This piece originally appeared on Role/Reboot. Republished here with permission.
Warning: Some parts of this article, and individual hyperlinks, are explicit, and may be considered NSFW.
There’s a lot of pressure to have a good vagina. Rapper Missy Elliott’s mysterious “Pussycat” is a ballad from a woman to her genitals. She pleads that they not “fail her now” so her lover won’t cheat on her. Then she disguises her voice through a creepy filter and raps as her lover, backhandedly affirming that he’s “glad [hers] ain’t that gushy stuff.” Ten years later, I’m still not sure if the song is parody or commentary. It reminds us that in a culture that reduces women to our appearances, we can feel like not much more than walking vaginas. And if you flip and reverse that argument, when we sexualize women, we see women’s genitals existing to perform for a partner’s pleasure. Where every part of a woman’s body is taxonomized, judged, and sentenced, it’s no surprise that we treat our vulvas with fear and disgust.
I know a few extra things about how women regard their genitals. While creating my documentary,Subjectified, I had intimate conversations about sex with women across the United States. In the jarring words of a funny, self-confident, conventionally gorgeous 23-year-old, “I don’t think I have the prettiest genitals…I remember like three years ago I put a mirror down there, and that was the first time I saw up-front what was going on…I was totally horrified for a whole week.” Another woman described how her genitals were seriously injured in childbirth, requiring reconstructive surgery that she couldn’t afford. She felt stuck in a dysfunctional relationship because she was ashamed to show her body to anyone else. Our feelings about our genitals reverberate through our lives, and we project a life’s worth of insecurities onto our private parts.
We’re familiar with men’s commentary on who’s hot or not. Our culture also enforces rules about how women talk about our own bodies. It’s common office chatter to point out perceived imperfections (“Eew! X Celebrity has hairy forearms!”). And we’re free to criticize our own body parts (“I don’t have the arms to wear cap sleeves!”). A coworker complains about hating her ankles, but if she talks about loving them, she could be called arrogant, competitive, or delusional. We can insult ourselves, but are we empowered to decide that our own parts are actually OK? And if we’re not, who is?
There are corners of the Internet where you can anonymously upload a photo of your labia and women will give you compliments. Tracy Clark-Flory shined a light, so to speak, on the “labia pride” movement. These blogs catalog women’s diverse genitals, helping us exorcise misconceptions about what is “normal” anatomy. An Australian named Emma runs the “Large Labia Project,” showcasing protruding inner labia that we might never have encountered before, especially if mainstream porn was our intro to women’s genitals. “Vaginas of the World” features photos and comments ranging from true pride to outright self-hate and intentions to save up for cosmetic labiaplasty surgery. The selection is biased to women willing to post shots of their undercarriage online, but the blogs highlight one bare fact: We have a lot of feelings about our genitals.
Emma sees pornography as reinforcing a narrow set of vulval norms, but critics are not convinced that the answer is fighting porn with porn. In “Insecure About Your Vagina? Sharing a Photo on the Internet Won’t Fix That,” Amanda Hess reminds us that “it’s also perfectly healthy to not spend a ton of time looking at your vagina.” But with 335 pages of thumbnails, VOTW proves its relevance in popularity.
Porn may set expectations, but how can we blame porn for our culture’s persistent ignorance about and discomfort with human sexuality? While VOTW’s crotch shots resemble pornography, there are other ways to consider up-skirt selfies. We live in an information-poor environment regarding sex. This is hard to recognize when surrounded by side-boob billboards, but to understand what’s going on, we should look at the quality, honesty, and commercial motivation of the sex around us. Magazines and movies exist to sell things (or be sold themselves). Beauty ads succeed when you wonder if there’s something wrong with you. So it takes an unconventional approach to share images for any reason other than commerce. We can’t know if the VOTW submitters wanted to feel like porn stars, but “show me yours and I’ll show you mine” is a game that predates Internet porn by a solid 100,000 years. Fundamentally, the sites come from a desire to make connection and community.
