This heavily proscriptive tone of the modem health movement seems remarkably akin to the obsessive abstinence ethic of old-time Puritanism. For in that scheme of things, suffering, denial, and self-sacrifice were positive virtues in and of themselves because they paved the way for productive work, freed from the temptations of hedonism. This is an idea which Max Weber has shown was, and apparently still is, seen by the children of Puritanism as the surest route to both heaven and to the prosperity created by the fruits of Capitalism as well. If that is indeed what health movements are saying, then pleasure itself is the enemy, and the kind of fundamentalist, ascetic tone of its advocates who regard themselves as among the elect, suddenly becomes clear.
For all of my North American warriors…
Program description: Acceptance is a vital mindset and practice for finding balance with food and eating. This teleconference will explore the gentle, non-blaming approach to change that is promoted by an attitude of acceptance.
Date/Day: Tuesday, May 7, 2013
Time: 9 am PST / 12 noon EST
Offered by: Donald Altman, M.A., LPC
Listeners will learn:
- The role of acceptance in the mindful change process and how this differs from an often non-forgiving model of change.
- How to define acceptance and differentiate it from the idea of resignation
- Examine how to introduce the topic of acceptance into sessions and overcome resistance to this approach.
Phone access: This teleconference is free and open to everyone interested in mindful eating, including professionals from all disciplines.
The Conference Access Number is: (209) 647-1600
Your Conference Passcode is: 858168 # or Skype:freeconferencecallhd.2096471600
You know you need exercise to be healthy. Exercise makes you feel good, and it reduces
your risk of illness and disease. However, something that is so good for you can often become
compulsive. When you allow yourself to become influenced by media images of unrealistic body
shapes, you may allow your healthy exercise habit to turn into an unhealthy obsession.
In order to get back to exercise as a healthy habit, you have to divorce it from whatever ideas
you have of an “ideal” body shape. There is no ideal body shape — there is only your shape.
As long as you are healthy and you are confident in yourself, you have the ideal body shape
for you. If you find yourself tipping toward compulsiveness with exercise, here are a few tips for
how you can get back to enjoying exercise without thinking about losing weight:
Focus On How It Makes Your Body Feel
Exercise feels good. It makes you stronger, and it gives you more energy. It even improves your
mood. Focus on how exercise makes your body feel, instead of how it can make your body look.
If you find your mind coming back to how many lunges you need to do to tone up your thighs
or how many miles you need to run to burn off fat, bring your focus back. Stop and bring your
thoughts back to where they need to be. Take a day off if you need to. When you feel like your
mind is back in the right place, get back on track with your healthy exercise plan.
Do It with Friends and Loved Ones
Don’t make exercise a special thing that you have to do each day. Instead, make it something
fun that you enjoy with family and friends. You can go for walks together. You can go for a swim
or water sports at a local lake. You can play a game of touch football or softball. The key is to do
something that is fun and that allows you to spend time with those you love. Then, when you are
getting physical activity, you’ll be too busy having a good time to focus on how the exercise is
going to help you lose weight.
Make It a Part of Your day
When you incorporate physical activity into your day, every day, it doesn’t seem like something
special you have to do with a goal in sight. Make exercise a part of your everyday routine, and
it will seem like any other thing you do every day, such as taking a shower or brushing your
teeth. Go out to exercise at the same time everyday so that it will become a habit. Work physical
activity into your day, doing things like gardening or housework. The more routine it seems, the
less likely you will be to focus on it and obsess over it.
Use It to Relieve Stress
Exercise is a form of relaxation for many people. When you use it to relieve stress instead
of trying to lose weight, you can focus on the positive benefits of exercise instead of turning
into a compulsive habit. Focus on exercises that relieve your stress, such as running or yoga.
Whatever works for you to relieve stress is what you should make your priority.
Exercise is a healthy habit, but it can quickly become an unhealthy one if you allow your focus
to shift to obsessively trying to lose weight or to obtaining a body that isn’t possible for you. If
you find that your approach to exercise is shifting toward this unhealthy territory, you can use
these tips to help you get back on track with exercise as a way to promote health and make you
About the Author:
Bridget Sandorford is a freelance food and culinary writer, where recently she’s been
researching international culinary education. In her spare time, she enjoys biking, painting and
working on her first cookbook.
Kate, from Eat the Damn Cake, has done it again – a beautiful article giving us reason to celebrate our bodies, no matter what shape, size, colour, ability… Thanks, Kate for being such an inspiring body-image warrior!
