Women have long been fed the not-so-covert message that our bodies are something to be ashamed of. This message is even stronger when it comes to our intimate areas, especially our vaginas. It’s one of the major sources of gender oppression, and it’s such a taboo topic that it’s become an almost-overlooked kind of misogyny.
Editor's Note: We used words like "woman" and “feminine" for searchability, and not to exclude trans people. We know not everyone with a vulva/vagina is feminine, or a woman, and we support you no matter how you identify.
Because of the messages we’ve received for so long, many women believe there’s something wrong with their vulvas - that they have the wrong size, shape, smell, amount of hair…There is a consistent memo that we’re expected to douche, cleanse, spray, pluck, and wax everything away.
In a study put on by Refinery29, nearly half of 3,670 women reported that they’re unhappy with the appearance of their vulvas . Sadly, this same survey found that a third of respondents had been directly shamed by a sexual partner or family member for the way their privates looked.
The impacts of all of this affect women in multiple negative ways. The overarching message is that women’s bodies and natural processes are shameful and embarrassing. Carrying body and sexual shame around for years can be detrimental to a women’s overall confidence, sex life, and intimate relationships.
In addition, there has been an increase in unnecessary surgeries and medications. Oftentimes, products that are marketed to solve “women problems” actually cause more damage instead of solving issues .
The embarrassment runs so deep that it can cause a disconnect from our own bodies, putting us in a position where we don’t know what’s normal. There’s so much shame that a shocking number of women aren’t familiar with their own anatomy .
This disconnect is further reason that some women are missing the signs when something is off with their health. Plus, many women aren’t getting the health care they need in the first place because they don’t even feel comfortable talking to their doctor about their intimate health.
A history of vagina shaming and misogyny
The history of vagina shaming goes back to the days when we had little information on female anatomy. Doctors used to believe women had wombs that wandered about their abdominal cavities , described as “an animal within an animal” that could drive a woman into hysteria. Luckily, the womb could be lured back into place when delightful scents were applied to the vagina.
This mystery, this fear of the unknown, and the assumption that vaginas somehow caused women to act outrageously was a significant driver in the belief that vaginas are something to be afraid of, that needed to be hidden.
Until very recently, women have been encouraged to hide everything that has to do with their nether regions. Any talk about what’s considered to be female anatomy - even something as natural as menstruation - has been a fairly taboo subject. Products marketed towards women imply that vaginas are shameful, nasty places that harbor bad odors and are breeding grounds for infections, bacteria, and STIs.
In fact, the term “feminine hygiene” itself implies that we’re dirty and need to seek out products and solutions. As one woman put it, “vaginal hygiene has been marketed as a duty women must fulfill for the benefits of those around them.”
No one nailed that messaging harder than feminine hygiene companies of the early 1900’s, who put on campaigns that blamed women’s smelly vaginas for destroying their marriages . These ads promised women that the best way to secure love in their life was to douche.
1930's Lysol ad
For decades, Lysol was famously advertised to be a safe and effective way to keep your vagina fresh and your husband loyal. Arguably worse, it was also marketed as a contraceptive. Needless to say, a lot of people got pregnant. Not only that, but Lysol douching led to inflammation, burning, and death .
Are we there yet?
We’ve come a long way since those dangerous ads, but we still have work to do.
The fear, confusion, and shame surrounding female anatomy has lingered far beyond those early ads. Kotex even faced issues with their ad campaigns as recently as 2010 . The well-known menstrual product brand was unable to use the word “vagina” in a television commercial featuring products used for...vaginas.
Even today, vaginas are still rarely talked about. Few women know what’s normal and so many women have concerns about their vulvas, not realizing they’re completely normal.
Because of the misconception about what a vulva should actually look like, the prevalence of labiaplasty and vaginal rejuvenation procedures has increased in recent years. In fact, labiaplasty saw a 39% increase in 2016. It is now the fourth most popular form of cosmetic surgery in the U.S.
There are still major problems worldwide surrounding female genital mutilation (FGM), period poverty , and period bullying . These acts contribute to the cycle of oppression, poverty, undereducation, and mistreatment of women.
The rise of vaginal empowerment and women taking a stand
With all of this said, a movement is beginning to take place. The conversation is finally turning and more women are out there speaking out about these issues. Dr. Jen Gunter , a Canadian gynecologist, is one of the most prominent voices for the movement. She talks about the dangers of the misconceptions we have about female anatomy and health.
Gynecologist Dr. Jen Gunter
Photographer Laura Dodsworth photographed 100 vulvas to show women the range of size, color, and shape that vulvas can take. British artist Jamie McCartney created the great wall of vagina in an effort to assure women their vulvas are completely fine. And the idea behind The Labia Library is the same.
These aren’t just art pieces, either. They’re incredibly powerful stories about women and their experiences. Collectively, it’s about women standing up for themselves and each other. Education is one of the greatest forms of empowerment, and the effect it can have on our physical and mental health is exponential.