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(Re)Imagining the Past: Through the Framework of Now

These headlines illustrate how the John/Effie scenario might play out in a 2016 (Britain) context (let us imagine the evening as if each had never engaged in a sexual encounter before).[1] Effie and John are a hot couple, regulars on the covers of celebrity magazines, TV, and gossip websites.

Their romance and marriage are for public consumption, likewise any rift and breakup. Rumours swirl. Tweets and leaked photos purportedly reveal truths about what really happened. Experiential accounts (from Effie) tell a story of their romance, their sex life—or lack of it!—and their marriage and split. Their 2016 story is highly narrativised? So how might this story flow? What interpretative frameworks would they bring to it, would we bring to it?

There are some interpretative continuities between the then (midnineteenth century) and the now (twenty-first century). The idea of cultural influence on aesthetics remains. John v1848’s desires were understood as shaped by the visual culture (fine arts) he was professionally immersed in. Pornography now takes centre stage. Alongside widespread and normative consumption among men, pornographically informed representational modes (including advertising, Gill 2008) mean pornography penetrates the everyday worlds of many western people (Haggstrom-Nordin et al. 2006). In some complex way, it seeps into our aesthetics and, perhaps more significantly, our affects (e.g. Paasonen 2011). It is therefore highly unlikely that John v2016 has never encountered what a real-life vulva actually looks like. Or is it? Airbrushing and censorship rules mean the vulval images he has consumed as objects of desire and arousal often resemble each other (Drysdale 2010)—but they may not closely resemble Effie Gray’s vulva. Without real, fleshy, sexual experience with women, John v2016 operates in a mode of sexual knowing and unknowing. His aesthetic preferences and understanding of vulval normality have been shaped by fairly narrow representations of sexy female bodies and sexually-appealing vulvas. In 2016, the ideal and the ‘normal’ vulva is ‘small, neat and tidy’, with ‘invisible’ labia minora and limited or no pubic hair, and despite access to some creative responses that challenge this homogenised imaginary vulva (e.g. the ‘Great Wall of Vagina’),[2] [3] John’s aesthetics and affects remain normative.

By 2016, we understand Effie’s aesthetics, desires, and anxieties as also formed through the same sociocultural melange: post-sexual revolution, Effie and John share access to cultural expectations for being sexy. Lying back and thinking of England is not a viable option for Effie v2016; her body and sexuality require her attention and unlike Effie v1848, she is highly unlikely to present John with an unmodified vulva.[4] Teen Effie v2016 has only known a world where vulval modification is required as part of a desirable body. Cosmetic surgery is normalised (Blum 2003), and female genital cosmetic procedures are popular and regularly promoted (Braun 2005a, 2009a). The ‘Brazilian’ wax is frequently discussed[5]—Effie first saw it in the super popular, glamorous Sex and the City she sneakily watched as a child—and most of her friends are completely pubic hair-free (Braun et al. 2013; Fahs 2014; Herbenick et al. 2010; Terry and Braun 2013). Friends like Cameron Diaz[6] have advised her on what is, and is not, ‘sexy’ for her pubic hair ahead of her wedding night, and if Effie has decided to keep any, it will be trimmed and shaped. She booked herself into a spa for a vajacial—a ‘facial’ treatment for the vulva (Chung 2015)—to present John the smoothest vulva possible (and to manage the consequences of pubic hair removal such as ingrown hairs), but even though fellow celebrities have promoted the wonders of ‘vajazzling’ (Huffington Post 2010), she has decided to leave that for another time. Likewise, she is not sure she needs to dye her labia (Stewart 2010) just yet.

Effie v2016’s world offers a smorgasbord of opportunities for vulva modification, but we can theorise these as obligation as well as opportunity: through an expanded mode of potentials, we are invited into diverse moments and modes of vulval attention and vulval vigilance, to ensure the perfect vulva. Vulval modification is not only normative, it is—for many—mandatory. Not a question of whether, but of what and how. The practices of vulval modification are not only aesthetic labour formed around management of the risk of having a ‘wrong’ vulva, but a normative compliance with expected—even unquestioned—embodiment. It is unimaginable that Effie, a popular 19-year-old ‘It girl’[7] with a high public profile, who embodies (privileged white) hetero-feminine desirability, would not ‘invest in’ her body and her ‘self’, to present what she imagines to be, what she herself believes to be, the ultimately desirable body to John on their wedding night. All this is a lot of work—a point nicely captured by British feminist writer Caitlin Moran’s (2011) description of her routine of preparation of her body before ‘going out’ into situations where a sexual encounter is on the menu. The female body—and the female psyche (Farvid and Braun 2013a, 2013b)—unworked on is situated as unfit for sexual presentation, not able to be desired, or not desirable enough. This makes the unmodified vulva a (legitimate) site of anxiety. Pregnant women, for instance, seek advice about what they should do with their pubic hair for the birth (e.g. Eckler and Parker-Court 2014). That women even consider the acceptability of an ‘untamed bush’ in childbirth demonstrates how much a modified vulva has become part of the imaginary apparatus of embodying not just a desirable, but an acceptable, female body.

Unlike 1848, Effie and John’s aesthetic preferences will likely closely converge in 2016. Effie’s modified vulva will probably satisfy John’s anticipated/desired vulva. But what if—gasp—Effie has labia minora that do ‘extrude’ beyond the ‘clam shell’, the ‘Barbie’ vulva—as many women’s do? What if these labia are asymmetrical? Or have some darker pigmentation? What if—bear with me—John simply cannot desire Effie’s vulva? Although vulval appearance is claimed not to be important by many men (Horrocks et al. 2015), others indicate strong preference for certain aesthetics (e.g. YouTube features videos of men who admonish women with pubic hair), and this may be the case for John. Alternatively, what if John has difficulty responding sexually to a real woman after intense pornography consumption (Weiss 2013)? Despite Effie’s ‘nice, tidied up’ vulva, success is not guaranteed. So what if John does not respond?

  • [1] Now, it is highly unlikely that their marriage night is either’s first sexual encounter—with eachother, or anyone—making lack of desire/annulment unlikely.
  • [2] Their original story also was, albeit in a different way.
  • [3] See:
  • [4] John v2016 is quite likely to have also removed or trimmed some of his pubic hair (Terry andBraun 2013); he may have considered some temporary pharmaceutical modification, to alleviate‘performance’ anxiety.
  • [5] The poor Brazilian has suffered some ‘challenges’ in very recent times (Adams 2014).
  • [6] In what offers a compelling and distressing example of the way female friends’ ‘police’ each other’sbodies—something Winch (2013) has referred to as the ‘girlfriend gaze’—Cameron Diaz notoriously forcibly ‘insisted’ that Gwyneth Paltrow modify her pubic hair, for the sake of her marriage,an event she has recounted publicly as humorous (see spookylorre 2013).
  • [7] I use ‘It girl’ as a heuristic tool, as the term evokes an almost incalculable sexuality and hipness thatelides any of the work which goes into embodying such a position.
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