“If this is your first pregnancy, you may be especially bothered by changes in your body image,” said the Mayo Clinic Guide to a Healthy Pregnancy, published in 2011. It went on to clarify, “Simply put, you may feel fat and unattractive.”
The truth is, feeling “fat and unattractive” was not on my mind at that particular moment. I had dragged myself back to bed from my usual post at the foot of the toilet, a place on the tile that I had grown intimately acquainted with in the last several weeks, and really, I just wanted to read about what was going on inside me. Apparently, there is a baby in there. You know, a tiny, tiny human who will one day in the near future stretch my poor, unsuspecting vagina around its shockingly large head, burst into the world, and change my life forever. I will go from being this regular person who sometimes grabs dinner with a friend on very short notice to being a mother. The mother of a real, living, developing, complicated person. It’s too enormous to comprehend. And in the meantime, I feel like total crap. Am I normal? Is everything going OK? Does my baby have a face yet? Those were my more pressing concerns.
In defense of the Mayo Clinic Guide, the book is actually full of helpful info, and at least the section that covers body image acknowledges that some women may feel nice, or proud, and that body image issues can be blamed on our culture’s obsession with thinness. But a little later in the book, without any such disclaimers, in a brief section on shopping for new pregnancy clothes, I ran into this statement: “Think vertical. As you widen, look for clothes with vertical rather than horizontal lines to make you look slimmer. Dark colored clothes also tend to be more slimming.”
And I felt kind of weird about that.
Because it wasn’t just the Mayo Clinic Guide—most of the pregnancy books I read offered helpful tips on how to avoid feeling like a gigantic ugly fat cow while pregnant. You know, with slightly different wording. Many of the books explicitly assumed that I would feel bad instead of good about the changes in my body, particularly surrounding the inevitable and completely healthy weight gain that accompanies pregnancy.
Websites cried, “DEBUNKING PREGNANCY MYTHS: Eating for two is NOT acceptable. There is NO excuse for packing on more lbs than you absolutely have to!!” Regulate your diet, warned books and pamphlets and messageboards. Of course, they giggled, you can enjoy a little ice cream now and then, but don’t use pregnancy as an excuse to eat like a pig!
But more than that, within the first few weeks of my pregnancy, as I eagerly consumed all of the information I could find about my new situation, the resources were all telling me about how I might lose the weight afterward. How I could reclaim my slender body just three months after giving birth. I quickly learned that I shouldn’t imagine that I won’t be able to immediately dive back into my exercise regimen after welcoming a newborn into the world. Women get right back on the treadmill, because as long as you make it a priority, you’re going to be just fine.
By which they mean, you’re going to be thin.
There are a few things that bother me about all this. For one, I actually am not thinking about how terrible I might look. For two, why is looking terrible almost always synonymous with gaining weight? Why do “fat and unattractive” fit automatically into the same breath? And thirdly, even if one is very afraid of weight gain, pregnancy is totally different from “getting fat.” It’s all about growing a baby. Which, you know, should be fairly obvious. The weight gain is good! It means things are going according to schedule. When women lose weight in pregnancy (when they weren’t very heavy to begin with), it’s considered a problem. Doctors are on the case, investigating. When women lose lots of weight in pregnancy, it often means something is going seriously wrong.
I have spent a lot of my life caring about the way I look. Not because I am fashion-obsessed or concerned with being extremely beautiful or spend hours pouring over my face in the mirror. It’s just there, this quiet anxiety, in the background as I’m studying, working, falling in love, making friends, interacting with strangers. I’ve learned, as a girl and now as a woman, that how I look at matters. It’s hard to live in this world without learning how much importance women’s appearances are lent. I wish it wasn’t that way, but it is, and the way our self-esteem, confidence, and even our happiness is shaped is often inextricably caught up in a tangled web of beauty expectations and fears.
But getting pregnant is the beginning of a crazy, careening, transformative journey, and for me, it flung up big existential questions right and left. What do I want out of life? What do I have to offer a child? What kind of parent will I be? Am I ready? What makes life meaningful? How will this impact my relationship with my husband? How is life so friggin’ fast? And yeah, OK, I even started thinking a little more about my own death. Being thrust into the middle of the circle of life can do that to a person.
Basically, being pregnant has made me think a lot less about how I look, and the little, if pressing and sometimes even incredibly painful, things that have nagged at the back of my mind for so long. This just seems bigger, somehow. And bigger is sometimes better.
Which is not at all to say that pregnant women shouldn’t feel bad about the way they look because they should stop being so superficial and focus on the miracle of life. God no. Women sometimes feel bad about the way they look because we’ve all learned how intensely important it is to look a certain way ALL THE TIME. That is the problem.
