I had an inferiority complex growing up. My hair was brown, my eyes were brown, my nose was prominent, my body was chubby and my skin became a dark shade when exposed to sunlight. Early 90’s media presented beauty to me as blonde, blue eyed, delicately featured, slim, and golden skinned. My greatest fear was the birth of a baby sister who would be blonde and blue eyed, like my brother. It probably didn’t help that I grew up in a predominantly Germanic town where the majority of the little girls in my class were blonde and skinny. Oh, how I envied them, even at age six.
And this is coming from a white girl. It wasn’t until I was much older that I began to consider what it meant to grow up as a non-Caucasian woman, with the Nordic standard of beauty being shoved down your throat. For what it’s worth, that Nordic beauty does deserve to be celebrated, but so should Eastern European beauty, and African beauty, and Asian, and Indian, and Native American, etc. There should simply be no “standard of beauty,” certainly not one that’s rooted in race. I’ve thought especially hard about what it means to find acceptance in one’s beauty when they’re in a minority that’s rarely, if ever, portrayed in the media. I grew up in Saskatchewan, Canada, surrounded by many Cree, Dene, Blackfoot and Sioux women and girls. If I grew up feeling inferior due to the media, what must it be like to have black hair, brown skin, brown eyes, and features and body types that are decidedly NOT Euro-centric? These women are absolutely gorgeous in ways Elle, Seventeen or a Barbie doll rarely ever promote. What kind of strength does it take to love yourself when society doesn’t deem you “beautiful”? I know that even I can lose perspective when I look in the mirror, and my complexion is generally regarded as “fair.”
Which brings me to what prompted this article, the idea of skin lightening creams. Specifically, skin lightening creams meant to be used on the vagina (or vulva/labia to be more precise). Excuse me, but what the crap? Why is this a thing?!
These creams are aggressively promoted and used in India by Indian women. Light skin is both celebrated and desired in India, perhaps more commercially than anywhere else in the world. Or so it would seem. Misogyny is alive and thriving there, where there are many more men and boys than women and girls due to sex selective abortions among other heinous crimes against the “fairer” sex. The women that remain? Well, they’re told to flat iron their hair and lighten their skin in order to meet Western standards of beauty.
Skin colour is a hot topic in India, and has been for centuries. To be light skinned is to be beautiful, and to have a higher social standing. Prior to colonialism this could be attributed to the fact that if you were darker, it indicated that you were a peasant who worked hard in the hot sun. However, post-British colonialism, India’s obsession with lighter skin has been attributed to the fact that as a culture, the idea of lighter skin has been internalized as being more powerful and more superior. In fact, the truth is that while the obsession with light skin is centuries old, the root of it can only be speculated. What we know for sure is that Bollywood illuminates light skin and puts it on a pedestal, and the beauty industry (which does include Western companies such as Olay and L’Oreal) exploits this cultural insecurity with their ugly and dangerous products. Light skin will get you a better job and a better husband, and these industries promote and enforce this ideal.
Back to vagina lighteners. I wonder, how does that become a preoccupation in one’s head? Is there a conversation that precludes it? “I’m sorry baby, but your brown pussy is unappealing to me because the white women in the porn I watch all have creamy white pussies with a blush of pink.” If so, please kindly back off with that garbage.
It’s only in the past few years that the idea that my junk (or any woman’s junk) isn’t aesthetically pleasing to look at and therefore should be altered has been presented to me.
First there was the preoccupation with the total or near total removal of a woman’s pubic hair. Thanks pornography, for teaching impressionable young boys and girls that is the way a vagina should be – hairless! Thanks society, for reinforcing it, but I refuse to buy into the concept that my vagina is unappealing if I do not resemble a porn star or a 7-year-old girl.
Then, of course, there is the highly disturbing trend of labiaplasty (link is NSFW). Yes, you’ve read that right: plastic surgery of the labia. Now, my reading on the topic taught me that it was originally used for women with a condition that made their labia minora extra, super huge, hanging far below the rest of the body (the pictures are kind of wild – surely there’s a fetish market for them). However, the surgery has been co-opted by women who wish to make their bodies simply more aesthetically appealing, some who even have their inner labia removed. Uhm… who decides what makes a vagina aesthetically appealing? There are ads for labiaplasty in the metro. What this means is that as I am making my daily commute, there are advertisements directed at me telling me that maybe my bits aren’t pretty enough, that maybe my bits need some work.
How dare anyone try to tell me, or any other woman, that there is something wrong with their vagina? In fact, unless there’s a malignant growth, an open and contagious sore, or a green discharge coming from it – there ISN’T anything wrong with it. Society, get the hell out of my pants and stop insinuating my sexual organs aren’t pretty enough. Honestly, what is a vagina supposed to look like? Christ.
But back to the vagina lighteners. What an incredibly sickening, racist and misogynistic product. When East Indian women turn on their TVs they now get to add to their vaginal worries (is it too hairy, is it pretty enough?) a healthy dose of racial inferiority. Is my East Indian vagina… too East Indian?
Unfortunately, that’s not all that prompted this article. Nope, India now has on the market 18 Again, a vaginal ‘rejuvenation’ and ‘tightening’ gel. It touts that you will feel like a virgin again. Uh. Yay? Because there was nothing quite as pleasurable as the feeling of losing my virginity. No, wait… it felt like I was being impaled. I mean, there wasn’t blood everywhere and I didn’t cry (aren’t I a lucky princess?) but it still hurt like hell! Not too mention, I can’t imagine that my cries of “Oh gawd, stop moving!” and momentary wheezing was overly sexy.
So really, why the vaginal rejuvenation? 18 Again is a disgusting, misogynist, slut shaming, body shaming, vagina shaming product, and the only people who should be ashamed are the people marketing it and the men who want their partners to use it. Ladies of India (and everywhere!), I sincerely hope you reject this product. Do your kegels, by all means, they keep your vagina comfortably tight, since a strong vagina equals a stronger orgasm, but I hope you decide not to buy into this.
Before I go, I want to ask society: does my vagina meet your beauty standards? Is it hairless, white, with small and symmetrical labia with a pure, virginal tightness? WHAT!? NO!? IT’S NOT!?
Guess what? I give a whopping grand total of zero fucks. My body is mine, and it is unique and it is womanly and it is real and it is powerful and brings me great pleasure. I refuse to feel ashamed of it, and I refuse to stay quiet as a perverted Euro-centric patriarchy body shames and slut shames the rest of the women on Earth, each one of them beautiful regardless of race or skin colour or labia shape.
Let’s love ourselves, gals, and let’s keep the patriarchy out of our pants!
What are your thoughts on vaginas, beauty standards and products like bleaching creams and 18 Again? Share with us in the comments.
Reader submission by Meisha Virtue
When not smashing the patriarchy or defending the realm, Meisha likes to drink wine straight from the bottle and hang out on Tumblr, where you can find her here.