This year, after a decade of Brazilian waxes, I committed to my signature pubic-hair style by investing in a Tria Hair Removal Laser 4X. It looks like a Star Wars weapon, obliterates every last dark and curly, and costs $449. Until recently, hair removal was about as far as my brain allowed when it came to vaginal vanity. Then my friend Ally told me she gets vajacials between her biweekly Brazilian waxes.
A New York lawyer, she goes to a Soho spa called Haven, where, for $50 per 30-minute session, an esthetician exfoliates her bikini zone with an alpha hydroxy acid scrub, then applies a peel to unclog pores and prevent ingrowns, finishing with a serum to even out skin tone. Haven’s signature vajacial goes by the name “Peach Smoothie.”
Ally is not alone in pampering her private parts. Lately, celebrities drop down-south beauty tips like they’re talking about their daily skin-care routines. Divergent star Shailene Woodley told the beauty blog Into the Gloss that she likes to spread her legs in the sun for a vitamin-D boost. In The Body Book, Cameron Diaz’s tome of lady wisdom, the actress recommends keeping a full bush to cover sagging lips because, as she politely puts it, “your labia majora is not immune to gravity.” And on The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson, actress Julie Delpy alluded to vaginal tightening exercises, raving that her vagina is now even tighter than before she gave birth.
And then there’s nether-zone plastic surgery. Canadian stats aren’t available, but the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery reported a 44-percent increase in labia-plasties, the trimming of the outer and inner lips, between 2012 and 2013. Calgary OB/GYN Dr. Bruce Allan, who specializes in the procedure, performs some 200 a year, about double the number since 2001, when he started offering the service. For the surgery shy, skin-care clinics now offer photo rejuvenation, chemical peels and fillers. The Toronto Cosmetic Clinic does intense pulsed light to treat hyper-pigmentation and Juvéderm injections to plump up aging labia.
Meanwhile, Tumblrs celebrating vaginal diversity have cropped up, including the Large Labia Project and Beauty Vulva, signalling an emerging world of vaginal pride—and with pride comes primping. Creams, washes and makeup with cutesy names have hit the market, like I Love My Muff moisturizer and 18 Again tightening gel. How did we get so obsessed with below-the-belt beautification?
Despite trend pieces declaring the Brazilian déclassé, a 2011 survey found that 60 percent of North American women between 18 and 24 go bare at least some of the time. You can thank season three, episode 14 of Sex and the City for that stat. After Carrie said goodbye to her bush, the Brazilian became a spa staple. And, of course, Internet porn, with its bevy of hairless stars, has led to a widespread perception that bald is best. The result is a newly exposed surface to be steamed, exfoliated, bleached, lifted and lasered just like a second face.
I run my hypothesis past Miranda Fudge, a sex researcher at the University of New Brunswick, suggesting that women may be trying to emulate porn images made by men for men. She agrees, but tells me it’s also more complicated and perhaps more positive than that. “Women are comparing themselves to porn, but there are also many non-erotic websites that show women’s genitals nowadays,” she says, “and more importantly, people are talking about sex, genitals and pubic hair in the course of normal conversation, reading about these topics in magazines and seeing them on TV.” I’m reminded of Miley Cyrus’s recent stunt in which she held a mic between her legs, letting her lady parts lip sync “Love Money Party.” And of Amanda Seyfried’s new foot tattoo, which says “minge,” U.K. slang for female genitals. Vaginas, it seems, have officially entered the zeitgeist.
I put aside my feminist reservations and look for services to try in Toronto, where I live. Ally’s glowing reviews have piqued my curiosity, and, hey, it’s almost bikini season. Although the city doesn’t have vajacial bars, like New York and L.A., I do discover off-menu services—if you ask, you shall receive.
My first stop is Allure Body Bar, which does “intimate area skin lightening.” For $75, I can choose heads or tails (vulva or anus). During a 20-minute session, Christina, the esthetician, works South Beach gel into my outer labia using tiny circles. The goo contains licorice root, which has been shown to inhibit the skin’s production of tyrosinase, the enzyme responsible for darkening pigments. The process is painless, but Christina now knows me better than my gynaecologist, especially since I opt for tails, too. Afterwards, my skin is more even-toned. But I doubt I’ll strip down for another appointment.
Next I visit the Elizabeth Milan Spa for a treatment inspired by a Balinese pre-wedding ritual that includes a vaginal smoke. Steaming and smoking are popular in Korea, Indonesia and Malaysia, where women sit over pots of boiling water or burning herbs that supposedly detoxify and increase fertility.
Dr. Alyssa Dweck, a New York–based OB/GYN and co-author of the gynaecological guidebook V Is for Vagina, tells me she doesn’t see a direct connection to fertility, though she says “stress can impair it, and steam treatments could ease muscles, improve blood flow and provide relaxation.” She’s surprisingly open to the subject, continuing, “V-steams and vajacials are reasonable practices. After all, hair-bearing vulvar skin is prone to cysts, pimples and trauma from hair removal, childbirth and thong use. But they need to be done by certified estheticians. With steam, burn is the biggest risk.”
For my treatment, I sit on a toilet-like chair, above a bowl filled with smoking herbs and flowers, including lilac bush and oak galls. Draped in a blanket to keep in the smoke, I feel hot air gently blowing on my nether regions. Some women experience arousal, Milan, the spa owner, tells me later. I don’t, but I do close my eyes and enjoy my newfound V-time.
As with breast implants in the ’90s, feminists are debating to what extent all these services and surgeries are a sign of bodily shame or empowerment. While researching this piece, I spoke to a 21-year-old who had labiaplasty because she was self-conscious about her large lips while having sex. For her it was a positive, life-changing choice. And I understand that older women want to feel youthfully pert after kids. But I also wonder if we’re too quick to treat our bodies like malleable art.
The Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada released a statement last December, voicing concern over the rise of vaginal cosmetic procedures. The group doesn’t support them because there’s no evidence they improve sexual satisfaction or self-image, plus there’s no long-term data on their safety. The statement also notes that the vagina is “intimate” to the urethra, bowel and bladder, and altering it poses risks to the whole system—a reminder that it’s far more than an accessory for bedazzling, trimming and tightening. Beauty fads have always come and gone at breakneck speed, but now women are armed with more sophisticated ways to play them out on our bodies—and we often do so before the research is in. I, for one, will stick to hair removal and the occasional V-steam.