'Honey! Your vagina needs a mint'

The Vagina Institute purports to provide a public service to curious women. But Samara Ginsberg detects a rather different agenda

Samara Ginsberg, 7 July 2007

How does your vagina compare to those of other women? Have you ever thought about it? Is it too big? Too hairy? Too ugly? Too smelly? Too loose? Well, you needn't worry about it any longer because US-based website The Vagina Institute will be able to tell you just how you measure up.

According to the website: "The Vagina Institute specializes in collecting and processing, data and information about the vulva and vagina...The overall appearance of the vulva, statistics of vagina size and defining what is feminine and what is not!"

The website consists of a plethora of information regarding what a "normal" vagina looks like, allowing you to compare yourself to "a norm" and reassuring you of how hideous your vagina is if it isn't quite up to their standards. For the princely sum of $17.95 a month you may enter their "members area", where thousands of pictures of both airbrushed, porn star vaginas and normal, God-forbid hairy ones are categorised, so that members can be educated as to what a "feminine" vagina looks like. Throughout the site it is repeatedly emphasised that a woman possessed of an "ugly and deformed" vagina will be sexually dysfunctional and shunned by society.

Their ideal is a hairless, porn-star pussy that's barely more than a minuscule orifice. The last time my vagina looked like this was when I was 10 years old

There is actually a quiz on the site where you are invited to submit your "measurements" in order to get a score out of 100, based on what they think the "perfect vagina" looks like. For starters, the questions themselves are not exactly user-friendly. "What is the diameter of your vagina?" - what am I supposed to do, stick a pair of Vernier calipers down there? But as I fill in the quiz, having to make educated guesses on several criteria, not having a dipstick to hand, I am ashamed to discover that I really, really hope to score highly. Despite the fact that I have a good relationship with my genitals, the fact that I have nothing but contempt for this hideous bunch of quasi-scientific misogynists (whoever they are), the fact that my boyfriends have had nothing but good things to say about this part of my anatomy, and despite the fact that I consider myself a strong, confident woman, I want to be told that I have an attractive vagina. For this (and not, as the site intends, for my vagina itself) I am ashamed of myself.

Among the highly unscientific claims they make is the assertion that large vaginas smell. This is as ridiculous as blaming an outbreak of athlete's foot on having big feet

The manner in which the results are interpreted reinforces an incredibly high standard. I scored 70% but was told that I had a vagina of "average quality". In an undergraduate degree, 70% would probably get you a First. For the Vagina Institute, it's "average". A chart from zero to 100 is shown, with the words "feminine" and "ugly" at opposite ends. "100 points = Perfect vagina, symmetric and highly feminine. Zero points = Imperfect vagina, deformed and not feminine". So apparently I am averagely feminine. Thanks.

It gets worse though. What's really worrying is the nature of the ideal that they're holding women up to. Some examples:

"Keep em tight. Lips hanging way out are a turn off. Vaginas should be tight little slits and NOT a big gaping hole."

"A tight vagina is much more sensual and feminine, that is what you want in a woman."

"No man wants a woman with a loose vagina."

"An ugly vagina is one that is covered in hair with a roast beef center."

Roast beef?

The smaller the better, and the less hairy the better. A vagina is supposed to be a tiny, dainty, unobtrusive, barely-noticeable little thing, just one step up from the androgyny of Barbie's absent genitalia. God forbid that you should have "long inner vaginal lips that protrude past the outer lips, excessively big or loose vagina, excessively large clitoris, clitoral hood, etc". Their ideal is a hairless, porn-star pussy that's barely more than a minuscule orifice. The last time my vagina looked like this was when I was 10 years old. I can only conclude that the creators of this website are either paedophiles who only find a vagina attractive if it looks pre-pubescent, or cunt-haters who think that vaginas should be as small as possible because they are inherently disgusting.

Amongst the highly unscientific claims they make is the assertion that large vaginas smell: "The bigger a vagina is in size, the more vaginal odor it will emit. So women with large vaginal cavities will tend to produce more odor then [sic] women with smaller vaginal cavities when vaginal funk arises."

Nowhere on the site does it suggest that if your vagina smells unpleasant it's probably due to an infection - no, it's because it's too big. This is as ridiculous as blaming an outbreak of athlete's foot on having big feet. Women are being encouraged to sit at home and obsess about their "over-sized" genitalia when a quick trip to their professional and non-judgmental GP would cure the problem.

The average heterosexual woman sees just one vagina in her life - her own

A disproportionate number of the models on the site are of East Asian ethnicity, reinforcing the oft-held (at least in porn) belief that women with East Asian heritage are possessed of "tight pussies". One such model holds up a tape measure and sports a flirty-slash-disapproving Mary Poppins facial expression, challenging readers to see how they compare to her standard. As if the site wasn't hideous enough already, race is introduced into the melting-pot of offensiveness.

So where have they got all of their information from? The Vagina Institute claim that they have examined 1,726 women in order to collate their information, but it doesn't say where they got these hapless guinea pigs from. Would you volunteer to lie on your back with your feet in stirrups whilst some lab-coated researcher shoved a ruler up your fanny? I didn't think so. Neither does it reveal who they consulted in order to decide what was attractive and what was not.

