That's Not How A Vagina Is Supposed To Look... Or Is It?
Warning: This post contains graphic photos of real women.
A couple of weeks ago my friend, The Hot Italian, sent me an article about vagina censorship. It seems that the oldest student newspaper in Australia, Honi Soit, published cover photos of 18 vaginas (vulvas really, with some labias poking out), and just before the paper went to print, the university decided to stick a black rectangle over the "juicy" parts of the photos to avoid a lawsuit.
Image: thefuturistics via Flickr
Australia has a law that only a closed slit can be shown. Most women don't really look like that once they've passed through puberty. Black rectangles to the rescue... or not. As it turns out, their rectangles were unacceptably transparent and the vulvas were visible. The university pulled the entire run of the paper.
You might ask, "Why the hell would a student newspaper want closeup photos of vulvas on the front cover of their paper?" I kind of wondered that myself. It's sensational, right? Vulgar? Pornographic? Unnecessary? Meant to send a message?
It was definitely meant to send a message. As this article explains, they were tired of the way vaginas are portrayed in the media, when they are shown at all: shaved clean, surgically altered, pale, "girlish" (youthful). They wanted to show what real lady bits look like, because a lot of girls and women really think that their vaginas are deformed; they don't look like what we've been told is the ideal. In fact, the author of the article notes that 12,000 Australian women a year have labiaplasty. I imagine the rates are higher here in the U.S. That's a lot of labias being changed.
I can see their point about the mystery and misrepresentation of female genitalia. Most women don't get a good look at adult vaginas other than their own (and rarely that) unless it's in adult X-rated movies (women who are intimate with other women being an exception). Those vaginas don't look like my vagina, at least not the more "modern" vaginas.
Their other point is that the vagina isn't just a sexual object. It's a body part like any other, and there's no reason it shouldn't be out there, free and proud. Hiding vaginas makes them seem dirty and only useful for sex.
They made some good points. I looked at the photo of the censored vaginas first. Here it is. I have to admit, that even censored, this photo would have caused a stir at any of the universities I attended or at which I taught.
Then I followed a link to the original photo, which one of the editors tweeted. Even though it's hard, I'm going to admit that it was a little strange looking at those disembodied vulvas all in rows. My first thought was that I should look away. They looked too private, like they shouldn't be posing like that. They didn't look especially attractive, alone there without their tummies and legs and breasts and faces. I had to puzzle about my reaction for a few days, because I was uncomfortable about those 18 vulvas, and that's not what I would have expected.
I'm still conflicted. Yes, on the one hand, I think we should stop chasing a surgically altered ideal of women's bodies. It's damaging to women and to men. I doubt there are many readers I have to explain this to, so I won't. The editors of the paper made valid points about why they wanted to show those 18 vaginas on the cover.
On the other hand, why these disembodied close-ups? The answer: there's no reason not to. My discomfort comes from my own socialization and indoctrination. Just like I find perky, round breasts, flat stomachs, smooth round asses, and long, thin legs most attractive, I also find those closed up, pale vulvas more acceptable too. Shame on me, but I do.
It's not how I want to think, but I have to be honest about this. Even though they look perfectly normal, those vaginas don't look like what public vaginas are supposed to look like.
It's some hard brainwashing to reverse.
(I'm going to cut myself a tiny bit of slack here and say that I wouldn't find most parts of the human body attractive if they were photographed this way, not even breasts. It's too clinical, which I suppose is one of the effects the editors were going for. For example, I could never understand it when a guy I was dating wanted me to send him a photo of my breasts. They look much better in context than they do in a static photo all alone. Same with my nose.)