I’ve been thinking recently about how much my vagina cost. I grew it myself, so there was no initial outlay, and throughout my life it has remained a fairly low-maintenance orifice (soap, water etc). I’m quite fond of it really, despite the many and varied ways in which it has been affronted and insulted (waxing, IMO is essentially paying someone to torture your vagina).
After all, as women, we’ve been told for decades, often in hushed tones, to “Take care of down there”. Douching and hair removal are perfect examples and both symptomatic of a patriarchal culture that feels the need to control and sanitise female sexuality. Rather than being decried as attacks on womanhood, though, within the past few years vagina beautification has gone mainstream.
Read more: Why are we so mean to our vaginas?
From ‘facials’ (the term ‘vajacial’ is a real, live thing) to lipsticks (yes, actually) and nip-tucks, vagina beautification has come out of the dank, moist shadows and into the limelight. Often wrapped in lady-friendly, millennialpink packaging and sold as an ‘all-girls-in-ittogether’ solution to some pesky feminine problem, we are witnessing the dawn of a new age of prettified pussies.
And while many of the brands and services targeting this area do so surrounded by empowering sentiments, I worry that the further you fall down the rabbit hole of treatments and potions, the more likely you are to end up feeling your vagina is wrong somehow. Not pink enough, maybe, not smooth enough, certainly, not perky or plump or tight enough.
At the more extreme end of the spectrum, there are labiaplasty operations offering us the chance to have a vagina like a Barbie doll (more on these later) and ‘puffing’ injections to smooth out wrinkled labia. These involve hyaluronic acid being injected into the labia majora resulting in a more youthful and voluptuous look.
And for day-to-day maintenance? As Stylist beauty editor Shannon Peter explains, there are now more vagina-focused products landing on her desk than ever before. From My New Pink Button, a dyeing kit that promises to restore the ‘pinkness’ of your labia, to ‘feminine lipstick’ VMagic, a new moisturiser (instructions advise to spread it liberally on the labia to soothe dryness, redness and itching). Not forgetting ‘feminine care’ brand Love Wellness which launched at the end of 2016 with the aim of taking care of down there. The range includes cleansers, wipes and vitamins (to maintain a “balanced vaginal environment”).
“Whether you want to slather your vagina in lotions is up to you,” continues Peter. “But I do find the sheer number of new products concerning.
“Fundamentally, most of these feminine hygiene cleansers and wipes are stripped-back, pH balanced skincare formulas that you probably already own, just with a different label.”
Even celebrities, once so fey and untouchable, are now keen to talk about their down-below-beautification routines: Emma Watson has been upfront about the fact she applies Fur Oil to hers, a serum that ‘softens pubic hair and clears pores’. It’s a mix of nine anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory natural oils, and comes in the kind of chic packaging that wouldn’t look out of place at a Chanel counter.
Gwyneth Paltrow has long praised v-steaming – a practice with healing properties that she claims has been in Korean medicine for thousands of years. And Khloe Kardashian has an eight-step regime that includes cleansing wipes, probiotic pills and regular ‘vagacials’.
Each of these treatments and products claims to be fulfilling a need: helping maintain cleanliness or indeed sanity, for those of us who feel self-conscious about our vaginal areas. Yet, gynaecologists have reacted varyingly.
Paltrow’s recommendation for steaming, initially posted to her website Goop (“The real golden ticket here is the Mugwort V-Steam. You sit on what is essentially a mini-throne, and a combination of infrared and mugwort steam cleanses your uterus, et al.”) caused conflicting opinion.
As Dr Ann Robinson told The Guardian at the time, “The claim that the steam clean could balance hormones is irrational. Hormones are produced by organs such as the brain and ovaries, travel in the bloodstream and have specific effects on their target organs. Steaming the vagina cannot possibly impact on hormone levels. I urge you to put the kettle away, throw the mugwort in some soup and consciously uncouple from this website.”
And as well as being widely decried by medical experts, most vagina beautification tricks, treatments and products are expensive. I myself try out a Bea Skincare ‘bikini facial’ which costs from £150 and is designed to groom the bikini line area.
