Monday, September 17, 2007

Viva la Vulva!

“I was worried about vaginas. I was worried about what we think about vaginas, and even more worried that we don’t think about them.”
– Eve Ensler

This blog begins with a short essay I wrote for my Women's Studies class, which asked us find the common thread among our assigned readings for the week (dealing with feminist theorizing about body image and beauty ideals), and to tie in a cultural artifact, as well as a feminist response to the articles. The following is my work, with additional commentary.

Viva la Vulva!

Eve Ensler’s quote from her fabulous work, the “Vagina Monologues,” rings true to my own worries about the vagina after reading Chapter 3 in “Women’s Lives: A Multicultural Perspective,” as well as the selected readings from the same text, and Chapter 5 in Megan Seely’s “Fight Like a Girl,” aptly titled “Good Enough.” Through every single text, one terrifying fact stands alone – that women are made to feel unhappy about who they are, not based on personal characteristics or personality traits, but on the basis of their bodies alone. Not only does this separate the body and mind, and make women feel less whole, but demeans every woman as nothing more than an sex object, or a disconnected system composed of separate body issues in need of extensive “repair” – legs that need to be smoothed, thighs that need to be thinned, hair that needs to be waxed, breasts that need to be lifted, faces that need to be airbrushed, arms that need to be toned and tanned. While all of these ridiculous beauty standards that women are expected to meet are outraging, it was a line on page 123 of WLP that infuriated me the most –

WomenseNews writer Sandy Kobrin (2003) also reported an increase in labiaplasty, ‘the surgical reshaping of female external genital structures. Doctors who perform this surgery say that most women who get it are ‘pressured by men who want them to conform to an idea of beauty most often seen in the porn industry’.”

I cannot even begin to fathom the idea of putting oneself through surgery, a dangerous procedure even for medical conditions that are the determination between life and death, to “improve” the look of one’s labia. According to the website, 793 women underwent “vaginal rejuvenation” in the United States alone. After visiting WomenseNews’ website, I found another another article Kobrin published in 2004 in which a woman writes,

“‘I looked in like, those magazines, and saw that inner labia shouldn't stick out like mine did,’ said Crystal, who requested her last name be withheld. ‘So I had a labiaplasty and now I love the way I look; nice and neat and new. My vagina looks perfect’.”

A plastic surgeon also commented on the harrowing rise of the surgery,

“‘Women want to be tight,’ said Matlock. ‘They don't want sagging or loose labia. I can't tell you how many pages and pages of pornographic material women have brought into me saying, ‘I want to look like this.’”

The most discomforting part of this rising surgery isn’t necessarily the surgery itself, but the fact that women feel as if they aren’t “good enough.” They are entering doctor’s offices bringing in armloads of pornographic images of women whose labia are “perfect” – images that are airbrushed to all look the same. Lifeless, non-descript, impossible images that only serve to further condemn women to feel shameful of their own bodies. When only one (or a few extremely similar images) are presented through the media – in the case of labia, and the vulva as a whole, usually only through the pornography industry – women have no way of knowing that there are millions of vulva shapes, sizes, designs, and beauty- a type for every woman! In this way, “the constant promotion of an ideal body image is a very effective way of oppressing women and girls, taking up time, money, and attention that could be devoted to other aspects of life, like education or self-development, or to wider issues such as the need for affordable health care, child care, elder care, and jobs with decent pay and benefits” (WLP 129).

Not only are women detracting from these issues by focusing their time on their physical attributes rather than their personal and spiritual growth, but the language they use against their bodies is degrading and demeaning. It is not until after surgery that women consider themselves “nice,” “neat,” and “perfect.” Until then, they feel “sagging,” which is considered undesirable by not only themselves, but their partners as well.

It is through female-positive websites such as the cultural artifact which can end these negative self perceptions women are socialized to hold against themselves. On the site, Doctor Betty Dodson has collected beautiful photographs of women’s vulvas of all varieties. These images are empowering and exhilarating, as they depict vulvas that are different from the pornographic norm. These images let women know that there is nothing “wrong,” or “imperfect” with the way they are, that everyone’s bodies are different, and that it is not important to worry about the external so much as the internal.

As a feminist, I responded to these articles with shock and dismay, yet with great praise for empowering websites such as Betty Dodson’s. Because women and young girls are inundated with a flood of over-sexualized, over-exposed, over-airbrushed images of what a “woman” is supposed to be in every facet of life, from advertisements in “Seventeen” magazine, to pornography pop-ups on every website, to the television shows we praise, it is a feminist’s responsibility to continue to share and create these female-positive websites. It is our responsibility to ensure women that who they are IS good enough. Instead of accepting “what is horribly wrong in our lives,” we need to “fight [for] what is beautiful and right” – images of women that are real, honest, and beautiful in their imperfections (The Body Politic 143).


As I mentioned in my essay, the statistics are astounding, and the language womyn use to describe themselves even worse - if they are saying after surgery that they are nice, neat, and perfect, then before the surgery they must have been bad, unclean, undesirable, and imperfect.
This idea is so ridiculous, that I am enraged womyn are made to feel this way, especially when the vulva is so beautiful, so strong, and so much a part of being a womyn. One of my favorite descriptions of female anatomy is found in "The Vagina Workshop," a favorite monologue of mine from Eve Ensler's Vagina Monologues.

"My vagina is a shell, a round pink tender shell, opening and closing, closing and opening. My vagina is a flower, an eccentric tulip, the center acute and deep, the scent delicate, the petals gentle but sturdy ... my vagina is a shell, a tulip, and a destiny. I am arriving as I am beginning to leave. My vagina, my vagina, me."

This description is so beautiful, and so powerful, and should be read by every womyn. THIS is the language we should use when speaking about our bodies, the words of our feminist mothers and role models. Words that come from within ourselves, not from the media. Words that are strong, and empowering. When we refer to ourselves in the way the media wants us to view ourselves - as fat, slobby, undesirable, sagging, ragged, imperfect - we can never become more than our bodies. We are doomed to concentrate all of our energy and money on an unreachable goal of "perfection," that not even our models can reach (remember, even they need to be airbrushed before they hit the magazines). Moreover, the

"tendency to view one's body from the outside in - regarding physical attractiveness, sex appeal, measurements, and weight as more central to one's physical identity than health, strength, energy level, coordination, or fitness - has many harmful effects, including diminished mental performance, increased feelings of shame and anxiety, depression, sexual dysfunction, and the development of eating disorders" (WLP 134).

Womyn, we need to rise above this. We have to realize the life-threatening dangers of such physically-based thought processes. We need websites such as Dodson's and Men, we need your help as well. In a recent study, "male college students shown centerfolds from Playboy and Penthouse were more likely to find their own girlfriends less sexually attractive" (WLP 134). Men, you too need to educate yourselves on the power your words hold. When the majority of womyn is undergoing labiaplasties due to negative comments from their male counterparts, it is not only a womyn problem, but a male problem as well.

We all need to be educated, and informed about the wonders and beauty of the human body. Let's learn to love ourselves, and never forget - Viva la Vulva!

all images by the brilliant Georgia O'Keefe


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