I emailed them ("forgetting" to mention that the article I was writing was for a feminist website) to ask for some further clarification and got an extremely vague response: "As for the conclusions, it is based on female accounts about how they view their vulva's appearance as well as how men see women and what they prefer."

After further probing, their (female) press officer revealed that their information regarding the "universal preferences" on which the "ideal vagina" is based is almost exclusively based on the results of online surveys. 270,000 people, of which 59% are women aged mainly between 18 and 64, have taken these surveys, which are accessible through the main site. In other words, they are taken by people who have already read the main content of the site and have quite possibly been influenced by it. There is even one survey in which two photos are presented - one of an "ugly" vagina and one
of a "pretty" one. Next to each photo is a list of reasons why this particular vagina is "ugly" or "pretty". The reader is then asked the question, "Looking a [sic] both A and B photos above, which female genitalia do you think is better looking and give the reasons why you prefer that type of genitalia?"

Another few gems from the surveys:

What are the different things you do in order to keep your vaginas [sic] scent nice and does it work to keep bad or foul odors away?

Does your significant other express a desire for you to have a tight vagina?

Do you apply any makeup, skin foundation on the mons pubis, outer lips to hide skin imperfections or any sort of cosmetics to your vulva or vaginal area on a daily basis or special occasions (like adult movie stars prior to filming to hide blemishes, scars, etc.)

Can you perform the banana test using simply your vagina (cut of a piece of a peeled ripe banana using only your vaginal muscles)?

I've no idea - I didn't try it because the prospect of taking a trip to my local A&E to get bits of banana removed did not fill me with joy.

One has to question the demographic of people who are willing to trawl through a site such as this and to answer questions such as these. I can think of only two kinds of people who might give this website more than two minutes of their time: angry feminist types such as myself, and people who are actually willing to believe what it says. I would suggest that of the visitors who fill out the surveys, a huge number will be either suggestible females with low self-esteem, or misogynistic males.

The men who doubtless subscribe in order to gawp at pictures of ladyparts are being indoctrinated into the Vagina Institute's definition of what makes an attractive vagina

So, what is a woman with a floppy, smelly vagina to do? Well, helpfully the Vagina Institute features click ads for a couple of very dodgy-sounding "e-books" which tell you how to shrink your genitals to minuscule proportions without undergoing surgery, and how to counteract "embarrassing vaginal odors" ("Honey! Your vagina needs a mint!" - I couldn't make this stuff up) all for "only $18.95 monthly". At a first glance, it appears that these are ads for external websites, but a more in-depth perusal reveals that they are both run by - guess who! - the Vagina Institute.

There is an obvious comparison to be made with the culture of men wanting bigger penises. I thought it was hilarious the first time an advertisement for penis enlargement popped into my inbox. Now it's beyond a joke and it sickens me to think that impressionable teenage boys are being bullied into worrying that their newly-developed manhoods are inadequate. However, simply because of the physical nature of male and female genitalia, this sort of pressure is bound to be more damaging for women. Men see each others' penises in toilets and changing rooms. They are provided with physical evidence that penises come in different shapes and sizes and that theirs are, almost certainly, perfectly normal.

In order to get a good look at a vagina, its owner must lie on her back with her legs apart - not something that usually happens in the changing room at the gym. The average heterosexual woman sees just one vagina in her life - her own - and even then, only if she's had the presence of mind to squat over a hand mirror. It's no wonder then that women are more susceptible than men to paranoia over the size, shape and odour of their genitals. The Vagina Institute itself makes this very point, stating that it was set up in order to allow women, in the absence of the opportunity to ogle other women's vaginas, to see how they compare. If it were simply a resource containing photographs and information presented in a non-judgmental fashion this might be a valid solution to women's curiosity. But the fact that they explicitly state that there is an ideal to which women have a duty to conform is highly offensive. What's next - ratemyminge.com?

Even I, a self-proclaimed third-wave feminist, was briefly rendered sufficiently paranoid by this site to scrutinise my vagina in order to see if it in any way resembled a topside of beef

It's not just women who are at risk here. The men who doubtless subscribe in order to gawp at pictures of ladyparts are being indoctrinated into the Vagina Institute's definition of what makes an attractive vagina. They might have paid the subscription fee out of a love of vaginas, but they are being "educated" to hate vaginas that aren't "perfect and feminine". They are being told that their wives' and girlfriends' perfectly normal vaginas are ugly and deformed, and that they deserve something "better".

Even I, a self-proclaimed third-wave feminist, was briefly rendered sufficiently paranoid by this site to scrutinise my vagina in order to see if it in any way resembled a topside of beef. Why should I care? Where I come from, in order to be feminine all you need is two X chromosomes.

Women already face being judged on every other part of their anatomy, having ideals to which to conform, being compared to other women. Now even their private parts are subject to similar ridiculously high standards. The Vagina Institute is an absolute joke, but I'm not laughing. My advice would be to stay away from this poisonous excuse for a "research organisation", or else you'll never look at your Sunday roast in the same way again.

About the author

Samara Ginsberg

Samara Ginsberg is a classical music journalist with a sideline in angry feminism

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