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  • What ‘Naked Attraction’ Can Teach Us About Vulva Shaming

    Before I begin, I would like to make it clear that I do not watch Naked Attraction. For any non-UK readers, NA is a TV programme where the premise is to pick – from a line-up – a potential romantic partner. However, they don’t judge the potential partner on any number of reasonable wholesome features – a pretty smile, nice eyes, curly hair, a warm laugh. Instead, the premise of the show is that you pick a partner based on their (for lack of a nicer word) genitalia. For anyone concerned or confused, yes, this is aired on Channel 4 and yes, somehow, this fits TV guidelines.

    Now, it must be noted that I don’t actually think that its harmful to see naked bodies. Naked bodies are not inherently sexual, nor will they burn your eyes to a crisp if you see them. The show, after all, claims body positivity. However, if body positivity is a glass of ripe, fresh orange juice, NA is a glass of half-assed squash mixed with a pint of water. Yes, you can see your fair share of pear-shaped breasts and tummy stretch marks – which is somewhat refreshing and something I won’t discredit the show for.

    Just as well. Because there’s a million other reasons why I do discredit and pretty much hate the show.

    First of all, the show – contrary to the belief of some so-called sex-positive feminists – is not a body positive masterpiece. Like any reality TV, the contestants are carefully scouted. And these reality TV scouters are undoubtably biased and body shaming because you’ll never see a woman above 200 pounds. You’ll never see cellulite that’s thick and visible. And you’ll definitely never see a vulva that hasn’t been waxed and plucked to within an inch of its life. “But what about the thin strip of hair that a Brazilian wax leaves?” The NA uplifters will cry. “That’s not enough”, I’m willing to retort. “Give me bushes or give me nothing”.

    Why is vulva hair such a pressing issue? Because its existence is inherently politicised.

    Across the globe, women will squat in bathtubs (legs akimbo) with a razor in hand and shaving cream in another. Whether young or old, blonde or dark haired, pregnant or not, women will allocate a solid 30 minutes every 2 days to shaving the downstairs region. For the more boujee among us, they’ll spend upwards of £30 out of their already lesser-than-men’s incomes in order to be waxed, plucked and preened into oblivion. This can be so painful it leaves bruising on the skin and provides so much trauma to the skin it can cause painful ingrown hairs and lumps. For some women, this is a justified choice: maybe they experience sweating or discomfort with hair, maybe they like to remove all their body hair because they enjoy the aesthetic of it or work in a job where they need to be shaved all over, such as being a swimmer or a diver (streamlining purposes, I assume). However, to paraphrase Peggy Orenstein, I wonder if this is how women would choose to spend their free time if there wasn’t such a societal pressure to do so.

    In short, while some women shave through choice, many others do it because they’re scared of shame. The shame of being whispered about at the swimming pool because of a few stray hairs innocently poking out of swimwear. The shame of being laughed at by misogynist men who they’ve slept with. Or worse still, having a partner refuse sex acts with them unless they are hairless because all they’ve even known is a world of pornography where natural women’s bodies are tossed aside like trash in exchange for a more Barbie-like model. While men can be as wildly hairy as they please (and so they should!), women are forced into a life of tweezing, epilating, waxing. All because were conditioned into fitting into the misogynistic society which we live in.

    Aside from their hair-status (upon watching various YouTube clips of the show) women are also openly shamed for the shape and/or size of their vulvas. Vulvas are an organ (well, part of the external genital organs). Organs should absolutely not have an expectation to look a certain way because they aren’t built to be judged for their appearance – they have a purpose. And the vulva/vagina is a wonderful thing – it can bring life into the world, it can exude fertility on a monthly basis, it can provide and experience pleasure. Yet, a woman – vulva exposed – on Naked Attraction loudly proclaims “I think it looks like a beef sandwich” in regard to her vulva. Dead behind the eyes and with a hollow laugh, she looks to her new “partner” for reassurance. Instead, he peers at it in a scrutinising matter and smirks, as if in agreement. The audience laughs along.

    What a travesty. In a few seconds, the vulva becomes a commodity – it apparently has to look a certain way in order to be accepted and not humiliated. It apparently is open to derogatory comments by both the vulva-owner themselves and their partners. Never mind its wonderous abilities, it can be reduced to the way it looks – as if it were a handbag or a new pair of shoes. Women on this show are products rather than humans.

    And Naked Attraction only further perpetuates this. Rows after rows of women* stand in line, a line-up of disembodied vulvas, doll-like and pristinely waxed, standing to attention. A man stares while the presenter enquires what he thinks. He openly scrutinises these vulvas, claiming that he “prefers it shaved” and then picks his woman off of this narrow specification and she gleefully struts to the front, hugging her new potential partner, glowing with joy that her vulva was the “prettiest”. There is something so hauntingly dystopian about picking a partner based on how preened their nether regions are – as if we are living in a Handmaids Tale-like world where woman are vehicles to men’s preferences and are ‘picked’ based on this.

    Now, this may seem like a gross over-exaggeration. After all, it’s a TV show, not necessarily real life. But the trouble with this is that somewhere in the UK, a young boy is watching this on TV and decides that he too only wants a waxed woman, a woman with a hidden outer vulva, a woman who has very little stretch marks. And so, he enters his first experiences as a vulva shamer without even knowing it – and just like that, television creates a misogynist. So, while Naked Attraction is a disaster, it can teach us that we are a nation of vulva-shamers, of natural-haters and of closeted misogynists.

    So where do we go from here? Can we ever have a healthy relationship with our sexual selves when we are told that our sexual organs have to look a certain way?

    Of course we can. And the way to do this is to surround ourselves with images, programmes, content that feeds our natural selves rather than starved them. A great example of this is the work of Laura Dodsworth – a photographer who photographed 100 vulvas of all ages and states-of-hair to show the wonderous diversity of women’s bodies.

    In addition, follow women on social media with body hair whether you prefer to be shaven or not. Lets bin misogynistic TV like Naked attraction that teach women to be clone-like products of shaven sexuality.

    And finally, remember that your vulva not only serves a purpose, but is perfect the way it is. Larger or hidden labia, shaven or not, pink or dark, with birth marks, with discoloration, with shaving bumps – your body is yours and it is yours alone. And no one – not even a TV programme aired to millions – can take you and your natural beauty away from you.

    {*of course, the programme shows cis men’s disembodied bits too. Which of course is wrong and equally awful – I’m just focusing on the cis women which are shown on the show}

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    Susanna Demelas
    Susanna Demelas

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