The Problem With Defending The Sacred Choice to Vajazzle
Following my post on vajazzling last week, I received several responses from commenters who were concerned that I was questioning a woman's sacred choice to vajazzle.
While I appreciate commenters' willingness to engage with feminist talking points (you know how we love choice), I'm afraid that responding to the new trend of women applying heat-activated crystals to their pubic mounds by simply concluding, "A woman's choice! A woman's choice!" only functions to preempt discussion about just what women are choosing. In this instance, defending "choice" without question discourages women from making informed choices for their pubic mounds. So let's talk vajazzling.
Listen: Vajazzling is no stranger to the feminist talking point. In last week's post, I floated the following equation:
Sexual Repression + Capitalism + Sexism = Vajazzling
I think it would be appropriate to add "Pseudo-Feminism" to the list of Vajazzling's contributing societal factors. But first, let's tackle the good old fashioned anti-feminism at play here: Capitalism will find a way to exploit any weaknesses in our society, and sexism is one of them. Take Liz Lemon's analysis of Valentine's Day from 30 Rock: "Valentine's Day is a sham created by card companies to reinforce and exploit gender stereotypes." You could say the same thing about the cosmetics industry, plastic surgeons, and Vajazzling technicians.
When it comes to personal appearance, it's no coincidence that femininity is marked by performance, while masculinity is just as often defined by men not performing things. Shaving your body hair is feminine; not shaving is masculine. Plucking, waxing, or bleaching stray facial hairs is feminine; growing a few days of stubble is masculine. Applying makeup is feminine; not painting your face is masculine. Dying, styling, blow-drying, and curling your hair is feminine; keeping a low-maintenance hair cut is masculine.
I suspect that this is because women are encouraged to achieve societal power through their appearance and sexuality, while men are encouraged to achieve power from . . . reaching real positions of power, like running companies and governments. Sure, women who are very successful at performing femininity can gain some real power, too. Maybe there's a two-year window there where women can translate their success in this field into posing for Playboy, or shaking in a music video, or stripping, all of which can translate into money in the bank—until they get a little bit older and fall out of favor in those industries. Maybe some women can aspire to be trophy wives and get their social validation by being married to a successful man. The majority of women won't be able to make a career out of performing femininity. And yet, we're still shaving and waxing and plucking and dieting and padding and inflating and cinching and painting and dyeing and surgically trimming our labia and, now, vajazzling like it's our jobs—even as we have been successful in claiming real power as Senators and CEOs and lawyers and doctors and journalists. In these fields, the performance of traditional femininity can either help us or hurt us—either way, the focus is back on the way we look instead of our qualifications. The societal investment is the appearance of women is still going strong.
Why is that? Well, for one thing, capitalism hates to lose a consumer. And at some point, it figured out that this feminism stuff that was helping to put women into positions of power could also be used as a tool to sell things (girl power scholars place the exact date ar0und 1994). The interesting thing is that feminist ideals like choice and personal empowerment are now being used to sell the exact same things that sexism was shilling—like corporate-made supergroups of scantily-clad women with inconsistent musical talents; vice-presidential candidates with anti-woman policies; and expensive and elaborate personal grooming procedures like Vajazzling.
So when Jennifer Love Hewitt appears on television to shill for Vajazzling, she doesn't say, "Ladies, Vajazzling is great because the guys love an uber-feminine, totally infantilized vagina." That would be too obvious. Instead, she insists that women Vajazzle for themselves. "After a breakup, a friend of mine Swarovski-crystalled my precious lady . . . and it shined like a disco ball," she announced. "For the ladies: I was feeling awful, I had been through a horrible breakup. And I was like, oh, this is just awful, and I need something to make myself feel better. And it was the one thing I hadn't tried after a breakup, so I gave it a try. And it's great!"
I don't doubt that Hewitt truly loves having her vagina Vajazzled just as much as she loves promoting a friend's Vajazzling business. Many women do find personal fulfillment in obsessing over their appearance They really, truly like to apply lipstick and slip into a pair of high-heels and have doctors cut off parts of their genitalia, because that's what makes them feel sexy. No man is forcing these women to perform these behaviors (although that happens, too). In fact, there's evidence that men are often mystified by these activities. We love it because we live in a society that values us for loving these things.
This is where the "a woman's choice!" defenders come in. How could we possibly deny women the choice to engage in these behaviors, if that's what they love? Look: I don't begrudge women who make the choice to perform the behaviors of femininity. I perform many of them myself, on a daily basis! Resisting engaging in these things is almost impossible. But I don't kid myself into thinking that I just love wearing lipstick because I was born that way, or that I shave my legs because I have somehow independently decided—without any influence from my culture!—that that's the way I personally prefer my legs to look.
It's a sexist world. We just live in it. For women in this world, the choice not to convert our bodies into a tool for the beauty industry to exploit is the one that's seen as odd, different, and weird. For us, the simple choice not to invest the time, money, and concern into shaving our armpits is the one that marks us as somehow less of a real woman. But really, the choice not to shave is the one that requires more energy for women, because we stand to be dismissed as dirty, masculine, man-hating hippies if we abstain. When the "woman's choice!" advocates argue that deciding to Vajazzle or not Vajazzle—for that truly is the question—is just a matter of personal taste, they are putting their fingers in their ears and talking really, really loudly in an attempt to deny the culture in which these choices are made.
For women, the choice is not between a preference for looking "natural" or a preference for looking "groomed." The choice—if you take a look at what is really going on—is between challenging sexist beauty standards and receiving negative attention for leaving the house looking like "a man," or just giving in and shaving our pits because we have more pressing shit to deal with right now than singlehandedly dismantling sexism today—like keeping our jobs. Remember those?
For now, the more extreme performances of femininity, like breast implantation, vaginal "rejuvenation," and Vajazzling aren't considered the norm for women. I'm not going to be met with shock when I remove my pants and reveal to my sex partner that I haven't converted my pubic mound into a shiny disco ball. But these days, it wouldn't be out of the ordinary for him to be shocked that I'm not perfectly waxed. The body hair ship may have sailed, but vaginal modification is at a point right now where we are still in a position to fend off the tide. And my greatest fear is that someday, we will wake to find that our girls are being routinely Vajazzled upon puberty, and realize that we never stood up to say, "This shit is fucking ridiculous."
Photo via Tsar Kasim, Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0