By Amanda Jenkins
Vagina. It’s a word that most people are uncomfortable saying publicly and privately. We avoid the word during conversations with friends, family and intimate relationships. When needing to refer to this part of the body we may even use euphemisms such as “down there,” “private parts,” and “lady bits” among others.
Studies have shown some women avoid saying this word even within socially ‘appropriate’ spaces such as doctor offices. According to a study conducted by the Ovarian Cancer Action in the United Kingdom, two-thirds of 1000 women surveyed said they would be too embarrassed to say the word vagina to their physician. They would also avoid words related to vagina, including 60% of women from the same study not wanting to use the word labia and more than half of these women feeling self-conscious about saying discharge. Deliberate avoidance of the word vagina is also apparent in media and advertisements. Companies selling pads and tampons opt for less ‘offensive’ terms like intimate and feminine hygiene. A recent marketing campaign by Femfresh for vaginal hygiene products demonstrates this kind of avoidance. Instead of using the word vagina they replaced it with euphemisms like “hoo haa,” “froo froo,” “kitty,” and even “lady garden.” Not only do these euphemisms come across as outdated and old-fashioned, but they further infantilize and patronize women. The avoidance of this ‘unspeakable’ word shames women about their genitals and perpetuates a culture of silence and secrecy.
Where does this leave us? Feminist psychologist Virginia Braun has described this silence and secrecy as contributing to “the absence of the vagina” within Western culture. And this absence has significant ramifications for girls’ and women’s understanding their bodies, including a general ignorance about their genitals. In a recent survey of 1,000 British women nearly half were unable to identify the vagina on a medical illustration. Similarly, in a study of college students in the United States nearly two-thirds of women were unable to locate the vagina on a diagram. This difficulty visually identifying different parts of women’s genitals may reflect the more general absence of vaginas culturally, both in conversation and physical objects including Barbies and other dolls whose genitalia are missing. (Where are they??? Is there a secret cache somewhere of all the Barbie and other doll genitalia toymakers have decided are not appropriate viewing for the public?) The kind of secrecy surrounding vaginas further perpetuates women’s genitals as shameful.
The construction of vaginas as shameful is nothing new. It stems from deeply embedded taboos around vaginas as diseased, dirty, and polluted. Women’s bodies have long been seen as unhygienic and girls and women today continue to receive messages that their vaginas are dirty, smelly, and sources of shame. This portrayal of the vagina as ‘dirty’ is perpetuated by many companies who profit from women feeling self-conscious. By using these portrayals in their advertisements – whether overtly or subtly – companies that produce products for women (including pads, tampons, douches, vaginal sprays, wipes, and powders) benefit financially by suggesting to women that the use of these products is necessary to be ‘clean.’ These advertisements tell women that any form of bodily excretion (i.e., discharge, odour, and menstrual blood) is unsanitary, unacceptable, and susceptible to ridicule and embarrassment by others. These kinds of messages may be internalized by women who perceive an ideal vagina as odourless, hairless, discharge free, and associated with feelings of cleanliness and freshness. Services like Brazilian waxes, vajazzling (the application of crystal ornaments on the genitals) and vaginal cosmetic surgery further perpetuate certain ‘ideals’ that women need to attain if they want to be sexually desirable (i.e., a vagina that is hairless, decorated, and symmetrical). With increasing numbers of women going under the knife to attain an ‘ideal’ vagina, procedures like labiaplasty are not only becoming popular, but ‘normal.’
The construction of an ideal vagina is not only worrisome, but can be detrimental to women’s health. Products like douches, vaginal powders, and vaginal deodorant sprays have been associated with adverse health consequences such as a higher susceptibility to sexually transmitted infections (STIs), pelvic inflammatory diseases, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection, bacterial vaginosis, and an increased risk of ovarian cancer. Emerging research on women’s health and the vaginal microbiome further suggests some vaginal hygiene products may negatively affect the development of healthy bacteria, alter vaginal pH levels, and affect the vaginal immune barrier resulting in a great susceptibility to infections. Despite these potential health concerns, vaginal hygiene products continue to be marketed towards women and are even advertised as beneficial, even necessary, to women’s health.
As a feminist psychologist who conducts research on women’s use of vaginal hygiene products, I consider conversations about how women’s bodies are constructed as shameful important in challenging taboos that continue to oppress women. In addressing this oppression, I join other feminist psychologists who help create spaces for women to have conversations on topics that are often seen as forbidden. And, yes, this means saying/using the word vagina! These conversations are important in promoting dialogue about women’s health and encouraging women to critically consider the messages they receive around their bodies. Through these conversations, we can help empower women to challenge discourses that construct female bodies as pathological and instead promote messages of body positivity and acceptance.
Jenkins, A., Crann, S., Money, D., & O’Doherty, K. (2017). Clean and fresh: Understanding women’s use of vaginal hygiene products. Sex Roles.
Braun, V., & Tiefer, L. (2010). The ‘designer vagina’ and the pathologisation of female genital diversity: Interventions for change. Radical Psychology, 8(1).
Crann, S., Jenkins, A., Money, D., & O’Doherty, K. (2017). Women’s genital body work: Health, hygiene, and beauty practices in the production of idealized female genitalia. Feminism & Psychology, 1-20.
Amanda Jenkins is a PhD Candidate in the Applied Social Psychology program at the University of Guelph. Her research focuses on women’s use and practices of vaginal hygiene products (douches, deodorants, wipes, powders, washes) and the broader marketing of these products to women from a feminist perspective. She attributes her development as a critical feminist psychologist to her former involvement in the Psychology Feminist Voices Research Group at York University and her continued collaboration with feminist colleagues at the University of Guelph.