My mother used to quote Shakespeare to me quite a lot when I was five. Not randomly, of course, but certainly when circumstances gave her an opening. One of her favorite gems of the Bard was that famous line from Romeo and Juliet, “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” It’s true, of course. I’ve always believed that statement to be simple yet profound, but not nearly so profound as Juliet’s pointed question that precedes it: “What’s in a name?”
While opinions certainly differ, the reality is this: quite an enormous lot can be packed into a name. The reason that this is true is pretty straightforward and clear: we understand our reality - in all is complexified glory and pain - based upon the words we invoke to describe it.
So imagine what I was thinking when I read a recent article extolling the okay-ness of vaginal bleaching. Rather than interrogate a culture in which altering the natural shade of one’s vagina seems necessary in the first place, the article focused on urging its readers not to refer to the process it described as vaginal beaching. Who would put bleach on her vagina? the article asks, arguing that other, presumably more benign language such as vaginal “whitening,” “lightening” or “pigmentation enhancement” might be more appropriate somehow. Apparently, there’s something comparatively less disturbing about a culture in which a woman feels the need to whiten her vagina as opposed to outright bleaching it.
Of course, out of an abundance of equal opportunity skin-color privileging, the article hastens to add that penises, testicles and anuses both male and female can be “pigmentationally enhanced” using these products as well.
So. Penis a bit on the chocolaty side? Testicles looking toasty? Oh my…
In all fairness, I guess, from a strictly chemical standpoint, the products used in the process of lightening one’s vagina are not, in fact, the household sort of chlorine-based laundry lightening products we’re used to. But while the bleaching agents themselves may be different, the intended visual results are the same. That which is deemed too dark, blemished, dirty, not attractive, and so on is rendered less dark, unblemished, cleaner, more attractive. And that’s okay for laundry, I suppose, although lots of garments we own nowadays warn against the damage that may result of coming into contact with bleach.
And that brings me back to the newly popular practice of bleaching our vulvas, with vulva being the correct term for most of the perineal region from front to back – the area that includes inner and outer vaginal lips, clitoris, urethra and yes, the vaginal opening itself.
Think, for a moment, about a normative standard which holds that an adult woman’s vaginal lips should be pouty and pink, devoid of the natural color variations that make them uniquely, exquisitely hers. The porn industry has had its hand in this way of seeing, seducing men as well as women themselves to buy into the notion that the natural, rich tan to sepia tones characteristic of the edges of real women’s outer labia, for example, are somehow less attractive than the artificial, airbrushed pink porn-industry standard.
Just as noses, feet, breasts and clitorises come in a wide array of natural sizes, vulva come in a wide array of natural colors as well, with most color variations keyed to the unique genetic information with which we’re born. Of course, changes in skin pigmentation occur all over our bodies throughout our lives, many of which are the natural result of normal hormonal changes, childbirth, our overall health status and so on. Sometimes these changes in skin tone are the result of external factors such as accidents, for instance or illness, such as cancer. They can also be the result of medical protocols like drug therapies, chemo and radiation.
So how is this bleaching accomplished? Topical compounds specifically formulated for skin bleaching, such as hydroquinone are applied to the skin and rubbed in until they are completely absorbed. Other agents employed in this process include mercury (a toxin) and kojic acid, derived from fungi. All of the agents employed work by inhibiting the production of melanin, the natural substance in our bodies responsible for dark skin. Visible lightening takes place in stages over a matter of several weeks. However, the process must be continued indefinitely otherwise melanin production resumes its normal level and normal skin tone returns. Are there risks involved? Of course, including some evidence pointing to the risk of skin cancers by users of hydroquinone.
But in my mind, at least, there’s a distinction that can be made between vaginal bleaching as a restorative procedure to address an accident or illness, and the decision to bleach/whiten/lighten one’s vulva in order to mimic some arbitrary, externally-imposed standard of beauty.
And those readers who know me well are already aware that I hold firmly to the conviction that each and every one of us has the inalienable right to make any and all decisions pertaining to one’s own body. Regardless of the issue at hand, my stance on the matter of our sovereign autonomy will never change. Yet, some decisions are best made in the unvarnished light of historical context, right?
There’s a powerful argument to be made that, aside from the porn industry, bedrock notions of race-based color preference are at work here, often in ways that people don’t realize. But differing levels of awareness notwithstanding, there has historically been a standard of female desirability that privileges light over dark – light skin, light eyes, light hair, and so on. Certainly among people of color this has – and in many ways, still is a destructive vestige of plantation hierarchy that continues to plague communities of color, both here in the US as well as in other parts of the world. India, for example, wrestles quite publicly with the notion that light skin is somehow highly preferable to dark, with billboards, television commercials and mass media swelling the public space with skin bleaching product ads. Of course, in an ancient culture such as India’s, subject to the harsh realities of British colonial rule, it’s easy to argue that this perverse notion of what’s beautiful among a melanin-rich population has been transplanted and imposed from outside the indigenous culture.
In fact, vaginal bleaching is a very real extension of skin bleaching in general; darker skinned people who use comparatively harsher skin bleaching products designed to lighten other parts of their bodies began using those compounds to lighten their genital areas – with painful, often damaging results. We can only imagine the subsequent eagerness of companies to provide consumers with “milder” formulations that would be “safe” to use on delicate vulvas.
It probably goes without saying that most women who self-identify as women of color will never succeed in bleaching/whitening/lightening their vulva enough to achieve porn-standard pinkness and they know it. But certainly women who identify as white are active consumers of these products as well. Of course, there are many who assert that the decision to bleach one’s vagina is invariably made outside of the context of some socially-imposed notion of skin color preference and that such decisions are not at all connected to a system of racialized oppression. As I’m fond of reminding my students, I’m surely not telling you what to think, I’m simply asking that we do it. And at the end of the proverbial day, I remain firmly in favor of all people having complete autonomy over decisions impacting their own bodies so long as those decisions don’t impact someone else. But the question remains….
How can we ever be sure of our own deep-seated motivations, considering the fierce hold that rigid, harsh, racialized, gender-based oppressions have on our culture at large?
Whether we name this process whitening, lightening or yes, bleaching, I suppose is – like so many other things – a matter of personal preference. But don’t be misled. Juliet’s famous quote about the enduring scent of roses seems fitting here, don’t you agree?
photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/92054555@N06/25754359345">Good to Love</a> via <a href="http://photopin.com">photopin</a> <a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/">(license)</a>
photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/80847103@N00/19378259536">Visiting the Logan County Museum</a> via <a href="http://photopin.com">photopin</a> <a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/">(license)</a>
photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/52134088@N03/26958930034">flowers</a> via <a href="http://photopin.com">photopin</a> <a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/">(license)</a>