This post is aimed to address the females relationship (and men) with the appearance of their genitals, vaginas or vajayjay’s and how society is actively part of constructing an inaccurate norm of the female genital as well as. About half of the human population has a female genital but very little awareness is given to the impact of our attitudes toward the perceptions of female genitals
The past couple of weeks in the current situation of lockdown this topic has been a big part of my life. I have been discussing the issue with various people, both friends and strangers.
After debating the issues surrounding genital appearance with a relative and high school biology teacher, he decided to give his class a challenge. The challenge was to make an accurate drawing of the female genitals. The result where astonishing. Out of 32 drawings only 5 of the drawings actually include all the parts of the female genital. This is a good illustration of the lack of knowledge about the appearance of a women’s genitals. The teacher, as a result, decided to spend the rest of the class teaching about genital appearance and all their varieties. Now, 32 students have been given the knowledge, they know that the female genitals have many parts, and that these parts all are different. Now that they have been given the knowledge and language to accurately describe genitals, they are aware. This makes a change. My hope is that this post will give you some new insights and hopefully accept, appreciate your wonderful vagina, in whatever shape or form it has.
Please note: The post contains a lot of scientific references thar are available on on page 2.
The Rising Tendency That Diversity Among Women’s Genital Appearance is Unnatural
It is no secret that many western women have a problematic relationship with their bodies. A great deal of women see their bodies flawed in one way or another. One reason for this negative view of the body, stems back from the fact that the body is often seen as a site of symbolic representation of oneself which is strongly governed by core social values (Bordo 1993). As Balsamo (1996, p 78) states, “the body becomes… the site at which women, consciously or not, accept the meaning that circulate in popular culture about ideal beauty… The female body comes to serve as a site of inscription, a billboard for the dominate cultural meanings that the female body is to have in postmodernity” . From this perspective a female body and how she herself is not isolated from cultural processes but rather it is shaped from culturally meaningful systems of values. Much has been written and discussed with respect to how social and cultural values shape women relationship with her body, besides a women’s relationship to her genital (Bell & Apfel, 1996). Sigmund Freud and many of his followers believed that the issue surrounding the female genitals was about the lack of the male genital (Davis, 2001). This story is not about the lack however, it is about the presence of female genital.
It appears that a women’s genitals has a taboo position in todays society (Braun, 1999). Even naming itself, is a problem (Braun & Wilkinson, 2001). In this essay, the term ‘genitals’ will be used as this includes the area around the vaginal opening, clitoris, and the labia.
In todays society, gender identity is largely related to our biological bodies and our genitals; therefore our genitals play a critical part in the difference between sexes and identity (Braun & Wilkinson, 2005). The female genital is often seen as an essential part of feeling like a woman (Braun & Wilkinson, 2005) and as a consequence, it comes as no surprise that women have concerns about their genitals. Although distress about ones own genitals is nothing new, much of it relates to hygiene, pain and illness. However, distress developing from worrying about appearance is a rather new and developing phenomenon. There is little published research on genital perception and self-image. Despite that, research has showed that as much as 50% of women at some point in life were thinking that their genital was abnormal (Bramwell & Morland, 2009). Internet sites and women and teen magazines repeatedly contain letters with questions regarding the genital normality(Braun & Kitzinger, 2001) and aesthetic genital surgery is on the rise (Braun, 2005). It seems like women are increasingly becoming preoccupied with the notion of being perfect and are heavily influenced by the beauty myth. According to this myth, beauty is an objective quality that all women want to embody. Presenting evolutionary success and fertility a attractive woman is, and always has been, more sought after by men than her peers (Wolf, 1991). In debunking this myth, Wolf (1991) argues that beauty is not a natural or universal classification but rather a form of cultural ‘currency’ to limit control and ‘women’s access to power. Therefore, to be able to understand a women’s experience of the appearance of her genitals we need to examine the cultural and social context as the issue surrounding genital appearances goes far beyond the skin. Because a women’s perception of her genitals is developed in relation to the socio-cultural and historical context in which we live.
Sociocultural representation and language of female genitals
There are many socio-cultural representations of the female genital. As such, this part of the body most represents womanhood (Braun & Wilkinson, 2001). Although, many representation exist, they often embody a negative view of the female genital, some of these are: The vagina as inferior to the penis (e.g greek saw the vagina as an inside out of the penis (Mills, 1991)), the female genital as vulnerable both biologically and psychologically (Braun & Wilkinson, 2001) and the female genital as part of the female that is unattractive unclean and shameful and should remain hidden (Braun & Wilkinson, 2001, Westheimer, 1995). Many women have been raised to believe that their genitals are dirty and smelly part of the body (Westheimer, 1995). By these social representations women can start to internalize their genitals as inferior, unattractive, vulnerable and unclean (Braun & Wilkinson, 2001) These representations are all part of the way the western culture has shaped attitudes towards female genital. However, a contradiction exist where the vagina has many socio-cultural representation but on the other hand has turned female genitals into a ‘taboo’ topic in todays western society (Braun & Wilkinson, 2001). This can be part of affecting the way in which women feel about their vaginas. Avoiding open conversation about about ones genitalia leads to less knowledge and thus, it is harder for a women to distinguish what is healthy and ‘normal’ for their genitals and what unhealthy and ‘abnormal’(Crooks & Baur, 1999). The same is true in the health sector where individuals working in women’s health also develop knowledge and thoughts about the female genitals though the same same socio-cultural context as women themselves (Braun & Wilkinson, 2001).
Another problem that arises though socio-cultural representation is the language used to describe and talk about the female genitals. Language is not only a tool for communication, it is bound up in the creation reality as it presents it (Burr, 2003). It produces ideas which mostly involve two distinct categories among many variations of genitalia, these are ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ (Davis, 2002). However, in scientific and medical literature there is very little written about what a ‘normal’ genial looks like and the exact positioning of the genitals many parts (Weber, Wlaters, Schober, Mitchison, 1995). Yet, it seem like many women that express dissatisfaction with their genitals appearance, have made up an picture of what a ‘normal’ female genital should look like.
Media representation of the female genital
A women’s conception about the appearance of her own genitals may be largely rooted in the media as there are limited sources of information about the appearance of genitals elsewhere (Dodson, 1996). Media has become one of the biggest information sources of the social construction surrounding the ideal female body (Schick, Rima & Calabrese, 2010). Women’s magazines, in particular have been recognized as an important source of ideas about appearance as a medical problem (Sullivan, 2001). In recent years the Internet and other media technologies have allowed for a larger access to pornographic materials and the viewing such material has become increasingly accepted (Braun & Tiefer, 2010).
However a paradox exist, over time the gap between the average female body and the ideal body depicted within media images has increased (Byrd-Bredbenner, Murray, & Schlussel, 2005). Where the ideal portrayed in the media is often a result of digital modification of the media and surgical modification of the subjects resulting in representations of genitals that have unrealistic appearances (Byrd-Bredbenner, Murray, & Schlussel, 2005). Where the female genital is often portrayed as a smooth curve emulating the intimate body parts of a Barbie doll and genital as a clean slit (Davis, 2002). Where the labia minora does not extend beyond the labia majora, a contained clitoris, a nice pink color overall, as well as a tight vagina (Braun, 2010). What does this clean slit appearance signify? Does it signify minimization? Does it signify the desire to stay young like a preadolescenct? It seem like the western culture represents a women’s genitalia with ‘absence’ which heavily contrasts to the ‘presence’ of the male genital (Braun & Wilkinson, 2001). Even though the female genitals show broad diversity in all aspects. As investigated by a resent study (Loyd, Crouch, Minto, Liao & Creighton, 2005) showed that by examining 50 women, that the clitoral length ranged from 5-35mm, clitoris to urethra distance ranged from 16-45mm, labia minora length ranged from 20-100mm and the labia majora length ranged from 7-12cm. Yet, the media mostly shows images one type of female genital, the clean slit genital. This representation may not only lead women view their own vagina as different from the ideal, but it can also lead them to believe that how they look is unnatural and deviant (Schick, Rima & Calabrese, 2010). Not only does the media have the potential to directly affect how women feel about their genitals, it can also indirectly affect men and other individuals, who may impart their ideals about gentials onto women (Schick, Rima & Calabrese, 2010).
Cosmetic surgery of the female genital
As we get more and more exposed to ‘ideal’ looking genitals in the media and magazines in particular which sometimes working tightly with surgeons to promote cosmetic surgery (Sullivan, 2001). Women in increasing numbers, have turned to more radical means of body modification though cosmetic surgery. Today’s society, it seems has forgotten the fact that bodies change over time. Often, cosmetic surgery is viewed as a way to sculpt the body and keep it in one state, avoiding the natural changing processes. Cosmetic surgeries aimed at female genitals tend to advertise that change to genital appearance with over time is negative (Bramwell & Morland, 2009) and thus strengthening the belief that ‘normal’ genital appearance only exist in the early years of life.
Surgery aimed at genitals is mostly related to alter aesthetics and sometimes function of the vagina (Braun & Tiefer, 2010) The most usual surgery is labiaplasty, a reduction of the labia minor, Another common surgery is to tighten the vagina (Braun & Tiefer, 2010). As Gilman (1998) asserts, the increase in cosmetic surgery as a widely accepted practice reflects a twofold belief in its ability not only to correct bodily deformity, but also to ‘fix’ the psyche that that has been damaged by the body’s stigmatization. Cosmetic surgery therefore, strengthens the socio-cultural representation of the female genital as unattractive and disparities from the ‘ideal’ as unnatural (Braun & Kitzinger, 2001b). Where surgery becomes a practice of changing diversity to fit a certain ideal, the clean slit. One way to promote cosmetic surgery of the female genital is by arguing that male heterosexuality is constructed as visual, with desire based on the aesthetic. And as there are cultural expectation in the western society that each individual has a right to attain and pursuit maximal satisfaction in their sexual relationships (Nicolson, 1993). Cosmetic surgery is framed as a viable tool to achieve this (Braun, 2005). On the other hand not much information is put out about the risk of cosmetic surgery. It can lead women to lose sensation as blood vessels and nerves may become damaged during a procedure, as well as the risk of infection, chronic pain and many other complications (Braun, 2005).
