I’m going to base this post on a study conducted in 2014. It asked a group of 20 female participants of different races, ages and sexual orientations about their relationship to their genitals. Seven main themes emerged from the discussion which I will present to you. Quick note: although the entire female genitalia is commonly referred to as the ‘vagina’, this is anatomically incorrect. The visible parts of the female genitalia are collectively called the vulva and the vagina is an internal component.
The first theme to arise from the data referred to the genitals being dirty. This occasionally came up when discussing pubic hair or genital self-image but was most common in regard to menstrual sex and menstruation in general. 16 of the woman had strong feelings about this, evoking strong emotional language such as “dangerous” and “infectious”. These feelings existed in both heterosexual and homosexual participants.
Next was the vulva being in need of maintenance. Comments were made that the vulva needs to be kept neat to avoid hair or bad smells; some women even felt that their vaginas could never be clean enough. I have to interject here to mention that you should never wash inside of your genitals as doing so can ruin the bacterial balance in the vagina and lead to bacterial vaginosis which is a cause for unpleasant smells. Women noted that these fears were a result of negative experiences with former male partners. Six women mentioned that they felt a need to be constantly shaven to avoid being painted as unattractive. It was also perceived by one participant that pubic hairs could potentially injure partners or be too messy.
Vulvas as unnatural was also a prominent theme. For some women, this related to the look of the vulva, deciding that it looked ugly and shouldn’t be admired. Menstrual sex was also thought to be something unnatural, that people should wait until their period is totally over before having sex. Although an entirely natural process, pubic hair was considered unnatural by some. One participant said that she fears men seeing her full-grown pubic hair due to expectations of being shamed. The societal norm of a shaven vulva was so internalised it was deemed natural.
The next theme relates to comparisons. Participants felt that their own genitals were unfavourable to others and this led to feelings of inadequacy. Porn was mentioned here as actresses were deemed to have “pretty” vulvas when compared to women in the sample. One woman noted the positive feelings she had towards her genitals but due to negativity she encountered from men, she began to doubt these feelings. She had one male friend that would talk about vaginas and race which made her doubt how her “Mexican vagina compares”. These racialised messages were a common theme within comparisons. It was only women of colour that discussed race here as white women did not. One woman noted that she felt inadequate about her vagina due to how dark it was. These racialised messages of light skin being more attractive than dark are no doubt a result of Eurocentric beauty standards which came about through colonialism.
Participants in the study also mentioned that they were very unsure about their genitals, feeling that they did not know them. Some women had never looked at their vulvas and even refused to in some cases, not allowing themselves to learn more about their genitals. One woman even noted that she could never find her g-spot and was frustrated with her vagina because she could not orgasm during sex. This final frustration probably arises from poor sex education as women that can orgasm from penetrative sex alone are the minority with the majority of women being able to achieve orgasms from clitoral stimulation. The existence of the g-spot is also undecided on; I will discuss this in another post!
Although many held negative opinions, some women were ambivalent towards their genitalia. A participant spoke on not having any real emotional connection to her vulva – the only time she paid attention to it is when she saw it was darker than she realised. Another participant noted she had a strong ambivalence about her pubic hair but her boyfriend had very strong feelings about it, getting upset if she forgot to shave. Her boyfriend’s strong emotions overpowered the woman’s own ambivalence and she would often shave to please him.
Five women noted some positive feelings towards their genitals; this often came about in the affirmative feelings from fighting back against negative stereotypes. Through rebellion against those stereotypes, advocating for other girls and viewing vulva-affirming art, one participant noted they began to feel more positive about their own body. Others embraced menstrual sex and rejected partners who tried to devalue their vulvas. Take it or leave it attitudes were common for these women as they refused to be shamed into displaying themselves in a certain way.
The experiences of these women suggest that fear of shame as a result of existing stigma is a strong indicator of negative genital self-image and that male partners or friends are capable of reinforcing these fears. No doubt that poor sex education and an unwillingness for this to happen in the home further contribute to this. In future posts, I will explore this link using recent science to support this observation.