Vulvic Thinking

The vulva is a fraught and evolving site that is calling out for dedicated study by feminists. We need to analyse, broaden, and deepen cultural representations and discussions around vulvas. The vulva is enjoying a zeitgeist. Fur cup, yoni, cunt, front bottom, hoo-ha, pussy, va-jay-jay, camel toe, muff, map of Tassie, vagina. After hearing the sound recording of the now President of the Unites States advising men to ‘grab em by the pussy’ women rose up in fury to march against gendered violence as well as against the President himself. Global newscasts showed crowds in cities across the world dotted with homemade signs featuring the word vulva and images of vulvas (most were pink, an omission of note: see https://amydame.ca/2017/05/09/not-all-pussies-are-pink-not-all-women-have-pussies/). Alongside my sisterly anger the nerd in me felt happy that, at last, people were using correct terminology: instead of ‘vagina’ we were hearing ‘vulva’: the proper general descriptor for labia minora and majora, the external parts of the clitoris, the clitoral hood, and the opening to the vagina.

Photo by roya ann miller on Unsplash
While the pussy signs at anti-Trump marches are perhaps the best-known new representations of vulvas, discussions about these complex, somewhat taboo sites are also on the rise in performance art [http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/deborah-de-robertis_n_5462083], comedy, fashion [http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/vagina-fashion-show_us_59b68c85e4b0b5e531079206], academia, and activism. There is even a Vagina Museum [https://www.vaginamuseum.co.uk/] planned for London. But, even as they are undergoing important shifts in representation and understanding, vulvas remain zones of mystery to many, including women. When midwives' power was taken over by male medics as part of the rise of modern medicine through the 18th and 19th centuries, vulvas, like all body parts, were scritinised and categorised by a newly masculine medical profession. Women were no longer experts on the processes and capacities of their own bodies. The study of anatomy was dominated by male scientists who supposedly developed better knowledge of women's bodies than women themselves: we continue to live with the legacy of this today (the 'discovery' of the clitoris in 1998 is a laughable (cryable?) example [http://projects.huffingtonpost.com/cliteracy]). Medical discourse depicted women’s bodies as somehow deceitful—nurturing and pleasure-giving as well as diseased, ‘hysterical’, even evil. No wonder then, that the vulva has a difficult and troubled history. It has powerful metaphoric and physical capacities, and is distinguished as the quintessential liminal part of women’s bodies. Along with the mouth, anus, ears and nose, the vulva problematizes inside and outside and confounds two-dimensional surface and three-dimensional depth. Is it skin or orifice? Is it an opening, a closing, or something more labyrinthine? 

The current vulvic zeitgeist—unlike the legendary second wave feminist consciousness raising groups that encouraged women to use mirrors to self-examine and demystify their genitals—is occurring alongside sometimes overwhelming cultural and social pressures for women to work on their bodies and femininities through exercise, diet, grooming and cosmetic surgery. The mainstreaming of pornography and the ubiquitous use of Photoshop have led to dissemination of an homogenous 'ideal-looking' vulva that is promoted by television programmes such as Embarrassing Bodies, by some gynaecologists, and certainly by cosmetic surgeons. The term ‘designer vagina’, otherwise known as female genital cosmetic surgery, covers a range of cosmetic surgery procedures including vaginal tightening, hymen repair or reconstruction, labia minora reshaping or minimizing, labia majora augmentation or reduction, clitoral hood removal, reduction, or rebuilding, and ‘G-spot’ enhancement. In parallel with rising numbers of requests for ‘designer vaginas’ legislation against female genital mutilation was introduced in the UK in 2013 (an irony that has not gone unnoticed 1). There are concurrent cultural reactions to this as academics, artists [http://www.greatwallofvagina.co.uk/about], activists and documentary makers [https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/video/2016/sep/23/vagina-dispatches-part-one-what-vulvas-look-like] endeavour to disseminate a more representational range of healthy vulvas.

There are many ways we could expand the frames through which we examine these intricate and multifaceted body parts, for example by focusing on the sensorium, the emotions, and everyday embodiments as well as the more obvious frames of pleasure, desire, and oppression. Ethnographies of vulvas are urgently required! How might we critically and creatively engage with vulvic discourses as well as with vulvas themselves? Perhaps what is required is a whole new mode of thinking: vulvic thinking. For Luce Irigaray, vulval lips are multiple and relational: they are visual but are also doing and becoming, and are thus able to express in ways that destabilize ‘truth’ and grand narratives. Labia is the plural of labium, a Latin-derived term meaning lip, so its roots are in the plural and are strongly linked to speaking, doing, communicating. How might feminist scholars communicate better with and about vulvas? How might we surf the current wave of vulval visibility? How might we use it to destabilise and interrogate? How might we research and think about, with, and even through our vulvas?

Meredith Jones is a Reader in Gender and Media Studies at Brunel University London. She is a feminist scholar specialising in theories of the body and is one of the pioneers of social and cultural research around cosmetic surgery. Her books and articles, especially ‘Skintight: An Anatomy of Cosmetic Surgery’ (Berg, 2008) in the area are widely cited. Meredith is currently writing (with David Bell and Ruth Holliday) a book about cosmetic surgery tourism (based on data collected as part of the project Sun, Sea, Sand and Silicone) and a monograph tentatively titled ‘Velvet Gloves: A Cultural Anatomy of the Vulva.

1 The Nuffield Council on Bioethics’ 2017 report Cosmetic procedures: ethical issues notes 'a concerning lack of clarity as to whether procedures offered as FGCS fall within the ambit of the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003' and recommend 'that the Home Office should clarify the circumstances in which procedures offered as ‘FGCS’ do, or do not, fall within the ambit of the FGM Act, in the light of ongoing concerns as to their legality.'

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