There’s a lot of interest in genitals in pornography – especially hairless genitals, all the better for the camera to capture the action, in all its fleshy detail. And the ‘mainstreaming’ of pornography in contemporary western cultures in recent times has paralleled – some would argue, has even caused – an interest in the aesthetic appearance of genitalia, as well as modifications to them. Especially women’s genitalia.
There is of course also concern about male genital appearance. The trope of the ‘penis enlargement’ email spam circulates as cultural capital; a joke we can all share in, because we all ‘know’ what it means… It reflects supposed male anxiety with penis size (an aesthetic concern). Similarly, in my recent research with Gareth Terry on NZ views and perspectives on body hair and its removal, a reason offered for male pubic hair removal is “to make the tiger stand tall on the plain”. Hairlessness is linked to an increased size. Both of these locate the size of the penis as either modifiable in actuality, or modifiable in appearance. But male genital cosmetic surgery and male pubic hair removal have not reached the dizzying heights that their female counterparts have, and real female genitalia remain more ‘hidden’ in the everyday lives of most girls, and so my focus here is on women.
The two most obvious ways this interest in the aesthetic appearance of female genitalia manifests are in cosmetic surgery, and pubic hair removal (there are also other more ‘fringe’ genital transformations – such as bejazzling, or labial dyeing, but I won’t focus on these). With these, certain things have changed in the realm of women’s genitalia – and by changed, I mean are markedly different from what it was like a decade or more ago:
1. Women’s genitalia have become a legitimate site of aesthetic concern – suggesting women should care about what they look like, and make effort to ‘improve on’ their natural state. And that their sexual partners might legitimately have concern and preferences about genital appearance.
2. Women’s genitalia have become a site of alteration – for instance some pubic hair removal is very common (another blog will follow around pubic hair removal), and women are getting cosmetic surgery to alter appearances. This might seem like a simple choice issue – women can make that choice, or not (and therefore it’s implicitly good, because it gives us options!). But as alternation becomes the normal response to aesthetic concerns, even women who don’t do anything to alter genital appearance, become accountable for their ‘choices’… This means that genital appearance becomes something all women are potentially judged in relation to, those women who choose to modify or alter in some way, permanent or temporary, and those who don’t.
3. Women’s genital practices have become commodified, and subject to forces of capitalism – making money in relation to women’s genital aesthetics appears to be a boom industry. If you specialise in female genital cosmetic surgery, for instance, and aggressively promote yourself/the surgery, you can make a lot of money!
I talked to a colleague recently, who told me about the experiences of a GP friend… She had started seeing teen girls, on a weekly or even daily basis, who were anxious about their genitalia, and enquiring as to their genital normality. A concern for normality stems from the assumption that something could be wrong. The idea that something ‘could be wrong’ is not necessarily new, but the context, and the new(ish) visual economy of pornography, which trades in genital appearance, is. In Australia a few years ago, social and mainstream media highlighted the issue of vulval photoshopping – a legal requirement that only certain aspects of women’s external genitalia be visible in magazine-based pornography being sold under certain censorship laws. Akin to recent social/political engagement around the photoshopping in fashion magazines – covered widely in the media – the idea underpinning these campaigns is that unrealistic images distribute not only mis-information, but also anxiety and problematic perceptions about one’s own body. Effectively, images promote the ideal, the most desirable, and even just ‘the normal’. In pornography, the vulva is often ‘smooth’, and often hairless. Pornography stars may have labiaplasty or other genital surgery, some famously even auctioning off the excised tissue.
The concern with genital abnormality stems also from a lack of knowledge of normal diversity. A lack of understanding where and how one’s genital appearance fits in the spectrum of diversity. Or, indeed, that there is a spectrum of diversity and that female genital appearance is – as one scholar once put it – as unique as a person’s face. Understanding the range of diversity per se is a quite different issue to having concerns about where in that spectrum one sits. The concern, then, would be more akin to disliking the particular nose one has – knowing full well that noses come in all shapes and sizes… As a response to the appearance of procedures like female genital cosmetic surgery, we have seen a growth in online galleries – even from magazines – and art projects demonstrating vulval diversity. The aim: to educate women (and men) about female genital diversity; and also, to reassure… Your genitalia are not abnormal (putting aside instances of infection, or rare cases when genital growth is far outside a spectrum of ‘normal’). These offer an important counterpoint to a context in which knowledge about bodies – and sexualities – may be dominated by what is presented in pornography.