Perhaps if the vagina had a different name, it would be less controversial. Maybe it wouldn't be mentioned only in euphemisms in sex education courses; uttering the word wouldn't be deemed "offensive" and in violation of decorum in Congress; pubic hair and menstruation stains wouldn't be censored on Instagram.
Because unlike penis, a short, kind of goofy-sounding word, vagina requires you to take your time, to really draw it out: va-gi-na. It's those a's, man, they're sexy. Anastasia, papaya, vagina. So society shortens it — to V, vag, down-there, anything that lets us pretend we're not explicitly talking about a complex sexual organ that bleeds and sometimes smells and orgasms and brings life into the world.
That's the challenge all the feminine hygiene brands hitting shelves in 2017 face: How do you bring the vagina into the mainstream and make money? Well, it seems, you start with names, like The Perfect V, The Honey Pot Company, and SweetSpot, that only wink at where the product is intended for. You put it in minimalist, millennial pink packaging that touts trendy ingredients like coconut water and elderflower. And — for the first time — you give it placement in the beauty market, rather than health, a move which Dr. Shannon Chavez, a clinical psychologist and certified sex therapist, sees as "a huge breakthrough for sex education and women's health, [since] the beauty industry is much more accepted than the sexual wellness industry."
These aren't your grandmother's douches anymore, either (which, by the way, are a total scam): The new wave of vaginal care skews more skin care than anything, with serums, hydrating mists, exfoliators, and oils for the vulva and bikini area that feel as luxe as the stuff you put on your face. Oh yeah, and there's highlighter, too.
But this re-branding of traditional feminine hygiene products raises the question: Is this just another way to capitalize on women's insecurities?
Dr. Justin Lehmiller, Director of the Social Psychology Program at Ball State University and author of the blog Sex and Psychology, thinks so. He believes companies are profiting off our sexual anxieties caused, in part, by pornography and a lack of sex education. "Many sex education courses in the US don’t ever mention the word 'vulva,' let alone talk about what it looks like," he says. "When people are poorly educated about any aspect of the body, it’s easy to convince them that they have a problem with it that needs to be 'fixed.' As a result, new products for both men’s and women's genitals are continually introduced because they’re an easy sell as long as sex education is low and sexual anxiety is high."
There's no doubt education in schools is severely lacking (and only getting worse under the current pro-abstinence administration) and mainstream porn is shaping the way kids now grow up learning about sex. And I understand the argument, made by many of my friends and colleagues, that these brands are wolves in sheep's clothing, perpetuating the bullshit notion of the shameful, unclean "private part" under the guise of self-care. Where's the dick soap at, amirite? But as a sex-positive feminist who also knows that the vagina is self-cleaning and who wants America to shed its deep-rooted, Puritanical fear of the female body, I have to respectfully disagree.
I think about my vagina a lot — the taste, the hair (or lackthereof), the occasional random bump, the size of my labia, the subtle scars from years of skin-picking — and dare I say, I've never felt better about the state of it than I do currently, armed with my Nordic-chic wipes, brightening serum, and Lo Bosworth-approved natural wash. They force me to spend more time on myself and take care of my skin — I'm no longer drying the shit out of it with exfoliating wipes and masks designed for my face.
Dr. Sheeva Talebian, an OB/GYN in New York City, thinks the health and beauty sector has tapped into an uncharted market with these new products, a result of "our culture evolving and and talking about sex and your vagina or penis or some combo in our gender neutral climate [becoming normalized]. We are going organic in all aspects of our life — including our reproductive organs," she says, touching on the idea that this is simply another new form of self-care, like a 10-step Korean skin routine or crystal light therapy.
Dr. Chavez echoes the sentiment: "Beauty products can make us feel more confident, so I'm happy if this can be applied to women’s sexual health. Beauty rituals are a part of self-care. We buy moisturizers, creams, anti-this and anti-that... Why not include rituals around vaginal care?" (Just make sure your rituals are free of parabens; sulfates; phthalates; petroleum jelly; oil-based formulas; glycerin; and artificial scents, all of which can make bacteria and yeast production go haywire and cause inflammation. And know that the "pH-balancing" claim is bullshit.)
And that's exactly how I feel — more confident. When my skin looks clear and smooth, and I feel clean and smell like rosewater on sweaty summer nights, I'm more comfortable with my body, which makes sex and being in a bathing suit significantly more enjoyable. If your ideal is surgically-altered, unshaven, vajazzled, musky, or pierced, that's cool, too — but don't knock misting your crotch with bilberry essence on a 90-degree day until you've tried it.
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