Last December, during the Cop 17 United Nation’s Climate Change Conference in Durban, I found myself alongside a Nigerian, Senegalese and Kenyan woman in the International Convention Centre’s prayer room. They were speaking in hushed tones when I entered but I soon gathered that the topic of discussion was how best to tighten their muscles down there. While world leaders argued about climate politics in the conference rooms around them, these women were deep in discussion about the state of their birth canals. The Senegalese said she got the best results from a special product in Congo while the Nigerian warned the others about a herbal concoction in her local market that had killed women. The best option it seemed, was a particular dried plant you applied inside you. My shock must have been apparent because they looked at me sympathetically and said “when you have a husband, you’ll understand”.
After my initial surprise wore off, my curiosity got the better of me and thus began my journey into the dark depths of vaginal tightening.
It seems Africans are not the only ones interested in this phenomenon. The Indians are just as keen and even less shy about it. India has now announced a vaginal tightening and whitening product, “18 Again”. It promises to make you “feel like a virgin”. In the advert, a sari-clad woman breaks out into a salsa in the communal home, singing to her delighted husband that she feels like a virgin while he agrees that she does indeed. At the end even the grandmother checks out the website. Because everyone wants to feel like a virgin again, right?
I hold mixed feelings that I usually reserve for awkward distant cousins for my Indian motherland. On one hand I love the family and tradition of the cultures but on the other, the abundance of prejudice repels me. When India continues to defend stereotypes that keep women firmly in place purely as pleasure seekers, I am sometimes relieved to have an African identity to escape into. India has never been coy about its biases – newspaper classifieds are filled with adverts seeking “wheatish-complexion” and tall suitors for marriage, pharmacy shelves are filled with skin whitening creams and Bollywood heroines are fair-skinned and buxom. India, directed by its movie scripts of drama drenched in fantasy has always fanatically sought to create the perfect woman. But this advert takes it to a whole new level; it dictates the role of the most intimate part of a woman’s body, it questions the essence of her femininity.
Increasingly we are normalising the absurd.
Why are we even commercialising a thing like vaginal tightening and whitening? By putting it out in the public, in a catchy, seemingly innocent advert – we are making the concept acceptable. We endorse that a woman is best presented and happiest as a virgin and that a relationship’s strength simply rests on her genitals. In fact in this advert (also in India) for a vaginal lightening gel it is directly implied that the couple are unhappy because unfortunately, her delightful wheatish complexion does not extend to her lady bits. Forget about saving dark Africa, it’s the Indian woman’s bush we need to worry about now.
Have we women, (yes I blame women) become so entrenched in consumerism, so obsessed with ourselves that we must nit-pick ourselves apart in the search for perceived perfection? We have breast enlargements, lip enhancements, hair extensions, eyelash extensions, bleached nooks and crannies, permanent hair removal, teeth whitening, liposuction, labiaplasty and even cream to pinken our nipples. We buy too many shoes and wear far too much make up. Instead of dismissing or expressing outrage at the bizarre existence of daily bombardments of airbrushed models in magazines and surgically manipulated porn stars, we attempt to compete with them. We compete with technology and fall into depression when we fail.
We are obsessed to the point of exhausted with our appearance and yet still, we find one more thing to add to our overburdened trolleys – designer vaginas. Snipped, trimmed, shaped, lightened and now tightened like an advert for the latest car model with added power steering.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see those matrimonial adverts soon announcing: “Female. 20. Fair. With tightie whitie.” A generation of “tightie whities” in demand by mother in laws all across India: “Forget the degree, son, ask if she has a tightie whitie first.”
After all, mothers are concerned for their son’s wellbeing – be it in the kitchen or in the bedroom. Leave alone that the girl is a fellow female and that this product is probably causing an allergic reaction and swelling her insides (there is no medical research for the long term-effects of 18 Again). The demands women often place on themselves and on other women so forcefully actually only aim to serve men.
We are shaped and whipped and cut apart to fulfil the ultimate male fantasy. What is even left of us? Which part between all that bleaching, injecting and cutting is truly ours anymore?
Certainly not our minds.
The real kicker is that the pharmaceutical company that produces the gel, Ultratech India, claims “18 Again has the power and the potential to break the shackles and redefine the meaning of women empowerment altogether”.
Empowering women how exactly? By turning them into a pseudo-virgin again? Most women never enjoyed their first time anyway. Let’s cut past all the dancing and singing and female empowering wrapping and admit (again) that this product is simply for the (perceived) male’s pleasure.
Does the popularity of such products in society mean that the male fantasy is to have a beautiful woman with a tight vagina? Or have we as a society developed an ideology of this fantasy over centuries, building on folktales and myths of virgins with attached ideas of innocence and youth? And because it is left murky and shrouded by taboo and secrecy, it remains largely uninvestigated and just mainly propagated? Women perpetuate these notions by going out and purchasing these products. Women continue to alter themselves from the perspective of society’s ideal for men. If the perspective never changes, the story never changes. The 21st century woman continues to shackle herself to the history of her limitations by placing different kinds of locks around her hands and feet.
The worst part is this time she is the one putting them on.
A woman does not need to whiten or tighten her vagina to be happy and a man does not need a continuous virgin in the bedroom. There is a reason virginity only comes once – it symbolises the beginning of many hopes: adulthood, maturity, a union with another person. While it may not mean many of these things today – the sentiment still is that it is a sacred thing. It is honoured in most religions and most people when asked, would rather have saved it for the right person at the right time. Virginity is not just a physical thing as the advert narrowly implies. That space comes with many important mental connotations. The first time for a couple together symbolises the breaking of barriers, the awkward beginnings, the painful adjustments to allow a new person intimately in your life. It represents awkwardness, newness and overcoming fear. It is a symbolic step in life. It makes way for a future of understanding one another and becoming comfortable with another person. Why then would you want to go backward into a space where you were both still learning how to love one another?
Which brings me to this – if your husband is really pleased with a lighter and tighter vagina, if he is willing for you to risk your health and your sense of self-worth then what kind of man does that make him? In my opinion such a superficial man is not worthy of such concern from you. If he is that desperate for you to feel like a virgin again then he might even consider finding the real thing. And if he does start wandering because you’re not tight or white enough then believe me, you’re better off without him.
When we normalise the absurd – when we accept things like illegal occupations, genital mutilation, pointless wars, corrupt governments and the degradation of women, by allowing it into our societies without speaking out or, at the very least, questioning it, we erase a little of our humanity.
We live in a world where women today are caught on the brink between rising up and being pulled back down. When she lets go of altered perceptions, when she recognises her incredible strength, when she embraces it and shakes off the shackles of prejudice and pressures she will rise far, far beyond anything anyone can ever imagine.