We must understand why it’s important to connect vagina-owners directly. When an anonymous writer with “enormous” inner labia first slept with a man, he took the opportunity to comment on her parts, “Wow…you’ve got some…big lips…” This isn’t even an insult, although maybe he meant it that way, yet to her it was traumatizing. She recounts the story as though a reader would naturally affirm her embarrassment (and decision to undergo labiaplasty surgery). But there’s no reason another person—sexual partner, friend, mother, even doctor—should have that much power over our sense of value. If our intimate partners can dictate how we feel about our genitals, we must develop other ways to understand the purpose and power of our bodies. Partners don’t decide if you’re attractive. Partners decide if they are attracted to you, which is much more about them than about you. Down the rabbit hole where someone else assesses us, we’ve relinquished all control over our self-worth. That, my friends, is bullshit, and it tears us up.
We’re taught to expect lots of input on our physical appearances: criticism and praise both overt and subtle. So it’s no surprise that we have trouble generating self-acceptance from scratch. If only we could convince each other that our appearance is not our value as people. But is it such a mistake to begin with some positive feedback against the backdrop of body shaming? The women of VOTW describe pain so eviscerating it was literally driving them to slice themselves up. Bless this fairy blogmother who says nice thing to all the vaginas of the world! In spite of some reasonable criticisms of the vagina blogs, I say, fire away with the compliments. We exist in community and derive our sense of reality from how our communities find meaning. Better the community of supportive women than the community of one guy in your bed.
I’m all aboard the feel-good-vulva-sisters train, but scrolling page after page of intimate personal revelations, I got nervous about the emerging patterns. Insecurities about darkly pigmented flesh remind us that some still perceive pink caucasian skin as a standard. While many express a deep, new-found confidence based on the photo sets, others become more anxious when they fail to see vulvas like their own represented on the site. If the blogs become competitions for the most “likes,” they could cause more problems than they solve. The push to look normal is brutal, and we can only chip away at it so much by expanding its definition rather than questioning normalcy as a value. But for every submission, there are 50 lurkers evolving their concept of what vulvas look like. For all of technology’s weirdness as it impacts sex, it can also help us share knowledge for our own benefit, like these fascinating photos of cervixes in action.
The descriptions made me nervous, though. “Normal” kept bouncing around. So did “cute,” “pretty,” and “beautiful.” I thought of the labiaplasty surgeons in Kirsten O’Regan’s expose describing their results: “tidy,” “neat,” ”petite,” and infantilizingly “rejuvenated.” When we’re not sure what a vulva is for, it’s hard to author a meaningful compliment for one. Beautiful like a face, or hot like a silhouette, or cute like a button nose? There’s pressure to make all of a woman’s parts express femininity, with no room for straying and even less acknowledgment of different gender expressions that vulva-owners might embody. But like anonymous’s labiaplasty, driven in part by her “monstrous” labia not staying inside her thong (“it’s a very serious problem, people”), why shouldn’t femininity encompass our female parts as they are? Why do we have to shrink our genitals to fit inside a busted idea of femininity?
The one norm that’s overpoweringly, dramatically over-represented in the blogs is hairlessness. There are a few hirsute mounds and some buzz cuts, but the vast majority are waxed, shaved, or lasered bare. There’s razor burn that makes my thighs sting. Some posts involve banter on achieving a particular pube coif. We see genitals on display for consumption, ready for their close-ups. If we’re aiming to resemble hairless children, it’s no wonder we get uncomfortable with fully-developed “thick” and “meaty” lips, as Emma unabashedly describes her own.
When I interviewed the pretty woman with “not the prettiest genitals,” I worried about establishing unhealthy norms by showing her enthusiasm for Brazilian bikini waxes. But my commitment was to the unvarnished, unpleasant, intractable decisions that young women make. “The cleanliness of it and the healthiness of it, I’d rather have that be what I see first, rather than the negative connotations I’ve built up around my body image, surrounding my hair.” There’s a pure truth in her words. It’s not the hair that bothers her—it’s her issues. That’s what she doesn’t want to see when she looks down. That part’s harder to cut off.
Melissa Tapper Goldman is a writer, designer, and media maker based in Brooklyn. She is the force behind the indie documentary, Subjectified: Nine Young Women Talk about Sex, and a contributing producer for acclaimed web series, “The Outs.” Her words on sex, women, and design have appeared across the web. You can read more of her writing at alliedfields.com and watch the Subjectified trailer at subjectified.com. She currently tweets at @subjectified.
[Photo from Shutterstock]