I sit legs spread but keep my underwear on (there are more ‘invasive’ treatments available elsewhere). A therapist starts by roughly dry brushing my inner thighs and follows that with an exfoliation. She uses broad, expedient strokes up to my knicker-line and then applies an acid mask to the inner creases of my thighs.
“It’s to slough away some of the dead skin,” she explains as the cooling lotion starts to tingle. “You can put your legs together now.”
As skin specialist and founder of Bea Skin Care, Bianca Estelle explains this is the entry-level procedure.
“More clients than ever are requesting acid skin peels to remove the top layers of skin from the entire pubic area [costing from £350],” she tells me. “It leaves the skin more supple and evens out skintone.”
Watch: Why it’s time for the world to leave our vaginas alone
In 2016, a YouGov survey found that nearly 50% of women under the age of 35 preferred to go completely hairless. These same women, though, are also having to deal with the fallout of monthly waxes or weekly shaves.
“Repeatedly removing the pubic hair can cause ingrown hairs, discolouration and dryness,” continues Estelle. “As we move into summer, clients are more aware of how they’ll look in a bikini and these treatments are meant to address their worries.”
From a purely practical perspective I can see the benefit of the ‘bikini facial’ if, as Estelle points out, years of hair removal has left you with dry skin or ingrown hairs. (“Try buffing the skin with a gentle face scrub for an at-home alternative,” says Peter). But much like all non-essential beautification rituals that are primarily based on unrealistic stereotypes of women (from models to porn stars and now, well, social media) it’s a slippery slope.
Take hair removal, for example, doctors draw a direct correlation between our lack of pubic hair and an increased demand for labiaplasty procedures (ditto, puffing injections; as spokesperson for the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery Dr Jenifer Walden has said, the demand for ‘fuller’, ‘rejuvenated’ labia is largely thanks to the rise of the Brazilian wax). Regular topiary means that our vaginas are just much more visible: nowadays we can clearly see what they look like but instead of liking what we see, we feel shame and the need to be ‘perfect’.
Labiaplasty – where the labia is trimmed or lasered, costing between £1,000 and £3,000 – is among the fastest growing plastic surgeries for women: demand for NHS treatment rose five-fold between 2000 and 2010. A study by researchers at University College London found that many women who requested the procedure felt pressured due to the proliferation of ‘perfect’ vaginas online. If hair removal has had such a profound effect on our opinions of our nethers, it stands to reason that adding yet more products and ‘beautifying’ procedures to tackle everything from colour to texture will do little more than make us self-conscious and unhappy.
‘The Barbie’ is a labial-look that was created in LA (where else?) by plastic surgeon Dr Red Alinsod (a man). It trims away almost the entirety of the labia minora leaving a smooth – to quote the doc himself – “clamshell aesthetic… a comfortable, athletic, petite look”. In fact, a study published in the Journal Of Sexual Medicine found that male surgeons are more likely to recommend labiaplasty than their female counterparts – which says a lot about who still determines aesthetic standards of beauty, some 60 years after we lost the corset. In 2013, there were more than 5,000 cosmetic labiaplasty operations performed in the US – a 44% increase on the prior year.
On this side of the pond, Radiofrequency Vaginal Treatment – newly available in the UK – costs around £2,500 for 30 minutes. A probe, the size of a thumb, is inserted into the opening of the vagina, delivering alternating pulses that heat and cool. It promises to treat vaginal laxity and promote collagen production. Aimed mainly at women who have had children – though all are welcome, as long as you don’t have a coil in situ (the thought makes me clench) – the tightening effects reportedly last for up to 12 months.
The problem with all of these things is that, what seem like innocuous enough treatments and products mask darker attitudes towards female bodies. If we are even-toned, sanitised, smoothed-out, petite – if we smell like flowers and look like ‘clamshells’ – then the one thing we are not is individual, human women. Almost 30 years ago, in her seminal tome The Beauty Myth: How Images Of Beauty Are Used Against Women, feminist theorist Naomi Wolf warned us in that if we weren’t vigilant, “the millennium of the man-made woman will be upon us…”
It’s surely a sad indictment of our society when a statement as macabre as this rings so resoundingly true.
Images: Ian Walsh for Stylist/Rex Features