Beauty

Is Beautifying Your Vagina Bullshit or an Act of Feminism?

Experts weigh in on the explosion of below-the-belt products and whether you really need to spring clean down there

Steaming. Bedazzling. Misting. Luminizing. Exfoliating. Plumping. Tightening. Lightening. Waxing with 24-karat gold. No, these aren’t beauty treatments designed for your face, but they are geared toward beautifying your lady bits.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a woman in 2018 who doesn’t do some kind of maintenance down there, whether it be scheduling monthly waxes, using a hygienic wash, or simply shaving. Even women who opt to go au natural might use an elixir of some sort, like Fur’s wildly popular pubic hair oil, which Emma Watson claims works just as well on brows and split-ends as it does on pubic hair. The sheer number of vaginal creams, serums, exfoliants, and mists—skincare for your vagina, if you will—that have hit the market within the past several years has been something of a trend. Why are so many women giving TLC to a region that has been otherwise overlooked, and to what do we owe this spurt in vaginal wellness?  

Blame it on three things, according to Maria Sophocles, a gynecologist in Princeton, New Jersey. First off, the sexual revolution in the ’70s, the launch of Sex and the City in the ‘90s (“the show opened up women’s eyes to having a healthy, robust libido,” she said), and the internet—namely, porn. “More women are looking at porn sites than ever before,” explained Sophocles. “They want to see what the women look like. Do they have pubic hair? Do they not? What does the labia look like? Do they have nipple piercings or clitoral piercings? I think this is actually driving the genital cosmetics trends.” 

Sophocles said she’s seen a rise in labiaplasty procedures, which reduces the length of the folds of skin on the vulva, but that it’s typically more common in “wealthier, more liberal” communities, which is the same case for the class of women using, say, a $54 elderflower and licorice root extract serum to “firm, radiate, and tone” their vaginas or a $43 highlighter that claims to “minimize imperfections” and add “some extra prettiness to the V.” (These products and more recently launched from a luxury Scandinavian brand called “The Perfect V.”) “It’s very socio-cultural,” Sophocles said.

Like other medical professionals, Sophocles is skeptical of vaginal products’ claims. “It’s a huge marketing opportunity,” she said. “They all claim they are blessed by medical professionals, and I hate to crap on my own colleagues, but I don’t think it’s that hard to get an MD to be on your own board and pay them a thousand dollars a month to say the product is fine. That’s all they do. It doesn’t mean the product works or that you need it or that it’s healthy or safe or good for you.” 

But, she continued, there’s no harm in women using products to make them feel feminine, clean, and attractive. “I don’t necessarily think they put dangerous [ingredients] in these formulas, but the vagina is self-cleaning, and the more extraneous stuff you put up there, the likelier you are to mess with its natural pH balance.”

When I asked her about women wanting to alter the scent of their vaginas—after all, what’s the harm in a little midday rosewater spritz?—Sophocles cited a study about the “erotic potential” of the smell. “There’s always the exception of someone who has an infection that needs to be treated, but in general, if you have a really strong odor, it means one of the normal types of bacterial there has overgrown and an antibacterial gel is needed to straighten it up. But during the study, almost 400 men said they love the natural scent of their partner,” she noted. “I think if women knew that and believed it, they’d be less inclined to change everything to lavender and sea salt.”

Criticizing women for using certain products or having specific procedures done—whether they’re bullshit or not—is a slippery slope. Consider the recent skincare article from The Outline that recently went viral; the author, a woman, repeatedly claimed that expensive serums and moisturizers are a sham. “Most skincare is really just a waste of money,” she wrote. “The invisible investments are of a kind with today’s boring rich.” The article lacked research and many felt like it was an attack on women: “At the crux of the article is the argument that we…are all a bunch of silly pawns with no agency to overcome the stupidity of skincare thrust upon us by the industry,” Racked’s Cheryl Wischhover rebutted. “Trust me, I know what I’m getting myself into. And it’s provided the chance for small victories, even if just over your wily pores.”  

“You don’t need perfume either,” added Sophocles. “But we buy it and we love it. [Vaginal products] are part of a beauty trend and a phase and I think it’s perfectly fine. I just don’t want people to think it’s actually going to change your vagina.”

I visited Cindy Barshop (of The Real Housewives of New York fame) at her airy, Madison Avenue VSPOT Medi-Spa, a place where women can get “laser vaginal tightening rejuvenation” procedures done by licensed gynecologists. (It’s also where you can get that aforementioned 24-karat gold wax.) Despite the list of arguably questionable-sounding treatments offered at Barshop’s spa—like a “Vampire Breast Lift” in which your own plasma is injected into your breasts in less than an hour, and an “O-Shot,” where your blood platelets are infused into your vaginal tissue for more intense orgasms—her MO is legit. “These kinds of things shouldn’t be taboo,” she said. “If it makes you feel good and it’s safe, why not? It’s about women being in control of their own bodies.”

