Why do women keep looking for ways to optimize their vaginas?

Women have been searching for ways to perfect their vaginas for decades. From eating citrus fruits like pineapples and grapefruit to improve the taste, to drinking probiotic teas to combat natural smells, there are tons of uncertain, low-risk practices out there that rumor to give you a better vagina.

The vajacial, essentially a facial for your vagina, is the latest trend in obtaining vaginal palatability. Videos of the service are circulating all over the internet, and I can’t lie, I was intrigued when I saw the final reveal of a freshly waxed and exfoliated bikini line.

The service sits somewhere between simpler practices like eating pineapple and more invasive work sought by women who take their concerns and standards to medical spas.

In 2017, vaginal steaming saw a spike in popularity after Gwyneth Paltrow recommended it to readers on Goop. Despite the celebrity endorsement, there is no evidence that vaginal steaming actually cleans the vagina or fights any conditions.

In 2018, we witnessed the rise of the vaginal jade egg, an egg-shaped gemstone that was rumored to strengthen pelvic floor muscles, increase hormonal balance, and promote menstrual regulation. Then Jen Gunter, a renowned obstetrician-gynecologist, reported that the tiny marble egg could actually cause bacterial and fungal infections and toxic shock syndrome, quickly putting an end to its hype.

Often referred to as the designer vagina, procedures and practices that focus on the outside of the vagina also have become trendy. In 2016, over 12,000 labiaplasties were performed, a 39% increase over the previous year, according to a report by the American Society of Plastic Surgeons. The procedure involves removing some of the labia minora. In 2017, vajazzling, or gluing small gems on the pubic area, tried to make a comeback but the phenomenon was short-lived.

Even vaginal bleaching, or lightening the skin of the vulva with laser treatment or chemical peels, has grown in popularity in the US since 2018. In an interview with Allure, dermatologist Shari Marchbein said there is no average vulvar skin color and that it varies depending on a person’s ethnic background, suggesting the procedure to be completely cosmetic and unnecessary.

In addition to the whopping costs and the associated health risks, these procedures might also rob you of realistic beauty standards and rich mental health. A 2008 study (pdf) found that as one’s perception of body satisfaction decreases, depression increases.

So where are all these ideas about what color vaginal skin should be, how tight the vagina should be, and how little the vaginal lips should be, coming from? We can attribute these misconceptions to a plethora of hairless women with small labias in porn, to the airbrushed and photoshopped models in magazine spreads, and to the stark lack of education surrounding the normalities of the female body and reproductive health.

The effects of this imagery and lack of education does not discriminate by gender. Research (paywall) has found that women often compare themselves to images in media, and that those who fail to achieve their idea of perfect body image experience higher levels of depression. Meanwhile, in a 2015 study, 51% of men said they believe the appearance of a woman’s labia relates to their sexual desire, and 64% found smaller labia more attractive than larger labia. (Notably, most of the men who preferred little to no hair and small labia were on the younger end of the age spectrum.)

Encouragingly, most of the men in the study indicated they would not encourage their partner to change their genital appearance. Three-quarters said they would be against their partner making any changes and 42% were unfamiliar with labiaplasty in general.

So, where does the vajacial fit into the spectrum of vaginal procedures? The treatment, which is performed on the vulva area of the vagina, consists of a cleanse, exfoliant, ingrown hairs extraction, a mask, and then a skin brightening serum. It’s personal but not invasive. It’s far less expensive than a surgical procedure, but it isn’t cheap; a vajacial in New York City will cost you anywhere from $50 and $70.

Being born with naturally curly hair, I’m no stranger to ingrowns, so reading positive reviews from women raging about the new facial they got for their vagina convinced me to get one, too. I went in 10 days after my last wax, as recommended, and opted for a 50-minute treatment. Pleasantly surprised, I left the spa with baby-smooth skin and an ego boost.

I wouldn’t recommend it for everyone, though. I think women need to first consider their motives for vaginal-optimization treatments before undertaking them. I, for one, prefer to wax because shaving gives me ingrown hairs. But going unwaxed at times, either because I don’t feel like dishing out the cash or going through a 15-minute pain session, will not deplete my confidence. And what I will not do, I am certain, is put my body through harm in order to obtain the media’s idea or a man’s idea of the perfect vagina, because like all women, I already have it.

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