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As a society that praises the power of vaginas, we sure do simultaneously foster a lot of vaginal shame.

Women receive messages that claim we should taste like water or smell like fruit down there, and we learn that our vaginas are unappealing unless masked by-products. We are socialized to shave, wax, or even use harsh chemicals on our pubic hair to be perceived as hygienic. We shell out cash on services that increase the tightness, improve the overall look, and eliminate perceived impurities. And it’s disappointing because it leaves women wondering if the most private parts of our bodies are inherently wrong, dirty, or funny-looking. We struggle to feel comfortable with ourselves in even this incredibly intimate way.

As a society that praises the power of vaginas, we sure do simultaneously foster a lot of vaginal shame.

Conversely, men are ushered into puberty with a pat on the back that allows their body odor and the discovery of their sexual selves to feel normal and acceptable. They are assured that they are participating in a natural transition from boyhood to manhood. We make jokes about them ejaculating into socks and smelling comedically sour. They are allowed to carry a certain confidence about their hygiene that women are denied. And while this isn’t surprising, it creates a system where women are willing to invest in products and services that are unnecessary, and often dangerous to our health, while keeping us scared to explore our sexuality.

Women invest in vaginal hygiene products that are unnecessary, and often dangerous to our health while simultaneously keeping us scared to explore our sexuality.

First and foremost, we need to understand that pubic hair grows for a reason. It protects our vaginas from friction, it prevents dirt and bacteria from entering the vaginal canal, and it’s even speculated that it traps the pheromone scent from our natural perspiration and increases our sexual attractiveness. There’s actually zero cons to having pubic hair that are backed by medicine — but our society at large perceives a lack of pubic hair as more hygienic.

Shaming women with pubic hair is so natural, that most of us have already internalized this in our teen years. We discover different methods for hair removal and we portray them as empowering acts — we brag about how happy these methods make us, how comfortable in our bodies we are allowed to become. And I’m not discounting that being a hairless goddess doesn’t make me feel amazing when I strip down in front of someone, I’m just acknowledging that I was socialized to feel that way.

It’s also important to note that even in the porn we consume and the music we listen to, pubic hair is shamed. Most porn portrays women who are predominantly hairless whereas the porn that shows women with pubic hair is shuttered off into its own section as if natural bodies are some obscure kink. And then songs like T.I’s “No Mediocre” — which declares, “you won’t get no dick if there’s a bush down there, girl I should see nothing but p*ssy when I look down there” — assist in communicating that pubic hair is unattractive and unacceptable.

As a young girl, I listened to a plethora of anti-pubic hair messages and I started to shave. It was a nightmare. It was so itchy as it grew back and I even nicked myself in the process once, but I kept going. When I became sexually active, I shaved even more frequently. And when I became financially stable, I bought an entire waxing package so that the hair wouldn’t just be gone, my skin would also be smooth. There is perhaps nothing more humbling than lifting your legs in front of a total stranger so she can rip the hair painfully out of the most private regions of your body, but I did it. I boasted about how beautiful and comfortable it made me feel. And it is, unfortunately, a lot of work just for the joy of feeling beautiful and comfortable within my body.

There is perhaps nothing more humbling than lifting your legs in front of a total stranger so she can rip the hair painfully out of the most private regions of your body

And it wasn’t until I was about to go down on a girl I was seeing recently, and she stopped me because she hadn’t shaved, that I saw it from another perspective. I realized how inconsequential a little pubic hair is in the grand scheme of sexual pleasure — I would’ve enthusiastically gone down there anyway. But even though I didn’t personally care, she did. The same messages about body hair and hygiene that I have internalized and am trying to unlearn, are messages that she heard as well.

Obviously, the problem is not just body hair. A quick visit to the feminine hygiene aisle is all the evidence you need that our society is overwhelmingly disgusted by vaginas. Vaginas are self-cleaning, requiring only water and unscented soap to be hygienic. Despite this very well-known fact, we have accepted marketing that pretends otherwise. Feminine hygiene products include douches, gels, wipes, and deodorant sprays, each promising a “freshness” and “cleanliness” that our vaginas (along with regular showers) already have covered.

We have created an impossible and dangerous standard for women’s bodies.

I also frequently hear the suggestion that a vagina should taste like water, or like fruit, which is impossible to achieve naturally. And yet, there are instructional articles across the internet that tell you what foods to eat and products to use to help accomplish this. Some companies, like My Sweet V, even sell supplements that will alter the flavor of your vagina. And many young women sprinkled baby powder in their underwear as a normal hygiene practice, only to learn that baby powder is linked to cervical and ovarian cancer in young women.

Some women even use douches, which push fluid inside of the vagina, even though medical professionals keep telling us that it isn’t healthy for our bodies. While originally considered a form of birth control, the popularity of actual contraceptives meant that companies need to find an alternate reason for women to purchase douches — so they marketed them as an essential aspect of feminine hygiene, including ads that suggested that women who didn’t douche would have to contend with odor. And it’s especially wild because if we learn that our bodies are naturally problematic when we face actual health concerns, we view them with greater shame.

Companies need to find an alternate reason for women to purchase douches — so they marketed them as an essential aspect of feminine hygiene

Plus, while anxieties about vaginal tightness don’t pertain to hygiene per se, they do reflect how much shame is involved in female sexuality — and how that can be dangerous. Vaginal tightening creams have severe side effects from hormone disruption to infection, and they’re not even guaranteed to work. And ladies who opt for tightness/rejuvenation surgery are putting themselves at risk for loss of sensation, nerve damage, excessive bleeding, infection, and scarring. Vaginal tightness creams and rejuvenation surgeries are actually geared towards women who have gone through childbirth but teenagers have been opting for them as well, including girls who want to change the appearance of their labia.

We have created an impossible and dangerous standard for women’s bodies. And while I don’t think it’s easy for any of us to put down the lotions, creams, or waxing kits, it’s important for us to question where the pressure to use these products comes from. I also think it’s important to see and discuss women’s bodies as they naturally exist so that we can understand their variety. That’s not something that we’re experiencing in the porn we consume — and it should be — but it’s not even a common part of sex education. In focusing on abstinence-only narratives, we skip over the important lessons of loving your body and understanding it beyond its ability to conceive.

We skip over the important lessons of loving your body and understanding it beyond its ability to conceive

Unlearning vaginal shame — and overall body shame — is easier said than done. It requires us to sit with our perceived insecurities, to acknowledge where they came from, and then to decide to love ourselves anyway. And it is a valuable endeavor considering the opposite has put women at risk for too long.