantly become acquainted with these impulses we're talking about so that when we do make a free choice, it's actually conscious.”

    This seems to me to be the issue in a nutshell. And so returning to the question of what is the role of men in the evolution of the issues of beauty vis a vis vaginoplasty. I think the whole notion that men are in the same boat with regard to their penises is a red-herring, in a sense. Our role here is not to empathize and say “Oh yes I get you women, I feel the same way about my penis.” It comes down to us men looking inside ourselves to see where our beliefs around beauty come from. Why do I watch porn? Why do I find youth beautiful? Why do I find a certain shape attractive? A certain smell enticing? And so on…

    The process of self-discovery is no different for men than women. Men need to become acquainted with their impulses and to be willing to talk about them too. That would be evolutionary!

    And in particular, men and women need to communicate to each other as adults, about themselves.

  • Comment Link Richard Munn Saturday, 19 March 2011 09:48 posted by Richard Munn

    I watched the documentary the other day and saw the deeply sad footage of that young woman "choosing" to have surgery and how deeply traumatic the whole thing was for her, performed by a surgeon with little care for her, every now and then mechanically telling her she's "doing well" over the top of her cries and wincing and trembling from shock.

    Her pain and anger at being "jokingly" teased by her sister and by a group of "men" was so close to the surface when she spoke about it. So close to the surface after the surgery that "made her happy" (!)

    When she went to have her stitches removed and was asked if she wanted anesthetic she immediately shot back with "NO!" because even that part of the "procedure" was immensely painful.

    All that shock and trauma is not going anywhere, it's staying in her trembling legs, her scarred and scared vulva and that she doesn't really like herself.

    This is very much linked to the fact that rarely are we exposed to any appreciation of developmental depth in relationship to desire or beauty.

    To assume everyone can decide for themselves has truth to it and it's also noble in the intention to honour everyone's voice. It also runs the risk of leaving people 'in over their heads.'

    The heartbreaking footage in both documentaries (the one about women's relationship to their vaginas as well as the one about men's relationship to their penises) are testament to this.

  • Comment Link Chela Davison Wednesday, 23 March 2011 16:18 posted by Chela Davison

    A few threads to pick up on here...
    Oceaninthunder and others with words of gratitude...you're very welcome, I'm pleased this piece has made a difference and thank you so much for being here, for reading and for carrying the discussion forward.

    M- I'm uncertain what you are actually saying here:
    "But I ask you as well - is it fair to make any decision a woman does a political one?"

    Elaina also commented on some of these points, perhaps some of this might be repetitive, but I would like to note/add:

    In terms of symmetry/youth and natural reactions, I do respect the validity of this point. There is something about symmetry, there is something about the way that the natural world arises that may have some of what we behold be more collectively beautiful than something else.

    But I think it's easy to confuse this with what we have adopted over time from being inundated with images and messages. It's quite difficult to separate what creates a natural response of awe or disgust, (like gazing at the moon or watching a badger rip apart a rat) and what creates awe or disgust because of our cultural conditioning.

    After all, without culture, without others, humans simply don't develop, so we very much are our culture. Being able to actually tease apart these 'natural' reactions from our automatic responses based on our cultural conditioning is tricky. So while this point does expand the view of what to consider, this view itself is a bit narrow.

    So to say: "I want to change something about myself because I want to look like *some mainstream beauty standard*" is not necessarily a bad thing to say, as long as it corresponds to what the woman actually wants."
    is part of what has us be in this mess. What I'm trying to do here with this article and this discussion is to start questioning what's actually going on, arguing that what the woman thinks she wants and what she actually might be worlds apart. I think there's a need for real deep inquiry and scrutiny on these issues.

    Which leads me to jump around to Richard's comment about Rosie in the documentary. Thank you Richard for such a beautiful articulation of what was going on there.

    Trauma. This is the main problem I have with the focus of beauty obsession being on finding new ways to fix our external selves or trying to meet an ideal.

    Sure a great hair cut can make us feel good (and I think that taking a truly integral perspective on this honors that tending to the physical does support the internal- to an extent)

    But one way to look at these issues is to search for what's really at play and deal with the problem at the level at which it is occurring. This is what was so striking about Rosie as you put it is how much her trauma about all of it was so ripe. What I wonder is how she's been left, how does she integrate that whole experience? What does she do with that pain and trauma now that she has apparently 'solved the problem'?

    I saw the same themes in the documentary on penis size. This just isn't about aesthetic. From what I can tell, every human being deals with their own challenges around feelings of inadequacy and the obsession with the physical body is one place this plays out. Without doing the interior work to flush it out, we're just chasing band-aids that actually make the wounds bigger.

  • Comment Link Rhian Walker Sunday, 15 May 2011 04:07 posted by Rhian Walker

    Dear Chela,

    Excellent article on many levels, but key for me was that you attempted to draw on some of the potential spiritual reasons that women might be drawn to "create themselves beautiful." This is not to diminish the very important social, political and cultural factors and discussions we need to have about gender, beauty, etc but to also acknowledge that the drive for self-beauty is deeper than that (potentially) and could be coming from a more spiritual or psychological place that wants us to evolve, create and become, well, better (for lack of a more adequate word), even if it appears to get routed down a more negative road more often than not. Often in discussions about beauty, this does not get touched, and you can feel someone the lack of it, it puts the discussion in a locked zone that has no movement or potential to transform. This desire to evolve and become can be the key to happiness, excitement, creativity and empowerment. So given that, how do we foster that within ourselves and put our inner and outer beauty in right relationship? This is the exciting potential of this article and perhaps the supportive, creative act that women can engage in: how do we help each other create ourselves in ways that are healthy and creative? Thanks again, Rhian

  • Comment Link Tina Saturday, 18 June 2011 03:15 posted by Tina

    I guess I am in the naive, WTF crowd. I've heard of people getting Brazilian waxes but have never discussed it w/my girlfriends. In fact, when I first heard what it was, I burst out laughing at the absurdity of it. Also, I don't watch porn, so I guess I've been oblivious to the trends in genital grooming.