Furthermore, research has found a correlation between low self-esteem and with negative views of one’s appearance, including the genitals (Bramwell & Morland, 2009). And therefore surgery may exist as a solution because it relies on ‘experts’. Thus little personal responsible is necessary and it is often thought as an easier approach than solving ones own personal problems with appearance. Consequently, cosmetic surgery can be seen as altering the body to alter the mind (Braun, 2005). However, given the large variation in female genitals and little scientific literature and research about what is ‘normal’ and ‘ideal’ genital appearance and lack of normative data (Loyd, Crouch, Minto, Liao & Creighton, 2005), it is rather surprising that surgeons feel confident that surgery has the potential to give women a ‘normal’ or ‘ideal’ looking genital. Yet, we see that surgeons as well as the patients have a norm that they go after, being the clean slit appearance of the female genital (Davis, 2002). Even though cosmetic surgery may have the possibility to relieve women of distress related to her genital and the potential to become more sexually confident, and thus experiencing greater sexual pleasure. New appearance of the genital may give rise to new genital norms to live up to it, which can create factors that may lead women to experience different problems with their identity, self-esteem and perception of the genital (Braun, 2010). The question to consider is whether new worries about genital appearance and, thus, larger marked are being created though the promotion of cosmetic surgery on the basis of the ‘ideal’ of the female genital. In the context where there seems to be little understanding of female genital diversity it seems rather absurd to promote the clean slit appearance of the genital as normal, as this look is only at one end of the spectrum of genital diversity (Braun, 2010).
It becomes almost logical that women in increasing numbers have a negative perception about their genital appearance. When examining the large cluster of certain sociocultural factors that influences a women’s experience of her genital. From influences such as; negative socio-cultural representation of the female genitals, prioritizing medical solutions, the normalization of cosmetic surgery, rising acceptance and availability of pornography. It it is important to understand that its not only women that are influenced by these cultural factors and practices. The health sector, medical professionals, media as well as men are also influenced by culture, hold beliefs and are part of reinforcing the cultural assumptions around female genital appearance as much as females themselves (Kapsalis, 1997). It is important to keep in mind that the perception that some genitals are abnormal and unattractive, does not reflect a material truth, it is a personal evaluation that reflects certain sociocultural messages about genital morphology.
What can we do to create awareness, change our mindset and value the fantastic organ that our vagina, genitalia or vajajay is?
We need to break the taboo surrounding talking about one’s genital and secrecy surround it. We can do so by openly talking about it and challenging the negative representation of the female genitals. So women and men start talking and sharing. This organ is magnificent, it creates tremendous pleasure for both genders and not to for get it gave birth to you.
In addition, I strongly believe we can change today’s discourse surrounding genital appearance, is to start changing education. It is notable that even some recent text books of anatomy do not even include the clitoris on diagrams of the female genitals and many books only have drawings of the genitals, which does not represent reality. (If you still have your textbook in biology or your child’s, I strongly recommend that you have a look). The taboo surrounding the direct display of a vagina has yet to be extinguished (Braun, 1999). As we live in a world that is heavily influenced by the visual. A more comprehensive sexual education is needed where characteristics of female genital appearance is portrayed by real images of female genitals that are to be included in todays sexual education text books. Not only real images need to be used to combat present ideals but also different images portraying the great variety of natural and diverse aesthetic features (e.g. shape, size and color) of adult female genital. I believe that much of todays sexual education only teaches children and adolescence about what functions the female genital has such as; the ability to preform coitus, reach orgasms, menstruation and childbirth. There is little to no education about the actual appearance of the female genital and that the appearance of the genital changes with time specially during puberty . The general population often lack the language to distinguish between the different anatomical structures being part of the female genital. This gives us all less possibilities to openly talk about genital and thus, harder for a women to distinguish what is ‘healthy’ and ‘normal’ genital appearance.
Lastly, we need to celebrate and embrace the diversity of female bodies not reinforce the notion that only one appearance is normal. As female genitals contribute to a women’s sense of self, then having a genitalia that society has marked unnatural or ugly or she herself believes is deviant, could cause her to consider her identity as unnatural and flawed. We need to buffer against negative effects of exposure to unrealistic media, by teaching individuals that these images are infract unreal. The fact remains that todays society and the socio-cultural representation of females genitals have the potential to foster significant body image disturbance and dissatisfaction among women.
Do not hesitate to comment, share facts or suggest sites to add to this story. Spread the word, this is how we can change the trend and rewire our mindset and start appreciating our diverse, fabulous and magnificent vaginas (genitalia)