How do you love yours?

It’s been 2 months since my inaugural post about vajazzling and now, ladies and gentlemen, it’s time once again to talk about vaginas.

I don’t usually buy women’s magazines, but I had a long train journey yesterday and needed plenty to read. After finishing the paper on the first leg (with cheering headlines like “Climate changes double chance of civil wars”) I didn’t think I would get any more depressed, so while waiting for my connection I took the plunge and headed to the “women’s glossies” section. I chose Company, mainly because I’d spoken to one of their writers at London’s Slutwalk, and only a little bit because of the picture of Emma Watson on the cover. Believe me, I’m well aware of the creepiness of crushing on someone who’s been in the public eye since the age of 12, but she just got so foxy when she cut her hair off! I digress…

Company, in general, horrified me less than other women’s magazines I have perused, and the piece on the Slutwalk was surprisingly good. Imagine my excitement, though, when I got to page 99 and saw the words “LOVE YOUR VAJ” scrawled across the page. It’s a new Company Campaign! There’s a Facebook group! A Twitter feed! A free, limited edition “love your vag” badge! How marvellous to see a mainstream women’s magazine encouraging ladies to love their vaginas.

I get excited. Will the campaign extol the joys of masturbation, celebrate cunnilingus, admire the diverse beauty of a range of vulva; examine systemic causes of female-body-hatred, promote better sex ed in schools, critique the “designer vagina” phenomena? I read on.


Me: Okay!

Company: It’s time to show a little love down there, and no we’re not talking about vajazzling.

Me: Excellent. Tell me more!

Company: Bin those excuses and join Company‘s big ‘Get Tested’ smear campaign.

Me: … Oh.

Yes, on closer inspection it’s about cervical smears. Now, I don’t in principal have a problem with the magazine endeavouring to raise awareness about cervical cancer. I do have serious reservations about the pinkwashing of campaigns about cancers affecting women, whereby awareness-raising seems duty-bound to be sexy/cute/sexy-cute, which many people have written intelligently about (here and here for example). While this feature, with its pink hearts and photos of kittens (they’re pussies! Geddit?), conforms to this problematic landscape, I’d like to focus on Company’s limited vision for vaj-loving, and the accompanying full-page promotion for Femfresh.

That’s right: the oh-so-promising “Love Your Vaj” headline introduces three pages about cervical smears and “intimate wash”. How ironic that both gynaecological exams and products to “clean us up” are decried in The Vagina Monologues classic, “My Angry Vagina“, in which the speaker lists the various “nasty ideas” that serve to “undermine” her “gentle, loving” pussy.

If Company had to pair its cervical cancer article with a “promotion” (that’s a full-page advert-feature hybrid), I can think of several other products they could have worked with. Lube? Mooncup? Sex toys? Those are some things my vaj loves. But Femfresh, apparently, will give me more confidence – the ad mentions this no fewer than 4 times, citing mascara (for giving “that flutter to the hot guy on your train”), heels (for longer legs) and sexy undies as other top confidence boosters. And thus, in the blink of an eye, loving your vaj is reduced to buying stuff that will make you attractive to men.

Opposite the ad, highlighted stats in large font reveal that 8% of readers were too “scared they’d smell down there” to get a smear test. That is incredibly sad. But if a survey showed that women were afraid of getting mammograms in case the doctor thought their breasts were too small, would Company publish a breast cancer awareness feature opposite an ad for boob jobs? To position Femfresh as a solution to the problem of women’s discomfort with their genitalia is laughable when its central marketing message can essentially be boiled down to: “your vaj smells.”

Suppose FHM or Nuts magazine launched a campaign to raise awareness about prostate cancer entitled “Love Your Willy”. Can you imagine such a feature making no reference, no mention, no tongue-in-cheek allusion, to wanking? Yet female masturbation is still astonishingly taboo. Its total absence across these three pages is striking, particularly given that the sexual nature of the vagina is very much present. The intro to the Femfresh promotion asks “when did you (not him) last really show it some love?” Grammatical incorrectness and heteronormativity aside (hard to say which grates on me more), what I found truly jaw-dropping about this set-up is the implication that the solo equivalent to getting sexual attention from a partner is washing. I’m pretty sure that’s not what most of us get up to when we have some quality time loving our vajs  – though it may be the official line when bathroom doors are locked for hours at a time.

