When I was growing up, they were called privates for a reason. That was in Massachusetts, as helpful a metaphor as any for the state of vaginas back then: restrained, practical, and typically hidden behind the evergreens.
If there's a state of the modern vagina, it's more like Florida, and South Beach in particular—waxed, combed, pampered with vajacials, and embellished with crystals for special occasions. Big night? How about a $50 bottle of lube and a string of Ben Wa balls that doubles as a lariat necklace? Even a quiet evening at home need not be so quiet, owing to companies like Toyfriend, whose MoMA-worthy objets de plaisir deserve a bedside spot next to the Kartell lamp.
So long the shy cousin to its more attention-grabbing relatives tits and ass, today's vagina is out, proud, and a little high-maintenance. Witness the media buzz surrounding Naomi Wolf's upcoming book, Vagina: A New Biography. Open a magazine and pubic hair is proclaimed extinct—or is it? The V word itself wound its way through prime-time TV so many times last fall, in shows like 2 Broke Girls, Whitney, and Suburgatory, that The New York Times declared it "the season of the vagina." Never before has a taboo topic been bandied about with such zeal, having entered the public vernacular via cutesy terms like "vajayjay." (Thank you, doctors of Seattle Grace Hospital.)
It's certainly never been more exciting to be a vagina, with help from a bonanza of battery-powered BFFs sold in cheerful shops whose sherbet- and candy-colored schemes befit a kid's room. No more sneaking around—you know that our lady parts have become a little less ladylike when Trojan sells its TV-advertised dildos at Walgreens.
New entrepreneurs and inventors from Israel to Sweden are swarming the pleasure space, ready to cash in on luxury's newest frontier. "Going into a sex boutique is now like going into Bed Bath & Beyond," says Kristofer Kay, editor of StorErotica magazine, the B2B bible of the adult-retail sector. "And there's so much ingenuity in sex toys now, as well as in the marketing." The vagina has become a very desirable customer.
Like a new divorcée or a woman who's lost a life-changing amount of weight, the vagina is renegotiating her identity and finding new ways to play up her assets. And yet, our relationship with her has never been more conflicted. In a survey by Summer's Eve last year, nearly 70 percent of women were unable to identify the basic parts of their vaginas and 60 percent struggled with the word itself. "We've come a long way when it comes to our own genital anatomy, but there's still a lot of shock and awe and embarrassment," says Jamye Waxman, blogger and author of Hot Sex: Over 200 Things You Can Try Tonight. "A lot of women can't even say 'vagina' or 'vulva,' which is the accurate term for the vagina's exterior parts. They say 'down there.'" (Or possibly "vadge" or "jayjay" if wine is involved.)
Metaphorically and physically, all the vulva's newfound visibility has bared insecurities once hidden behind hair. (Some 60 percent of American women between 18 and 24 are completely bare at least some of the time.) Looking in the mirror while on the waxer's table, one has far too much time to wonder: Are my lips too big? Too small? Am I lopsided?
The Internet only feeds those neuroses—there are plenty of photos available for reference, but most are of porn stars whose impossible genital-beauty norms are trickling into the culture at large. In the same way that fashion models created a preteen body ideal, porn actresses are doing the same, with porn-perfect organs that are small, tight, and hairless, the inner lips shorter than the outer ones. In other words, the kind that belong to, disturbingly, 11-year-olds. And now to their 44-year-old mothers as well: Labia tweaks are big business in the U.S.
What of the humbler, unwaxed specimen next door? She's a rare bird these days, lurking on a college feminist's Tumblr feed on a campaign to redeem pubic hair from the scourge of removal. Or she's featured on a calendar by fashion photographer Oliviero Toscani, who kicked up a fuss for celebrating a dozen hairy vadges. Yes, artists, documentarians, and bloggers are waging a backlash against "designer vaginas," but try telling that to Kim Kardashian, who had her first bikini wax at age 12.
Is it possible to enjoy our privates' headier thrills without getting our thongs in a twist about how they stack up? It certainly can't hurt to try. Buy yours a present, make a playdate, open a sexy book. Ridiculous political debates aside, vaginas have never had it so good.