And I really, really hope that problem won’t get in my way, as my belly gets bigger.
When I hit twelve weeks, I hauled myself through a haze of morning sickness to the nearest clothing store. I wanted to buy myself a present, to celebrate. I wandered around, touching billowing tunics and loose sweaters. And then I spotted a slinky peach-colored dress. Long-sleeved but obviously clingy. It was made out of a soft, stretchy fabric that felt welcoming under my fingers.
A salesman appeared. “Oh honey,” he said, surveying me in my enormous gray sweater, sweatpants, and knit hat over my greasy hair, “That is a very unforgiving dress. You can’t gain an ounce in it.”
And something came over me. I swept it off the rack. “Well,” I said, “I’m about to gain at least thirty, so I think I should give it a try.”
He stared at me uncomprehendingly.
“I’m pregnant,” I clarified.
“Oh,” he said feebly, but didn’t add anything. So I went off to the dressing room and tried it on. It showed off every bump. My newly swollen breasts, now about a size larger than “miniscule,” looked positively victorious in it. My belly was clearly visible, bloated and at the beginning of a baby bump. It was clear that the dress would stretch to allow for my upcoming growth, and as it stretched, it would become even more scandalous and skin-tight. I smiled at my reflection. I decided in that moment that I was going to show my body off. No vertical stripes for me. This belly is worth celebrating. It’s not just a miracle of evolution and biology and all that. It’s a body image triumph too. And I won’t let any pregnancy book tell me different.
Here’s a great article – The New Mind Games Advertisers Play on Women, in which Chung argues (actually not a new argument!) that advertisers prey on the idea that our bodies are always “works-in-progress”, but within the clever disguise of “empowerment.” She quotes Susie Orbach of Fat is a Feminist Issue as saying:
“We reject the idea of being under ‘assault’ from the beauty industry as offensive to our intelligence…[Instead], we transform the sense of being criticised by becoming the moving and enthusiastic actor in our own self-development programme. We will eagerly repair what is wrong… By internalising the pressure to perfect ourselves we develop an odd sense of attachment to the very companies that are bent on exploiting us. It is as though, once having had our faults pointed out, we seize the chance to enhance ourselves by embracing the market’s propositions…We see ourselves as agents, not victims.”
The self-empowerment movement can be addictive. It’s meant to be. If we, as women, accept that we’re always works-in-progress, at least concerning our physical bodies, we’ll never reach a state at which we no longer have to consume the products and services designed to “improve” our bodies and lives – and the entire capitalistic system which feeds off of our perceived insecurities and incompleteness would crash.
It’s political. It’s personal. It’s time to re-think what false promises lure us.
We would all do well to take an honest look at the products in our bathrooms and kitchen cupboards, our magazine subscriptions, our memberships, etc…and compassionately evaluate the degree to which we’re subscribing to the idea that we’re not and never will be good enough. There’s no right or wrong – just self-enquiry. Begin the conversation with yourself – what products make you feel empowered? Why do you think that is? Is it because of a promise they’ve sold you or a genuine sense of self-love?
Oh, and just in case you’re not entirely convinced of the powerful ways in which women are repeatedly told they are “wrong” and then sold a solution to “fix” this manufactured “problem”, check out the latest and greatest solution to a body image woe – Arm Corsets to protect against “bingo wings”!
Our borders and our obstacles can only do 2 things:
1. stop us in our tracks
2. force us to get creative
The same challenges that disable us can be used to enable us! Let your imagination help you break through your borders. What can you do today to start living beyond your real or “imagined” limits?
Here’s 10 minutes of your day well-spent:
Starting a new year is sooo exciting! I get such a buzz of energy, optimism, and creativity for all the new things I want to do/be, and none of it has to do with dropping a dress size, starting a new diet, flossing my teeth regularly, running a marathon, etc… like it would have in past years.
This year, it’s about enjoying simple things, connecting with friends on a more intimate level, giving to myself what I tend to give to others, finding beauty and indulging in it despite the doom and gloom surrounding me. Have I had too much time on retreat this year – too much fresh air? Nope. This is simply the voice of HOPE. You have one too. That feeling inside of you that comes around every so often and whispers, “You know. Life doesn’t have to be so serious all the time.”
