Previously, I wrote about a piece of research based on 20 women and they detailed how they felt about their genitalia; for most respondents, the perception they had was a negative one. You can read that post here. Now, I’m going to briefly explore what may have caused these negative perceptions to form.
There are plenty of studies supporting the negative effects that media exposure has on women. These negative effects can include body dissatisfaction; this includes the vulva. Porn is frequently mentioned when talking about the misrepresentation of the vulva: mostly red or pink, hairless and invisible labia minora (inner lips), leading women to be unaware of genital diversity and to feel like they don’t have a ‘normal’ vulva if they don’t match the narrow image. This would be compounded for women of colour due to their under-representation in media.
One study focusing on Playboy centrefold images found that only 2 out of 16 images displayed the labia minora and all of the women were white.Similarities between Playboy models and Barbie dolls were also measured. It was observed that both representations of women emphasised breasts but masked or minimalised the genitalia, both also possessed a low body-fat percentage, narrow hips and long legs. An obvious lack of pubic hair was also noted, something which the researchers associated with prepubescence. They went on to argue that the child-like appearance of the genitalia were a reflection of the social expectation of women’s sexuality – an absent sex drive and submissive sexual nature. This idea has been present in some form since Ancient Greece as women’s genitals were considered inferior and as mere receptacles for the penis; unfortunately, these ideas are still present. Idealisation of small labia may have been a result of old thinking too as elongated labia were previously associated with promiscuity and marginalised groups of women. A cultural preference for tighter vaginas also exists. The walls of the vagina are elastic and can constrict or dilate. The walls dilate during arousal to accommodate the penis so, depending on how good of a fit a penis and vagina are, it will feel different. The number of men a woman has slept with doesn’t correlate to how “tight” her vagina is. How the vulva is viewed is tied up in social, cultural and historical contexts, making this a difficult topic to break apart.
Despite the wide-reaching effects on the media, interpersonal factors are also very important in how women see themselves. That includes friends, acquaintances, siblings, parents, sexual partners and romantic partners. One study measured the frequency and types of negative comments women received from others and how it affects how they feel towards themselves. I feel like this study deserves its own post so I will only speak on data relating to the vulva here. Only 8 out of 379 women who participated received no negative comments about their body. Sexually experienced and inexperienced women both felt pressure to shave their pubic hair and felt insecure about vaginal odour. Over half of sexually experienced women had received negative comments about sex during menstruation (62%) and despite not having had sex, 32% of sexually inexperienced women also received comments relating to this. Similar percentages of experienced and inexperienced women received comments relating to vaginal odour (59% and 55%). Pubic hair was one of the most common negative comments with 67% of sexually inexperienced and 81% of experienced women receiving them. Friends were a major source of negativity regarding pubic hair while romantic and sexual partners were a major source of negativity for comments relating to pubic hair, vaginal odour and sex during menstruation. With vulvar appearance, the majority of women in both groups cited the media as the biggest source of negativity while friends/acquaintances were next for the sexually inexperienced and romantic or sexual partners were close to equal for the sexually experienced. Other research also shows women’s dissatisfaction with their genitals to be weakly correlated with genitals seen on TV, the internet and friend’s comments while there was a moderate correlation with partner’s comments.
When women’s bodies are commented on like this, they become reduced to the visible parts of the body and become objectified. Objectification theory states that girls and women experience the sexualising gaze of others, particularly men, and this objectification becomes internalised. This self-objectification can cause a woman to treat herself as something to be manipulated to become sexually attractive to men. There is support for this theory in that women score higher on self-surveillance measures, body shame sub-measures, drive for thinness measures and consciousness during sex measures than men do. Higher scores on these measures are also tied to poorer mental health outcomes.
Negative beliefs about women and their genitalia have been around for quite some time. Unfortunately, these beliefs are still being adopted which result in negative outcomes for women. The idea that women’s bodies should be moulded to match a social standard is objectifying and restrictive and as I said before, objectification hurts women especially. If this isn’t enough to convince you of this massive problem then read some more around it, there will be plenty of papers in the references section of the links below. The negative outcomes are more than mental health and I will explore what they are in a future post. The responsibility for negative self-perception is shared by friends, family, partners and the media. We are all influenced by history, culture and society. We should look inwards to determine the way we feel about female genitalia and if it’s negatively, we have work to do.
- Evulvalution: The Portrayal of Women’s External Genitalia and Physique across Time and the Current Barbie Doll Ideals – playboy magazines