In addition to non-surgical procedures, Barshop carries a range of hygienic and cosmetic products at her spa, like healthy hoohoo’s foaming wash and Medicine Mama’s Vmagic line (you may have heard of their head-scratching “vagina lipstick,” with the slogan, “Because your other lips get chapped too!”). 

“We weren’t talking about the vulva six or seven years ago,” said Medicine Mama’s Apothecary founder and Vmagic creator Donna Steinmann.  She said Vmagic came about after she learned a “surprisingly large number of women” were using their popular Sweet Bee Magic skin cream to alleviate vulvar dryness caused by menopause. “Buyers would come to me and kind of whisper, Hey, I’m using this down there. Is that alright?” She quickly expanded into the feminine care realm, releasing a tightly edited lineup that includes a cream, a wash, and the lipstick. For the past few years, Steinmann continued, she’s seen an “enormous amount of vajeweling, tattooing, and the like. It’s gone from just sort of shaving, to waxing, to bleaching, to being completely denuded [i.e., bare]. We’re not the company that says, ‘No, don’t do that,’ but we’re the company that says, ‘If you’re gonna do it, you need some kind of soothing product.” In that regard, consider Steinmann’s Vmagic as the solution to the aftermath caused by the dizzying number of beautifying procedures. “We’re just trying to alleviate redness, itchiness, rashes, burning, stinging and all of those things that could happen after grooming or passionate activity.” 

Beatrice Feliu-Espada founded The Honey Pot Company in 2014 after concocting her own cure-all for bacterial vaginosis. Over the phone, she told me she wants to make it clear that she’s in the business of “vulva care,” as in the upkeep of the outside of the vagina. “It’s the equivalent of taking a probiotic every day because you know what it’s going to do for your gut,” she said, “or using a really beautiful skincare on your face because you know it’s going to help prevent those breakouts and things of that nature.” 

The Honey Pot, which is carried at Whole Foods and Target, makes feminine wipes with aloe, cucumber, coconut water, and sunflower seed oil for $10, prenatal washes with apple cider vinegar, marshmallow, and garlic, and even “herbal pads” made with pesticide-free cotton. Feliu-Espada said the biggest thing she’s learned since launching her company is the amount of misinformation out there regarding the vaginal region. “The miseducation of how we’re supposed to care for ourselves shocks me all the time and lets me know that there’s a need for it.” She said she works with a gynecologist regularly, and even launched a video series where women can ask her questions. “There’s so much chatter out there and nobody knows what the best way is to keep that area clean and maintained,” she said. “I mean, hell, my way might not even be the best way. I think women are misinformed because we’ve been taught for so long that the vagina is a self-cleaning oven or that you should use bar soap and a washcloth, which both contain bacteria. But one thing I do know is that what we’re doing is working for women. They’re seeing success with it and feel confident and clean—it’s not about having a product that smells like mandarin orange or coconut or lavender blossoms. It’s about having skincare that works for you.”  

Celebrities and social media certainly have something to do with it. When actress Shailene Woodley told Into the Gloss that she suns her vagina—“If you live in a place that has heavy winters, when the sun finally comes out, spread your legs and get some sunshine,” she said—two friends of mine followed suit. Khloé Kardashian claims to moisturize her labia with vitamin E oil, while Jennifer Love Hewitt has said she decorates hers in adhesive jewel stickers. “It’s like having a sparkly secret in your pants,” she said. There’s former Hills star Lo Bosworth, who launched her very own line of feminine hygiene products two years ago in order to combat “tricky infections and irritations.” And then, of course, there’s Watson’s favorite pubic hair oil—the Fur product mentioned earlier. 

Speaking of Fur, I spoke with co-founder Lillian Tung, a former L’Oréal marketing manager, who told me that she’s happy people are realizing “it’s not as outrageous” to have pubic hair as it used to be. “When we came in the market—and even now, actually—the category of pubic hair didn’t exist, so when we told people we thought there should be products for pubic hair care, people would look at us like we had three heads.” In addition to the oil, which runs from $28 to $44 depending on the size of the bottle, Fur sells stubble cream and ingrown concentrate. “Over time, we’ve gotten more [consumers] in the loving camp and a little less in the hate camp,” she said. “We’ll continue on.”

Like Sophocles, Tung is careful of emphasizing the distinction between needing products for that region and wanting them. Like any cosmetic item designed for your face or otherwise, these formulas aren’t essential, but “little luxuries to treat yourself,” said Fur’s co-founder. At the end of the day, if you have time to think about beautifying below the belt and strobing your vagina, well, you should consider yourself one very lucky girl. 

Shop everything from a luminizer for your lady bits to a cleansing foam for your feminine parts in the slideshow above.

The page could not be loaded!