A Woman's Vagina — In Public — Faces Tough Expectations


In the last year at least three products were launched to prevent camel toe. Last month it was a brand of panties called Camelflage; before it was the Cuchini and Camel Ammo, inserts for women to place in their underwear.

Note the similar before/afters for the products: the images on the left side, with (something of) the shape of the vulva showing, i.e., camel toe, are “wrong.” The images on the right are “correct”—corrected.

No way around it: there is an increasingly demanding beauty ideal for this most private part of a woman’s anatomy these days. A public standard, for the increasingly public parts of our parts. We dare our pubic area to show—make it harder and harder not to show—yet penalize women more when it does. The ideal denies the (endless) reality of the female body, and pushes fat female bodies into a kind of sexual exile.

Our bodies are certainly more exposed in both clothing styles and level of casualness, and clothing is often thinner, clingier, and made from fabric without much tailoring, which can add the bulk and protection of seams. That doesn’t mean fifteen or fifty years ago women’s bodies were completely unavailable to the public eye, but the pubic area is suddenly there to be seen, much more than it used to be. And under tighter scrutiny—which amounts to the same thing. Nowadays women’s pubic area is to be:

very flat in all directions; no hint of the pudendal cleft; no roundness, or very little, where the lines of a woman’s legs and her pubic area meet; defined by lines that create a sharp, clear V that comes to a point. No hint of depth, no valleys, no mounding, basically. A sheer front of abdomen that ends in the pubic area without notable emphasis.

The ideal seems connected to things such as body size, but also to the wholesale flip in less than a generation to a baseline standard of little or no pubic hair. Pubic hair doesn’t just provide physical protection, as it’s designed to do, it provides visual protection. It can create its own visible shape but simultaneously prevent further scrutiny. Now, though, all the hair has to go—or at least be trimmed enough so that there is no hint of mass visible from the outside, which makes the talk in my generation about managing the bikini line seem hopelessly outdated.

American Apparel ads would be an obvious, aggressive example of the no-hair look, and are a worthwhile (if easy) target to comment on in all this mess, like Camelflage, but I don’t think they should be treated with any surprise or as the worst example of our obsessions.

Because there are fierce standards at work here, even with a lot of seemingly modest clothing. We constantly trade in pussy-related beauty ideals at a high pitch whether we admit it or not. Regular low-rise jeans (not even skinny jeans), with their center seam, demand a very particular look. Bikinis do the same.

Yoga pants are another a good example; they are really harsh and unforgiving (strange, in such a comfy piece of clothing). They have to hang from your hips and cling nowhere else. There can’t be anything there—protruding, sticking out—for them to look right.

That’s the deal: the Absence of Things is actually the Thing here. No lumps, no bits, no swelling. Nothing visible—at the same time that very much more of the body itself is visible, so that people end up wearing their insides on their outside, practically. A naked vulnerability becomes the armor, the defense, proof of something. Our clothing isn’t protecting us; our bodies are. You show what you don’t have to prove that what lies hidden is worth seeing.

We show—expect to see—more and more of everything on the female body around the genitals, but there is allowed to be less and less ‘evidence’ of its existence or aspects of the body connected to it (pubic hair, belly fat, the pubic mound). What we define as our genitals—that which still remains private, until some line is crossed—is pushed into a tinier and tinier bit of real estate.

We’re obsessed with things like camel toe—the Cuchini website runs a blog called Camel Toe Cops; there are sites all over that track camel toe sightings—but ultimately camel toe is in kind of the same category as THO or VPL: phenoms that (hetero-shorthanding here) women think are embarrassing and men think are titillating.

What’s really significant is the scrutiny. A lot of camel toe photos are often nothing more than evidence that women have bodies that are not very clothed. Or maybe they are just evidence that women have bodies, period, such as this editorialized image of Oprah. All that’s happening there is that her body must point more strongly in people’s minds to the pubic area it surrounds with its curves.

Which leads to the fact that all this gets much worse, really fast, in the world of the fat body. If we are ruthlessly scanning thin bodies and finding things that don’t exist, what happens to the fat ones, where we don’t really know how to read bodies at all?

If that which is allowably, publicly “pubic” is just a constantly shrinking 2-D triangle, what about bodies that may actually have fat there? Or a bigger, more delineated mons? Or fat in the abdomen above it? Or all the many possible deviations from the ideal?

What about very large bodies? How do we read the “public” sexuality of that part of the fat female body? And why do we think we should? Fat bodies—bad clothing choices apart—can’t hide, but what do we think we see anyhow?

It turns out we think we can see a lot, because here there are not just camel toes to be spotted, but FUPA (Fat Upper Pelvic Area—check out the 150 definitions at Urban Dictionary), gunts (gut + cunt = fat that droops over the pubic area), BIF (Butt in Front) or front butt, and moose knuckles. Any part of the lower abdomen that might stick out has a name. There are “FUPA”- and “gunt”-captioned LOLphotos of large women forwarded in emails and Facebook groups with names like “Fat legs camel toe, make a man go, HELL NO!” and “Saving The Planet From Fat Girls In Leggings.” Throw “front butts” in YouTube and see what you get.

This terminology has some glaring similarities, in addition to being mean. One is that it is terrifically vague about fat female anatomy, which varies tremendously in this area, but regardless—the terms are confused. It’s tummy—it’s sexy parts—who knows.

There is a much-forwarded image of a woman with a large hanging belly that is sometimes labled “FUPA” and sometimes “gunt,” when it’s clear it is a belly, complete with belly button.

The other thing that really stands out is how sexual all the language can be—even when the parts aren’t, particularly. A fat woman wearing a pair of pants that evidences a fat lower belly suddenly has a “gunt,” is suddenly showing part of her sexual anatomy by being fat, when she may or may not be “showing” (as in camel toe) anything at all.

Apparently anything south of the navel on fat people is genitalia. Or butt. Fat in the lower abdomen can sometimes simultaneously be read as sexlessness (for both genders; there are FUPA photos of men and the term moose knuckle is misapplied—if you can say this about hateful language such as this—to very large women as well as fat men), but ultimately it’s about sex.

And fat women bear the brunt of this slang. Just as all the attention to camel toe may not be based on what we think we see but more on how we read women’s bodies, “FUPA” and “gunt” may be about nothing more than whether or not somebody tucks their shirt in. Or is too fat for people to not read their pubic area while clothed.

A belly isn’t a vulva, but finding a way to call it that—when as far as I know everyone’s belly is connected to their pubic mound, which is connected to the rest of their vulva—seems to say: look. It’s spilling out, we can see it all. You are showing your most private parts—even though you are clothed. We know all of your body and don’t like/want it.

These terms are a way to call out sexual humiliation, ultimately, for bodies that can’t play the tiny pubic real estate game. This language, to paraphrase Eric Rohmer, denies fat women the mystery we should grant them, that we should grant everybody.

The never-ending, detailed, yet seriously stupid public examination of women’s bodies is brutal, and it is especially rough on everything from the belly down.

Every bit has a name, every bit or lack of has sexual and cultural value, every fold in a shirt could be a baby bump, every pair of high-waisted pants signifies weight gain and FUPA and sloppy sexuality, every part of female genitalia is “vag.”

Mom jeans and pubic hair evidence silly and shameful aspects of womanhood, and any hint of a large labia can’t be countenanced. It can’t be an accident that everything below the navel is the part of the body women, fat or thin, agonize about the most.

This post originally appeared on The Extender

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