This blog might change a bit over the coming months, assuming I find time to write a bit more. There are heaps of entries about eating disorder and body-image related issues, all there for your reference…but, instead of continuing in this vein, I’d like to make a bit of a shift to lighten things up and gently remind all of you in recovery from disordered eating and body hatred, that the actual process is only one part of life. It’s easy to focus so much on having a “perfect recovery” or, if you’re not even there yet, on having a “perfect body, diet, life…” Let’s shift away from perfection for a bit, even just a moment. To start, you might like to watch this TED talk:
And, check out the blog: 1000 Awesome Things
I’ve started a new journal this year in which, as the last thing I do before going to bed each night, I’ll write 5 positive things from my day. This means, that over the course of 2013, I will collect 1825 positive things/experiences! Feel free to join me in this.
Now…how are you going to embrace your inner 3 year old today?
Happy New Year!
Here’s a treat for you to get your year started off. It’s a beautiful workbook to unravel 2012 and begin to plan 2013. Print it out and go wild with creativity. I just did.
Food guilt season is upon us!
And that means lots of people fretting about what they’re eating, how much of it they’re eating, and how they will possibly “work it off” after food guilt season is over. This is, paradoxically, a time of plenty when people are supposed to be celebrating with food, and a time when people are supposed to be deeply ashamed of the fact that they eat food, and that it is enjoyable.
Lesley recently reminded readers that cake isn’t evil, and it’s worth another reminder that food itself isn’t naughty. Food isn’t bad. It’s not an “indulgence” you need permission to partake in. It’s a biological necessity, okay? Food is life. Y’all are grown folks and you can make your own decisions about what you eat, where you eat it and how much of it you choose to consume.
A lot of judging goes around at holiday tables; nothing really says “spending time with family I love” quite like a raised eyebrow when you decide to take seconds on the candied yams or thirds on the pumpkin pie. Food and fat shaming turn into a tangled mess when you’re with people who might well have contributed to past anxiety, like the family member who loved buying me clothes that were too small “for when you’re pretty again.”
So it’s worth another round of reminders to fuck the food police, folks. Because they’re going to be out in force this week and in the coming weeks, and you definitely don’t need to sit around and take it.
Food can be awesome stuff. It can be nourishing. It can make you happy. The shared experience of cooking and eating with people you love can be bonding and may be an important part of your time together. Food is good. Many of my fondest personal memories surround eating, cooking and meals; getting doughnuts in the middle of the night in San Francisco, the Great Curry Adventure, the first time I baked bread on my own2.
If eating a particular food item makes you happy, then you should durn well go ahead and eat it. It’s not bad or naughty or wrong. It’s just food, okay? It’s not junky or trashy or out to get you. The poison, the toxicity, the evil, comes from the people around you who feel it’s appropriate to comment on the contents of your plate, or the state of your waistline.
I don’t want to say “If you want a slice of pumpkin pie with whipped cream, go for it!” because that’s not my job; you don’t need my permission to eat. You don’t need anyone’s permission to eat food you love with people you love in quantities you feel comfortable with, whatever those might be. But, seriously? If you want a slice of pumpkin pie with whipped cream, go for it!
You don’t need to feel guilty for what you choose to eat, and you have nothing to make up for, and no reason to apologize. You don’t need to make self-deprecating jokes about how whatever you are eating will go straight to your thighs and you’ll need to spend extra time on the stairmaster to be virtuous again.
You don’t need to titter and say “Well, maybe just a little bit more” when someone offers something you want to eat. Nor do you need to apologize when you don’t really want to eat any of Auntie Susan’s sweet potato casserole because you can’t stand marshmallows; it’s totally fine to say “I’m good, thanks.”
Self-denial isn’t virtue, and neither is self hate. We wrap up so much moral judgment about food and eating and who eats, especially with the scaremongering over the “obesity epidemic” and the headlines that are already starting to pop up about how “holiday overindulgence” is responsible for all the evils of the world. Give yourself a break this season.
We’re being inundated with enough messages about how eating is bad and evil and wrong and shouldn’t be done, how fat people are what is wrong with the United States, how we should all be good and virtuous and deprive ourselves for the holidays so we can feel good about ourselves.
Except that plenty of people are experiencing deprivation for the holidays, and not by choice. Many people are in a state of food insecurity right now and this contradictory messaging about food being evil and needing to rein it in for the holidays is especially galling when your stomach is growling because you’re not getting enough food, or enough of the right kind of food. Too many people are going to be ashamed this season because they can’t put food on the table, or can’t put the food they want on the table.
Sally forth into the holidays with your head held high, my friends, and don’t apologize for a single thing you do or don’t eat. Ever. And yes I will take an extra slice of that pie, if you would be so kind.
You can find the original article here.
Offered by : Ronna Kabatznick, Ph.D.
