Free the birds

Beauty, Healthcare

Intimate Beauty: Is It Really That Beautiful?

Sara Jones, SPC Magazine

Sitting here on the hottest day of the year so far, reading with mounting disbelief an article in the Metro instructing women not to put ice lollies in their vaginas to cool down, clickbait or no, it made me think about all the other similar intimate beauty stories that have cropped up recently. Whether it’s Gwyneth Paltrow advocating vaginal steaming or the ‘wellbeing’ trend for inserting whole garlic cloves to stop thrush (both notably debunked by gynaecologist and health writer Dr Jennifer Gunter), women’s bits, the v-zone or whatever people are now calling it has never had more attention. But is it the right kind of attention?

In the UK, intimate care has never really been a massive thing and certainly nothing to trouble the beauty aisles, firmly confined to personal and health care. Meanwhile in the US, far worse, was a focus on “feminine hygiene” up to and including Lysol disinfectant douching that literally killed scores of women throughout the 20th century! Think functional at best, certainly not fun, let alone desirable.

Vaginas are a self-cleaning oven, however. The less done to them the better; simply needing a daily once-over with a gentle low pH wash. So it’s quite shocking to realise that products up to and including intimate lubricants are less strictly regulated than throat sweets you can buy at the newsagent, despite the fact that vaginas are highly porous and personal care ingredients have been linked to increased risk of STIs, infections and irritation. Add in the fact that each individuals’ skin type, hair type, vaginal pH and microbiome quite literally varies by ethnicity and geography and you have a recipe for a very unhappy, very unhealthy intimate area if the wrong products are used in the wrong manner!

But despite the serious potential risks of faffing about below the belt, in the last eighteen months or so, however, there has been a whole explosion of beauty brands and products targeted at just there. Increasing levels of adventurous sex, clothing and genital hair removal increases the likelihood of irritation, necessitating further product usage, particularly targeting young consumers, who are conscious about every part of their image.

Add into that concerns about harsh chemicals and you find most market entrants are organic/natural indie beauty brands with a frank open approach to talking about women’s bits. From FUR’s hair grooming ranges, Kush Queen’s CBD Ignite lubricant and menopause-oriented intimate products from Meg Matthews, to healing balms like Medicine Mama’s Apothecary Vmagic range and even bikini line highlighters (The Perfect V’s Very V Luminizer). Their matter of fact Tone of Voice and sophisticated packaging makes it easy to see how they win the battle for v-zone rather than functional, chemical, healthcare brands.

But it’s important to look at the trend very very critically. In the US, this new wave of intimate beauty is being touted as one of empowerment, giving women the tools for a daily wellbeing regime. But at the same time, we know that the focus on the visual aspect of the v-zone, through porn, through Love Island and its clearly denuded female participants, is having a negative impact on women.

According to Dr Naomi Crouch, chair of the British Society for Paediatric and Adolescent Gynaecology, girls as young as nine are seeking surgery on their genitals because they are distressed by its appearance. And labiaplasty rates generally are up by 500% in the past few years alone. And it’s this very tricky line between v-zone wellbeing and appearance that intimate beauty brands need to tread.

There is no one ‘normal’ vagina. A normal vagina is one that is happy and healthy and enjoying itself. So it’s absolutely essential for intimate beauty brands not to imply the v-zone needs decorating or improving to be ‘normal’ let alone include ingredients that are untested or damaging. Intimate care products can absolutely be useful – people are grooming their hair, they are being more explorative with sex – but they have to contribute to mental and physical wellbeing if they are truly to be beautiful.