    It all seems like such a colossal waste of time, money, and emotional energy spent on worry about these things. By all means, try to stay fit and healthy. Eat good fruits and vegetables and whole grains, and exercise because it helps you maintain a stronger body. If you like to color your hair or wear makeup, go for it, since those thing are temporary, superficial "dressings" that can be taken off, like a new dress. However, worrying about aging (from crow's feet to saggy, post-partum hoohahs) is just fruitless, not to mention surgically altering yourself to try to fit it. If you've spent any time around the elderly, you can see that it's all so ludicrous. Would anyone tell Dames Maggie Smith and Judy Dench, "Hey, great acting. Congrats on the long-standing, award-winning careers. Too bad your vaggies are saggy and your necks are so wrinkled." For those obsessed w/sculpting themselves, I hope they realize sooner rather than later that they can't fight being a carbon-based life form forever. At some point, nature wins, so save your energies and direct them toward something productive in this world.

  • Comment Link Tina Saturday, 18 June 2011 03:18 posted by Tina

    oops - that should have said "fix it" not "fit it"

  • Comment Link Patricia Heawood Saturday, 29 October 2011 22:53 posted by Patricia Heawood

    A very interesting and valuable discussion.....But girls, our vanity has led us into this nightmare - What I mean is, we could do with a little more modesty and a bit less vanity. Unfortunately, in this culture where nothing is sacred, even our private parts are up for criticism and scrutiny. It is just wrong. I think we should just keep everything covered up as much as our grandmothers and great-grandmothers did! - we must cease competing on ever more disastrous levels!

  • Comment Link Robyn Saturday, 09 June 2012 03:11 posted by Robyn

    I've had labia plasty twice..........the first time the doc didn't take enough off and it went back to original shape. The second doc took the right amount off but didn't make it quite even...so i've got to go back for a touch up :)
    there wasn't labia overload or anything, like, it wasn't hanging down to my knees, just one side was of my inner lip stuck out of the larger lip and it looked like my vagina was sticking it's tongue out a little. I wasnt shamed at all of it, i just didn't like it......it was uncomfortable in dress pants sitting down standing up at work it chaffed....just felt like useless annoying piece of skin and sometimes it would get in the way during sex. My boyfriend at the time, who's opinion i held in the highest regard LOVED it.....told me not to change it. I did it for myself and i absolutely love that i got it done.......i feel sexier. I'm not super in to my looks, i don't wear a lot of make up i go out of my way to not keep up with the latest trends because i don't like to be a follower. I'm a gorgeous 30 year old woman and i'm sure any man would love to have a piece of my privates. I could care less what the person i'm dating thinks of my vagina! I didn't really pay attention to compare mine to other people's i just knew i didn't like the extra-ness of it. I just thought i'd share my personal experience as i think it's a very personal decision to make and it doesn't mean you're obsessed with your looks, i know i'm not, so there you have a first hand story of a very non-obsessed with your looks person. It didn't take a lot of energy or emotional what have you's and the down time was like a weekend in bed. I just had a little shaved off my puss puss to make me happy. Your welcome ladies! ;)

  • Comment Link Chela Davison Monday, 11 June 2012 18:17 posted by Chela Davison

    Hey Robyn,

    Thanks so much for this perspective. Sounds like you feel really clean and clear about your decision.
    I appreciate you chiming in!

  • Comment Link Bob King Friday, 27 July 2012 21:31 posted by Bob King

    Just a few observations from a man. On the "hair and where" issues, I would offer that most women want to kiss clean-shaven men. So to men, women removing pubic hair is just a matter of returning the favor. Men like to kiss clean-shaven women! From personal experience, I much prefer to kiss a clean-shaven vulva than one I have to work my way into through a mat of hair. I can also see that women might enjoy a clean-shaven tube steak, so I can see where they would insist that their men do a little man-scaping.
    My wife can't stand nose, neck, or ear hair, so most of my efforts are above the shoulders. But that does indicate that "hair and where" isn't just about the pubic area.
    Personally, I've never met a vagina that couldn't get me where I wanted to go, regardless of how its surrounding vulva appeared. So I can't imagine why anyone would want a clip-job. But don't blame men for having it done. All the vulvas in the Vagina Wall appealed to me; I didn't see a single one that would make me go elsewhere.
    Women, not men, are women's worst enemy. Women dress for other women, they express opinions to curry favor with or irritate other women, they read those quizzes in Cosmo like, "100 Questions to Find Out What's Wrong With Your Man!" Too many words, not enough action. Consider, decide, then do or don't do. That's all there is. If you were wrong, don't do it again. If you were right, have a glass of wine, break out the mirror, and admire. End of story.

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