Phone access: This teleconference is free and open to everyone interested in mindful eating, including professionals from all disciplines. The Conference Access Number is: (209) 647-1600 Your Conference Passcode is: 858168 # or Skype: freeconferencecallhd.2096471600 Become a member! http://www.tcme.org/join.htm
Once upon a time there was a thing called foreplay. Sometimes it was silent: just a kiss in a club and an awkward scuffle in the toilets. Others took more time with it. They wrote sweet lines, sent flowers, asked a lady to dance and, even, for her hand in marriage before they even embarked on it.
For some people, it was all about the tease: lips licked over dinner, a glimpse or more of bosom, biceps squeezed with an “Oh you’re so chunky!” and a wink, toes moving up trouser legs. It seemed women did this better than men, this slinking about. Or, maybe, they just had more role models. There isn’t a male equivalent of Dita Von Teese, unless you count Magic Mike which none of my straight male friends has seen so you can’t, really. That said, if you’re a fella on a date with another chap, there are some moves you could steal. You’d most likely do yourself an injury, but that’s all part of the fun of foreplay.
You see, fun was what foreplay was all about.
Then along came Big Pharma declaring that, no no no no no, what people really wanted wasn’t fun; it was a failsafe ticket to instant gratification. Foreplay was pointless and sexual desire was nothing more than a physiological process, ripe for medicalization. Most enticing of all, for Big Pharma, it seemed things didn’t always go smoothly; in fact, things went wrong. People had problems: vaginas wouldn’t lubricate on command, penises wouldn’t get hard, sex drives didn’t render people horny 24 hours a day. But never fear: Big Pharma was on hand to help.
The first step in all this was to come up with a vernacular – some acronyms and terms that sounded like they came from the mouths of experts. Trouble was, sexuality was all a bit messy and the problems complex. What the whole thing needed was some disorders, a few umbrella terms, to neaten it all up a bit. So was born Female Sexual Dysfunction, Male Erectile Dysfunction and, later, Female Orgasmic Dysfunction. Being able to attribute their problems to a disorder, a medical term no less, was comforting for people, right? And if it was a disorder, that meant it was a medical problem which, in turn, meant it required treatment.
With dollar signs in their eyes and patient well-being in their hearts (honest), pharmaceutical companies set about transforming sex from something of the body and mind into a scientific phenomenon. Money poured in and clinical studies, pills, ointments, potions, devices, and patches poured out.
Men’s sexuality wasn’t of particular interest because there was only one process involved in arousal – penile erection – and it was just a question of mechanics so research pretty much stopped with Viagra. If you’re bringing in over $2billion a year in sales with apparently few complaints from consumers, why bother investing any more time or money?
Female sexuality was something different altogether. For a start, a lot of it went on down there where, unless you happened to have your head in the right place, you couldn’t see it. Thinking it might be a simple case of mechanics, a few scientists gave devices a shot: the Orgasmatron involved the insertion of an electrode into the spine attached to a control button pressed to stimulate nerves in the clitoris but which was more likely to make your legs jerk than send you into mind-melting heights of orgasmic ecstasy, and the clitoral vaginal vacuum suction pump was equally ineffective and as unsexy as it sounds. No, it seemed that there was more to it than could be sorted through mechanics. It called for something subtler than suction and electrodes. It called for pharmaceuticals. Inspired by the phenomenal success of Viagra, companies raced to find a female equivalent – a pill that could be popped and all bedroom troubles forgotten.
The race has gone on for a few years now but is yet to come up with anything to cure the “secret epidemic” (as it’s been termed) of FSD, despite the fact that it’s said to affect around 40% of women. Oprah said it, so it must be true. The latest cure-all to arrive is Tefina, a nasal testosterone spray, created by Trimel and currently entering clinical trials with an estimated release sometime in the next 3-5 years. It’s being marketed as a treatment for Female Orgasmic Dysfunction, a condition apparently unheard of until Trimel came up with the name and decided it needed a treatment.
In case you’re worried you might have it, according to Trimel, “FOD is defined as the persistent or recurrent delay in, or absence of, orgasm following normal sexual excitement phase that causes marked personal distress or interpersonal difficulties”. What constitutes “normal” sexual anything no one knows, but let’s not let specifics get in the way of vast generalisations. You might be concerned about the potential side effects of the absorption of testosterone, but Trimel is quick to reassure people that Tefina is “expected to present an attractive safety profile, with virtually no androgen-related side effects such as acne, facial and body hair growth or deepening of the voice”. Probably just as well, given the adverse effect on your sex life of waking up with a hairy chest and baritone growl.