I’d like to believe that all has been done with the very best of intentions on the part of Company. But suggesting that a campaign is about women loving their vaginas when it in fact has a very specific, health focus, and diluting the impact of that specific focus with some ill-advised product promotion, actually risks undermining women. To love one’s vagina is not an easy or uncomplicated thing in the midst of patriarchy and capitalism (not to mention racism, ablism, heteronormativity, classism and cissexism). Each woman is unique, but, for many, individual journeys to become more vaj-loving will involve critiquing medical discourse, and rejecting consumerist doctrines.

While the vagina is presented as something to cleanse, have inspected and package up nicely in “those naughty little knickers”, I think I’ll forego the Love Your Vaj badge. I already have an amazing one that says “Why Wait? Masturbate!” Which reminds me…

6 Comments on “How do you love yours?”

  1. Oh man, I didn’t mean to “like” my own post. I knew I was too technologically inept to be a blogger. Though I guess liking your own post is the blog equivalent of masturbation, which I *am* a fan of…

  2. helz says:

    I agree that this campaign has all the downsides you have pointed out. But I think Company’s hands are tied to a great extent. Advertising is the lifeblood of these magazines, and Femfresh will have paid a fortune for that well-placed advertorial. The mag can’t very well then tell its readers that their vagina smells just fine and they don’t need to wash it with dubious ‘hygiene’ products.

    Sadly I think it has to be companies like Femfresh that do this kind of advertising. The companies with the most to spend on advertising are the ones selling the most meaningless crap that preys on manufactured insecurities (smelly vaginas! cellulite! tiny wrinkles around your eyes that nobody can see!) – because these companies have to use this kind of full-on, aggressive and almost subliminal advertising to manufacture said insecurities. Which I suspect is why you don’t get full page advertorials about the benefits of lube, or sex toys – frankly you don’t need them, because everyone knows they’re awesome.

  3. Veggie Dyke says:

    I’m enjoying your blog! Keep it up (so to speak).
    I personally avoid those sorts of magazines, but obviously it’s the women who do read them who are hurt by such advertising. I’ve been saddened to hear female friends refer to their bodies with disgust and to say they “have” to douche, or get plastic surgery, or get waxed (because, you know, natural hair is, well, unnatural), or whatever else. When have we gotten such a huge disconnect between our bodies and our minds?
    Veggie Dyke

  4. mike goddard says:

    I agree entirely here. I would suggest that we shouldn’t feel sympathy for magazines who align themselves with dubious advertisers. Pretty much all advertising functions by exaggerating or completely fabricating a sensation of lack within the reader. You can’t sell meaningless products to people who don’t feel inadequate, unclean, incomplete. As the decades go by and the public gradually become more aware of the techniques used, the advertising industry responds by upping their game. The sense of paranoia they create gets increasingly nasty. I can’t help thinking that this is exacerbated when the magazines themselves rely on a similar conjuring of empty aspirational paranoia.

    For me, ‘promotions’ and ‘advertising features’ seem like a particularly insidious example of this process. I’ve come across similar features in old-fashioned but relatively well-respected magazines like National Geographic and New Scientist. This is an instance of a publication according their own voice and agency to an advertiser. The magazine is not just selling space on a page, but renting out of their own weight of opinion and editorial approval. By aligning themselves with the advertisers to this extent, the commercial content no longer constitutes a peripheral element of a magazine. This process fundamentally relocates the entire publication’s voice within the discourse of the advertisers, to the extent that they becomes curated by corporate sales strategies and their own editorial direction becomes a meaningless affectation.

    Magazines are responsible for choosing the causes with which they align themselves. If they want to retain a sense of relevance in an era of revenue-free (and paper-free) blogging, then they need to be at least assertive enough to speak in the interests of their own readers.

    (Sorry, I’m aware that I haven’t talked much about masturbation at all here)

  5. Emily says:

    Well said! Do you happen to know if there are any organisations or campaigns that are dedicated to encouraging a more enlightened approach to female masturbation? I can’t seem to find anything, and yet it’s such an important topic…

    • Thanks Emily! I haven’t come across any specific campaigns or targeted organisations, but there are some wise words being said out there if you look in the right place. For example, the website is an excellent sex ed. resource for young people and they’re very good on masturbation. I tend to focus on young people because that’s who I work with, but of course there’s a huge amount of shame, fear, misinformation etc. about female masturbation amongst adults too.

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