"What does advertising tell us about women in the 21st century? It tells us who we are and who we should be. It tells us, as it always has, that what's most important is how we look." But, even if we wanted someone to tell us who we should be, the major catch is that the images we are supposed to aspire to are not real. Nobody looks like that!
The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty's award winning Evolution commercial exposed the myth. Using time-lapse photography it shows us how a pretty, but ordinary girl is transformed into a strikingly beautiful billboard model using first makeup and then Photoshop.
These manufactured images are designed to impact on a modern woman's sense of herself and in many cases they succeed, but at least when it comes to bodies and faces we also see the full range of un-manufactured versions around us on a daily basis. We have real people to compare ourselves with as well. The same is often not thecase when it comes to our genitals.
"It is not uncommon for women to worry about the shape or size of their labia." declares the website for a cosmetic surgeon in Melbourne. That's interesting but we can't blame advertising for that issue, can we? So what is the problem here?
Apart from gynecologists and beauticians most heterosexual women have very limited experience of other women's vaginas. Until the advent of the Internet most of us would only have had images from adult magazines to make comparisons with. Unfortunately, although not perhaps with quite the same motivation, these images have been tarred with the same air-brush!
In the case of genitals it is the censorship board that calls the shots. For an adult magazine to be classified as 'unrestricted' and publicly displayed in a newsagent the genitals must be "discreet" and there can be no "genital emphasis". To avoid censorship, adult magazines alter the appearance of female genitals so that they are 'healed to a single crease'. Very little, if any of the inner labia are shown and the result resembles the genitals of a pre-pubescent girl. (For more on this topic check out this episode of the ABC's Hungry Beast.)
Hardly surprising then that many women think that something is "wrong" with their "lady bits" and the popularity of genital cosmetic surgery has grown considerably in recent years. To compound the problem - this unrepresentative version is also what a lot of men are looking for. These same magazines were the source of their adolescent sexual fantasies.
So what is normal? A study that measured the genitals of 50 women between 18 and 50, found that the labia minora ranged from two to ten cm in length and from 0.7 to five cm in width. This variation occurred amongst only 50 women and is no doubt even wider across the general female population. In addition, the colour of the labia minora can be anywhere from deep pink, brownish pink to reddish pink and asymmetry is the norm.
Traditional cultures acknowledge the variety of vulva...
Traditional wisdom from a range of cultures shows a much more wholesome and accurate attitude to the vulva than we have today. The Native American teachings of the Sweet Medicine Sundance Path name nine different types of vulva on the medicine wheel and discuss not only the differing qualities of each one but the varying ways in which each one receives pleasure.
From Japan we have inherited descriptions of five types of female genitals, each one associated with one of the five elements, earth, water, fire. air and ether. The sexological texts of India speak of three temperaments, three kinds and four orders of women which combines to classify women into 36 psycho-physical types each of which has specific characteristics of her yoni. And Arabic culture offers the most detailed and extensive set of terms and descriptions affording insights into their physical characteristics as well as the psyche and sexual drive of their owner.
... and her power
Respect for the potency of the vulva as the portal between the worlds was widespread in ancient times.
Sheelah-na-Gigs are figurative carvings of naked women displaying exaggerated genitals with the lips held apart. They were found on churches, castles and other buildings, particularly in Ireland and Britain and other parts of Europe. Similar female figures have been found throughout Anatolia, Europe, Southern Asia, and East Asia in a broad chronological sweep beginning around 9000 BCE and existing for millennia. These widespread figures are clearly displaying the power of the vulva - the fertile, healing and regenerative power. In many cases their placement also indicates a protective power, the power to ward of evil and protect a structure from an enemy.
Wouldn't it be great to share this ancient wisdom with a woman contemplating surgery in order to "heal her vulva to the crease" and conform to a censor's idea of what is "acceptable"?
Why is this so important?
If women feel that there is something wrong with the part of our body which determines our femininity, which is a source of incredible creativity and delight and which is the gateway through which every one of us, in the normal run of things, enters this world, then there is a dangerous void in our sense of ourselves as women.
I would like to propose a Vulvalation - a movement of men and women fostering the rediscovery of the power and the beauty of the vulva, respecting the wonderful variety and understanding the way in which the differences affect each women's capacity for pleasure and satisfaction. I would like to see the introduction of education in schools that makes these differences clear for both girls and boys and the general availability of respectful and accurate literature and imagery that affirms the naturalness and the potency of female sexuality.
I would like that we reconnect with the ancient wisdom in which women (and the bits that make them women) were respected and valued as the source of life. I would like to help create a modern social environment in which women can fully accept themselves, are truly acknowledged and empowered, and in which the very source of our femininity is honoured, respected, loved and understood.
If you would like to show your support for such such a grass roots movement then you can join the Vulvalation on facebook. Viva la Vulvalation!
The Yoni: Sacred Symbol of Female Creative Power by Rufus Campenhausen
Sacred Display: Divine and Magical Female Figures of Eurasia By Miriam Robbins Dexter and Victor H. Mair