There are many cooked-up statistics to support the existence of and, therefore, need for treatment of FOD of the unspecified “studies have shown” variety. For example, one in five women has FOD, 30% can’t climax during sex, not 1 in 5 but 43% of women have FOD and “many women” have sex up to five times a month, despite not wanting to, because they think it is what their partners want and is, therefore, good for their relationship. I find this last factoid disturbing because, technically, this is sex against the woman’s will so raises the issue of consent which is far greater cause for concern than the potential efficacy of a nasal spray. Not that relationships have anything to do with sexuality – no, it’s all about the chemicals.
Despite being billed as an “on-demand” treatment, the spray takes up to two hours to have any effect which doesn’t sound very on-demand to me. I suppose I could fill those hours on something fun like, I don’t know, foreplay, maybe. Once you’re fired-up, the effect is reckoned to last around six hours. Yet to be released is any literature on what this effect is likely to be and, crucially I think, what happens if you have a squirt but don’t have sex. Say you take it before you go out, but don’t meet anyone you’d want to have sex with, are you left, squirming on a bar stool, horny as hell, with an engorged clit and wet pussy? If that’s likely to be the case, Trimel should be providing pocket rocket vibrators with every prescription.
(See above link for the original article and references)
Genitally Feminist and Healthy
By Kate Ryan and Amy Allina
Heart-shaped pubic patch? Take it all off? Vajazzle it with sequins? Deodorant? Bleach? Cosmetic surgery? There’s an astounding range of products and services available these days for changing the appearance of female genitals. Take to the Internet and you’ll find both discussion and debate about these practices. The discussion includes pros and cons of various techniques; reviews of, shall we say, stylists and practitioners in your area; and DIY (do-it-yourself) instructions and tips. The debate often comes down to two questions: is it feminist? And, is it harmful to your health?
Feminists of every era have challenged traditional notions of beauty. The suffragists scandalized their contemporaries by wearing bloomers. Second-wave feminists broke free from the constraints of girdles and binding brassieres and popularized the clean-faced, no-makeup look. Feminists today wear skirts and dresses when they want to, but, with the exception of presidential candidates, we can also wear pants without exciting much public comment. Many of us wear lipstick at times, but we can leave the house without makeup and not risk starting neighborhood rumors.
In recent years, however, feminists have been grappling with a new class of beauty regimens: products and services to change the appearance of women’s genitals. When it comes to these genital beauty regimens, feminist opinions range across a wide spectrum. There are well-developed critiques of how air-brushed pornography has set unrealistic expectations that risk leaving real women, who can’t bring Photoshop into the bedroom, feeling inadequate. There are sincere and passionate descriptions of the sensual pleasure some women take in hairlessness and the light-hearted fun of vajazzling — defined by the Urban Dictionary as “decorating your vagina with sequin”1(although what’s being decorated is technically the vulva). As with many debates about feminist behavior, part of it does come down to choice. We don’t just swing from one constrained path to another — from only skirts to only pants. Feminism has opened up a greater range of choices for women, and we embrace that range.
But as the feminist health movement has revealed in case after case, the rhetoric of choice can be co-opted to present harmful and dangerous practices as tools of empowerment. Whether it’s breast implants, contraception, or vaginal beautification, a woman needs full information about the benefits and risks of the options she’s choosing between, including what is not known, so that she can make a real choice about what’s best for her.
This article explores the known and unknown health consequences of a range of products and services that claim to improve the appearance of women’s genitals. To do this, we sorted the practices into three general categories: hair removal, including shaving, waxing, and laser hair removal; scent and color modification, which includes douching, deodorant sprays, bleaching and coloring; and a cosmetic surgery called labiaplasty.
It is not uncommon today for women to shave their pubic hair. And, in last few years, additional methods for removing hair have grown in popularity, such as waxing and laser hair removal. Although some doctors have expressed concerns about the risks of shaving and waxing — such as a potential increased likelihood of infection due to the small open wounds that can be caused by hair removal — there isn’t evidence to support this opinion. There’s more reason to question the safety and effectiveness of laser hair removal, however.
