Vajazzled and bemused: Laurie Penny on the latest bizarre trend

This latest trend shows that female sexual shame remains big business.

Just when you thought that there was nothing more you could do to make your genitals more acceptable to the opposite sex, along came "vajazzling". The term refers to the burgeoning celebrity craze for shaving, denuding and perfuming one's intimate area before applying gemstones in a variety of approved girly patterns. The end result resembles a raw chicken breast covered in glitter. As the name implies, this one is just for the girls - nobody, so far, has suggested that men's sexual equipment is unacceptable if it doesn't taste like cake and sparkle like a disco ball.

Surely it can't catch on. Surely, no matter how ludicrous, painful and expensive consumer culture's intervention in our sex lives becomes, nobody is disgusted enough by their own normal genitals that they would rather look like they've just been prepped for surgery by Dr Bling. Or are they?

Suddenly, my teenage friends are popping off to get vajazzled. During the biggest shake-up of higher education in generations, someone at the University of Liverpool advertised a vajazzling evening for female members of the student body who really want their STDs to sparkle. All of this is sold as a fun, pseudo-feminist "confidence boost", as if what women really need to empower themselves is not education and meaningful work, but genitals that resemble a traumatic, intimate accident in a Claire's accessories shop.

The beauty industry is constantly raising its already absurd standards for what constitutes an acceptable female body. Thirty years ago, plastic surgery was seen as the preserve of porn stars, actresses and the ultra-rich. Today, middle-class mums get their facial muscles frozen with botulinum toxin as casually as one might pick up a pint of milk on the school run; businesswomen take out loans for nose jobs and liposuction; and I can hardly turn around on public transport without seeing beaming adverts telling me how much happier and more confident I could be if only I paid a private surgeon to chop away at my healthy, living flesh.

All that glitters

Despite the downturn, 2010 was a record year for cosmetic surgery in Britain, including surgeries to help women's labia more closely resemble the plucked, blasted and sexless genitals of porn stars. Like vajazzling, labiaplasty is supposed to make one feel sexy but is a part of a creeping consumer war on sexual satisfaction.

What's most interesting about vajazzling is that it doesn't even pretend to have anything to do with pleasure. Most of the people I've spoken to who are attracted to women are bewildered by the idea of a vagina that looks like it's off to the Golden Globes without you. Vajazzling has nothing to do with sex and everything to do with the cruel logic of identikit, production-line womanhood, in which "fun" means slavish adherence to the joyless motifs of corporate pornography and "confidence" means submission to a species of surveillance whereby your nether regions are forcibly reshaped into a smile.

It's all about making us feel that women's bodies - which are supposed to smell, leak and grow hair - are shameful and need fixing. As long as the beauty and surgery industries remain profitable, female sexual shame will remain big business.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 07 February 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The New Arab Revolt

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear