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 moment. 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 nominal 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's 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 commonplace 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 life, 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 conscious 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 that 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, the 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.
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. Strip 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 with 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; there'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 towards 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