Laser hair removal is widely advertised and, like many products and treatments that straddle the medical-cosmetics line, the advertisements over-estimate its benefits and under-estimate its risks. On the website for Laser Cosmetica, for example, laser hair removal is described as a “permanent alternative to waxing, shaving, and electrolysis;2 Capital Laser similarly describes the procedure as “safe, painless, and effective.3 The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), however, warns that laser treatment does not result in permanent hair removal4 and the Mayo Clinic — a respected leader in medical care, research, and education — cautions that the procedure is less effective for people with darker skin and those with light skin and light hair because the laser technology works by differentiating the hair from the skin.5
You won’t learn that from the ads! Laser Cosmetica also claims that “there are no long term health hazards” – but the fact is there are no long-term health studies.6 Some women find that the treatment causes short-term redness on their skin, or longer-term problems like discoloration and scarring.7 The claim that the treatment is painless is also misleading, which is why the FDA has specifically ruled that manufacturers cannot make this claim.8 The Mayo Clinic also warns that laser hair removal can cause blistering and swelling.9 Finally, in 2009, the FDA issued a warning about potentially serious and life-threatening side effects from misuse of the numbing agents used in laser hair removal procedures.10
Scent & Color Modification
The products and practices in this category are intended to improve the scent and color of your vagina. Although this topic certainly raises worthwhile questions about whether and why the scent and color of your vagina need improving, it also raises questions about the health effects of the products that claim to do it. Unfortunately, because the FDA doesn’t regulate cosmetics the way it does drugs and devices, women can’t always get answers to these questions and may not be clearly warned about these products’ potential health risks.
If you weren’t already familiar with vaginal “cleansing” products like deodorant sprays and douches, Stephen Colbert may have brought them to your attention with his parody critiquing the sexism inherent in last year’s outrageous Summer’s Eve commercials. Colbert complained about how marketing that focuses only on women, “telling them that their bodies aren’t good enough the way they are,” shortchanges men and asked why men aren’t “encouraged to purchase products to make [their] groins acceptable in polite company.”11
While Colbert addressed the racism of the controversial ads for the vaginal cleansing products, he didn’t provide a health-based challenge to the company’s claim that “these are products that every v[agina] needs.”12 The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Women’s Health, have, however. These respected health authorities advise women to avoid deodorant sprays and douching completely, because these products can cause urinary tract infections (UTIs).13 HHS also warns that douching can cause vaginosis (a bacterial infection) and pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), which can lead to infertility, and notes that “women douche because they mistakenly believe it gives many benefits.”14 These warnings send a clear message that, from a health perspective, the risks associated with use of these products outweigh any benefits.
But, according to the cosmetics industry, it’s not just the smell of your genitals you need to change — it’s the color too. Fortunately, they can help you with bleaches and temporary dyes. Creams like Bleach Babe promise to get rid of the natural coloration of the skin around the vagina,15 while products like My New Pink Button promise to “restore the youthful pink color back to your labia.”16 My New Pink Button is a temporary vaginal dye that comes in four shades of pink and is applied to the inner labia using an applicator like one you use to apply eye shadow. While the company’s website doesn’t make it clear exactly how the product works (and they didn’t respond to our queries), it does imply that using My New Pink Button will improve your sex life, claiming “it will bring out that sexy, hot pink I am fired up look,” “it will bring out the animal in you,”17 and “tonight it’s show time.”18
Many of the advertisements for changing the color of your genitals also carry an overt racial message that lighter skin is more attractive, which could be the subject of an entire article by itself. And no matter what your skin color, you might agree with blogger Heidi Ferrer, who questions the benefit of having a vagina that is painted “Barbie dream house” pink.19 Read enough of these ads and you’re likely to be left with the sense that somehow the vagina you were born with isn’t quite right. What you won’t get is any reliable information about whether these bleaches or temporary dyes work the way the manufacturers claim they do and whether they pose any risk to your health.
Last, we come to surgical ways you can “greatly enhance the cosmetic appearance of the outer vagina.” We don’t have space here to address all of the many elective vaginal surgeries available today20 — so we are focusing on the specific type of surgery, labiaplasty, which is promoted primarily for its ability to change the appearance of your genitals. Labiaplasty is surgery that removes part of the labia to reduce its size or change its shape.
As with many cosmetic procedures, advertisements promoting labiaplasty overstate the benefits and understate the risks. The Cosmetic Surgery Center of Maryland, for example, claims that having large labia can cause “distancing in relationships” and that having a labiaplasty “boosts self confidence.”21 The Manhattan Center for Vaginal Surgery’s ads promoting labiaplasty claim it will make you feel “prettier” and give you “greater confidence and self esteem.22 But, you won’t be surprised to learn, the surgeons can only back up those claims with anecdotal testimony from satisfied patients, because there’s no actual research that supports them.
