Growing up with a vagina can be accompanied by a lot of anxiety about what is “normal”. Is it supposed to be this hairy? Does it smell right? What is this stuff coming out of it?
Negative representations of an oozing, weeping vagina that is dirty and shameful have long perpetuated Western society. These ideas of a dirty vagina are harmful to women’s confidence and sexual and reproductive health. Along with negative representations, a lack of sexual health education can affect our understanding of basic anatomy, the way we safely groom our pubic hair, and what is healthy.
For example, despite vaginal discharge being essential to keeping the vagina clean and healthy, it continues to bother women. Furthermore, women’s sexual self-esteem and image self-consciousness can often be affected by their dissatisfaction with their genital appearance.
We hear too many stories about people disliking or feeling embarrassed by their vagina— so we found ourselves asking: where did the obsession with “clean” and “perfect” vaginas come from and how did it become tied to personal value? Read on to find out.
A lack of education about real vaginas and vulvas
How old were you when you learned the difference between the vulva and the vagina?
Being able to name your body correctly may seem trivial but it’s essential in being able to identify what is healthy and typical for you. Moreover, it’s a health and safety issue. Sexual violence prevention specialists share that using anatomically correct language improves communication between adults and children. For example, when children don’t know the correct terminology for their bodies, doctors may miss signs of abuse.
Unfortunately, learning about genitals through sex education continues to be undervalued in the USA, with a 2020 study finding that less than half of American high schools covered the 22 essential topics recommended by the CDC.
When children and teenagers are able to name their body parts, it allows them to talk about them without shame. Without classroom-led teaching, young people might not know what a vulva looks like (and how common differences in shape, shade size, and length really are!), what it might smell like, the color of discharge at different times of the month, or how vaginas and vulvas change with age. In turn, young people increasingly turn to porn to learn about sex education and as a result, what a vulva is “supposed to” look like.
The problem(s) with porn
For many people, porn can be a fun way to relax and masturbate. It can also be an essential tool for understanding and discovering sexuality. However, porn very rarely shows the diversity and reality of vulvas, including discharge, periods, and hair.
One study found that most boys started watching porn between the ages of 9-13.
When young people learn about sex, vulvas, and penises from porn, they are unlikely to have someone to explain to them that it is a form of entertainment, often with a narrow representation of bodies. Seeing a very specific body type in porn being depicted as attractive can lead to internalized shame about your body; one study found that participants who watched porn were more likely to consider having cosmetic vulvar surgery. The idealized vulva is very often that of a young, white woman, with compact labia that don’t hang outside of the body.
And what about pubic hair? Well, there is a gigantic lack of it in porn! So when you are used to seeing bald vulvas on the screen, it might come as a shock to see a hairy one in real life.
Unrealistic American beauty standards of the vulva
At its best, pubic hair grooming makes some people feel confident and sexy! At its worst, removing pubic hair can lead to itchy regrowth, painful ingrown hairs, and potentially higher risks for STIs. So why do so many people want hairless vulvas? Apart from porn, cultural expectations about what is considered feminine and attractive are drivers of why people remove their pubic hair. American beauty standards tying hairlessness to femininity and attractiveness can be traced back to as early as 1915 when Gilette released the first women's razor, called Milady Decollette.
Although there was a change in opinion during the 1970s, during which many women grew out their pubic hair, the introduction of the “Brazilian” in the 1990s created a wave of waxed vulvas. A review of recent articles from The New York Times and Vogue shows that hairy vulvas are making a comeback in recent years.
Along with advertising and magazine articles, the opinions of celebrities often sway how we view our pubic hair, and by extension, femininity and attractiveness. Celebrities like Eva Longoria have been quoted as saying that “every woman should try a Brazilian wax once” to make sex better. The Kardashians have also been very candid on their show KUWTK about their feelings towards body hair, with Khloe once saying that she needed a wax because she didn’t want her partner to see her “as a hairy beast”.
The removal of pubic hair has also been falsely attributed to cleanliness; a nationally representative study of women in the USA found that the most common reason women removed their pubic hair was for hygiene. However, pubic hair is there for a reason! Removing it may lead to an increased risk of infection and irritation. Think of your pubic hair as a cushion to protect a very sensitive part of the body.
Marketing “clean vaginas” is harmful, not helpful, to vaginal health
The pressure to have a vagina that looks, smells, and even tastes a certain way is reflected in the number of intimate hygiene products on the market, valued at $3.2 billion in 2022. Products include washes and wipes that promise to make your vagina smell like roses, strawberries, and even a summer's evening. Intimate wash products and vaginal steaming are almost never good for you. In fact, research shows that using intimate hygiene products can be harmful, increasing the risk for bacterial vaginosis which puts you at higher risk for more serious vaginal health issues such as STI acquisition and preterm birth.
An obsession with a “clean” vulva is a misunderstanding of what cleanliness in relation to vulvas actually means. A clean vulva is just one that has been washed with water. The vagina produces discharge to clean itself, and it usually smells exactly how a vagina should smell: like a vagina. An unbalanced pH that disrupts the vaginal microbiome might mean that the smell changes or the fluid that comes out of it looks different, but it doesn’t mean it is dirty. (If you’re concerned about vaginal symptoms and the overall health of your vaginal microbiome, Evvy has created at-home vaginal microbiome tests that can tell you about all the bacteria and fungi in your vagina with a single swab.) If there is physical discomfort like pain or itching, or mental discomfort, like low self-esteem, know that you haven’t done anything wrong.
The conversation and education around vaginas and vulvas needs to change. We need to celebrate our vulva in their diversities of shapes and sizes and learn why our discharge changes color and texture so that we are empowered in our knowledge of what is typical and healthy for us. Equally, if you want to remove your pubic hair or have cosmetic surgery because that will make you feel more confident about your body, that’s ok too, as long as you have the information to do so safely.