The Vagina Shame Nobody Talks About but Every Woman Experiences

May 14th 2016

A vagina comes with a lot of responsibility. Pregnancy prevention, annual gynecologist checkups, menstruation side effects, and STD prevention are common concerns for many people with vaginas. Though not as critical in nature, the appearance of one's vagina — and pubic area overall — is a common concern for women as well.

A simple Google search turns up a lot of articles about "normalcy" down there:

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In 2013, writer Helin Jung detailed this particular insecurity in a piece for Cosmopolitan, stating that she worries the appearance (and smell) of her vagina will scare people away:

"More often than not, I'm apologizing on my vagina's behalf. For one, I think it's ugly. I could tend to it all day, and there'd be no use. Why would anyone want to put their face up close to it?"

For Jung, at least one aspect of this shame stems from a former boyfriend's refusal to perform oral sex on her because of her vaginal smell:

"Things changed the day my then live-in boyfriend said, almost too matter-of-factly, that he didn't like to go down on me because of the way my vagina smelled. I blocked out his exact phrasing because I was struck dumb by the whole very short conversation, but anyway, that's the gist. I most definitely never asked for oral again, from him or anyone else."

Women bring some of these insecurities to waxing salons.

Heather Nelson, the owner of the waxing studio WAX in Santa Clarita, California, told ATTN: via email that the number one thing her waxing clients ask is whether their vagina looks normal. People often ask whether their labias are too big, if their inner thighs are too dark, and if their pubic mounds are too plump. They also ask if other women have C-section scars, stretch marks, discoloration, smells, the list goes on.

"Some women even fear coming in with too much hair!" Nelson told ATTN:. "Women crave a non-judgmental, nurturing, loving, accepting environment and that's what I strive to provide. Some women can barely peel their knees apart during a wax because they are so terrified by what I might see, and other women can barely keep their pants on until I shut the curtains of my office."

What influences the way we feel about our vaginas?

Popular culture plays a significant role in how we view our genitals. Some have claimed that the widespread popularity of pornography has prompted many women to worry about their vaginal appearance and even get labiaplasty, which is on the rise in the U.S. among adults and women 18 and under alike.

Nelson told ATTN: that some of her clients have indeed worried about how their vaginas compare to the vaginas of women in porn:

"Women have this preconceived notion that theirs might be different than any other vagina that I've seen. They see women in porn or their girlfriends' vaginas and immediately start comparing. There [are] also other women who have never seen any other vagina but theirs and ask me 'is mine normal?'"

Dr. Yolanda Kirkham, an OB/GYN resident at Women’s College Hospital, highlighted the connection between labiaplasty procedures and increased access to porn in an interview with Fashion Magazine. She added that the popularity of vaginal waxing is also responsible.

“Unfortunately, there is an increasing trend of patients who are concerned about their labia," she said. "Easy access to images of genitalia and the trends in hair removal have led to more awareness about this part of our bodies.”

Following the trend of an au natural vaginal appearance in the 1970s, the Brazilian wax became popular in the U.S. in the 1980s, after seven Brazilian sisters opened up a waxing salon in New York. The trend of vaginal waxing soon took hold in the U.S. and was even referenced in an episode of the popular HBO series, "Sex and the City."

In 2013, the British Association of Dermatologists argued that this episode may have been responsible for the decline in pubic lice because more women started getting vaginal waxes after it aired.

"What we have seen at work is the law of unintended consequences, in popularizing hair removal, [main character] Carrie Bradshaw and co have contributed to ridding humanity of pest that had plagued humans for millions of years," Dr. Kun Sen Chen, one of the authors of the findings, said in a release at the time. "Sadly there isn't an Emmy for that."

While the rise in waxing may have prompted a decrease in pubic lice, it may can also leave some women feeling like they're expected to wax or maintain a hair-free vagina.

There are countless articles on the Internet surrounding the expectations of vaginal waxing in dating. Last year, YourTango interviewed a bunch of guys about waxing expectations, and while many of the men said they like vaginal hair to some degree, a 29-year-old man named Phil said that he prefers women who get Brazilians:

"I'm easy to please, I’m not looking for anything too crazy but if it’s up to me, a Brazilian is the best you can get from a woman. And when you're in a relationship it's not exactly a necessity although it's definitely an added treat when you've been with someone and they're willing to spice it up."

Athletic gear also impacts how we feel about our vaginas.

Dr. Norman Rowe, a member of the American Board of Plastic Surgery, told The Daily Beast in 2014 that many of his patients are concerned about the way their vaginas look in tight yoga apparel.

“Lululemon has played a huge role in the increase in labiaplasty in the U.S., at least in New York,” he said. “I can’t tell you how many women come to me worried about how they look at the gym.”

Despite these trends, some women are fighting back against the stigma surrounding vaginal appearance.

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Earlier this year, writer Candice Jalili asked a bunch of women about their vaginal worries for an Elite Daily piece because she herself realized that many women probably have no clue whether their vaginas function normally or not. Jalili brought the girls' list of concerns about vaginal functioning to a gynecologist, who said all of their concerns, for the most part, didn't seem out of the ordinary.

"So, in conclusion, I guess there isn't really such a thing as a 'normal' vagina," Jalili wrote. "The doctor said it herself: They come in all different shapes and sizes. Take her advice, do some Kegels and rest assured you're probably FINE!"

Lena Dunham, the creator of HBO series "Girls," has also increased vaginal visibility on her show.

Dunham's series has embraced raw nudity since the first season aired in 2012, and it has helped break down feminine barriers by including various forms of vaginal hair in the show. In the third season, a character named Caroline bears a full bush of pubic hair during a tense scene with her brother Adam and Adam's girlfriend Hannah, played by Dunham. In the fifth season, Hannah shows her vagina, which is not waxed or shaved, to her boss. The series also shows character Jessa's vagina, which has a small strip of hair on it, in the season five finale.

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Dunham said during an "Inside the Episode" clip that her only regret in showing her vagina on the show was not sporting a fuller bush for it.

“It’s the one thing on the show that makes me want to hide under a table,” she said. “Mostly because I wish that I had a fuller bush. I just think it would look better — the whole thing would work better.”

How to move beyond vaginal insecurities at waxing salons and beyond.

As for women who might feel self-conscious about baring their vagina during a waxing appointment, Nelson likes to remind her clients that she is not focusing on the way their vaginas look:

"I usually tell [clients] that if they have something that I haven't seen from doing this every 15 minutes for 12 hours a day for five days a week for the past 10 years, I would love to see it! I've seen everything there is to see and everything in between. I assure them that I'm not looking at their hardware, I'm looking at the hair. I'm a gardener looking at the foliage that needs to be trimmed, not how the yard was designed! Vaginas are like snowflakes, all beautiful in their own way. Also that there's no time to be nervous because my next client will be here in 10 minutes!"

Nelson added that women should celebrate the power they have as owners of vaginas, regardless of how those vaginas may appear:

"You have an immense amount of power just simply OWNING a vagina! There's no need to criticize the one thing that should give you an incredible sense of power and femininity - hair or no hair."

RELATED: So You Want To Get A Labiaplasty

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