Promotional materials for labiaplasty also fail to acknowledge how little is known about possible risks. For instance, there are no data on how having a labiaplasty might affect a women’s ability to have a vaginal birth. Nonetheless, in an FAQ on the Manhattan Center for Vaginal Surgery’s website, the response to a question about whether a woman can have a labiaplasty if she hasn’t already had children reads: “Yes. Whether you have had children or not is not the issue.”23
The Women’s Health Activist has covered this issue before (“Made-to-Order Vaginas,” July/August 2007), describing the labiaplasty procedure and the lack of evidence supporting its safety. The Network is not alone in raising these concerns. The New View Campaign, http://www.newviewcampaign.org, led the way in raising the alarm and organized protests as early as 2008 to demand that medical professionals and government regulators ensure that women considering this surgery are given full information about possible risks.24
And it’s not just activists who are concerned about labiaplasty. Today, medical professional associations like ACOG agree that “women should be warned about the lack of data supporting the efficacy of these procedures and their potential complications, including infection, altered sensation, dyspareunia [painful sexual intercourse], adhesions, and scarring.”25 In addition to the lack of evidence about the health effects of labiaplasty, as New View points out, there is a lack of training, oversight, and accountability for doctors performing labiaplasty procedures. Women know that medical training takes years and years of hard work, and few realize that most surgeons performing labiaplasty don’t go through any additional training to do these surgeries. Even fewer are aware that there’s no medical authority monitoring the safety of the practice and no data on the safety of the procedures in the first place.
Andy Wright, a San Francisco-based blogger, framed her critique of the beauty industry’s products for vaginas by pointing out, tongue in cheek, that if you think there’s nothing wrong with your vagina, “you’re probably wrong.”26 But she quickly reassures readers, “Don’t worry — there’s nothing that money can’t fix.” In this consumer culture, why should our vaginas be different from any other aspect of our lives? But whether you think a little vajazzle will add sparkle to your life or not — and whether you want to spend money changing the look, smell or color of your genitals — you should have a reliable source of information about the health consequences of these practices and products. And today, that just isn’t available for many of the products the ads encourage us to use.
Amy Allina is the NWHN Program & Policy Director, Kate Ryan is the NWHN Senior Program Coordinator
You’ve heard of mind over matter, right? Well, apparently the way that you think about yourself and life in general can actually affect your physical well-being. According to an article by Julie Chen, M.D. in the Huffington Post, the medical community even has a name for this: the “nocebo effect.”
In short, it means that health and even events can be influenced and produced when we expect the worst to happen. It’s the pessimist’s version of the self-fulfilling prophecy, wherein we believe that something bad is going to happen, so we either act in such a way that we create that negative outcome, or we modify our perceptions so that even good things are probably just masking bad ones.
So, how exactly does this pertain to your health? Here are five ways that negative thinking may be hurting you.
1. You’re more stressed. People who focus on the negative tend to worry more about every little thing in their life and how it will inevitably go wrong. This creates stress and tension that can be involved in everything from giving you muscle pain to bringing on an ulcer. Not fun.
2. You can’t sleep. Many people whose negative thought patterns cause stress also lose sleep. As anyone who’s ever had a baby can tell you, sleep deprivation wreaks all kinds of havoc on the body as well as making most people not very fun to be around. But you already knew no one wanted to be around you.
3. You get sick more frequently. You know that every year you have the flu, so you’ve stopped even trying to fight it – why waste the effort when it’s going to happen anyway? But because you’re not even bothering to take vitamins or medicine, your immune system stays weak and proves you right by letting in more bugs so that you’re sick both longer and more frequently.
4. You don’t bother trying to get fit. Exercising is too hard, you’re not good at it, and it never works for you. Besides, why would you want to go through the embarrassment of having people watching you huff as you attempt to work out? Essentially, your negativity keeps you in poor physical condition, which leaves you open to more illnesses (see above) as well as potential chronic problems and conditions related to a sedentary lifestyle.
5. You’re depressed. It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that constant negative thinking can be similar to a mild form of (non-clinical) depression. After all, why wouldn’t you be depressed if nothing ever goes right in your life and everything is a series of worst case scenarios for which all you can do is prepare? Many people who have negative thoughts all the time end up in therapy because the mental-physical crossover takes such a toll that they find themselves growing lethargic and eating less because they’ve stopped seeing the point in actually living.
Clearly, these five points aren’t the only ways that negative thinking can affect your health, and in fact many of them contain several different potential health problems under a single point. Why? Because our minds and bodies are so interconnected that, if we knock over one domino, it’s often the case that others follow suit and the problems continue to build. But just as devastating as negative thinking can be, people who think positively have been shown to live longer, happier, healthier lives as a whole. Retraining your thinking, although difficult and a somewhat constant battle, could be the first step toward improving your health.
About the Author: Debbie Sweet is a board-certified dermatologist, specializing in photodynamic therapy in Chicago. Debbie believes in living a longer, healthier life through preventative care.