A few months ago I picked up my little sister’s copy of Cosmopolitan. Having read Cosmogirl as a young teenager, I was exposed to the strong messages of the campaign "be sexy: be sussed" promoting STI awareness and the confidence to "say no". Both the images in the magazine and the articles themselves were designed with positive body image in mind — a wet-haired girl with no makeup on, bouncing on her bed smiling, flashing her braces to the camera "20 things to do before you’re 16". I remember the list included "eating a doughnut without licking your lips".
Can you be an attractive, happy teenager without feeling the pressure to be thin / made-up / dressed like a doll? Yes, says Cosmogirl, you can.
Yet Cosmopolitan, the adult version confronting my then 15 year old sister, carried with it an adult question: Can you vajazzle and be a feminist?<
If you don’t happen to know the verb "to vajazzle", it involves having a bikini wax taking off most or all of your pubic hair. This is followed by diamante crystals being glued onto the skin in the pubic region – usually in the shape of a heart, star, or word.
You may imagine my initial disgust at the topic. Equal pay. Female Genital Mutilation. Women’s education. All paling in significance to the one big question: is it ethical to remove your pubic hair, and is it even less ethical to stick sparkles down there?
Perhaps unsurprisingly Dawn Porter, a heavily fringed TV presenter, responds "YES" to vajazzling while on the other side of the plainly laid-out page of Cosmo in an equally-sized box (in yet another shade of yellow) comes the resounding "NO" of Kate Smurfwaite, feminist campaigner.
The debate on either side concerned whether waxing causes one to appear perversely but permissively child-like, whether the ‘male’ mind has been conditioned against being attracted to women that have not undergone pain to look a particular way, the cost of a monthly wax (conveniently punctuated with the latest issue of Cosmo) eating into a girl’s already gender-diminished salary, the time, the embarrassment, the pressure from the porn and the regrowth.
And that list is by no means exhaustive, both sides asserting their judgements as intrinsically feminist and thereby intrinsically good.
Here lies the problem that I feel confronts feminism as a whole: we have long fought for equality, the vote, freedom of speech, and the freedom to do with our bodies what we wish. Having to ask the approval of other people to vajazzle, even fellow feminists, strikes me as a big step backwards. It is true that if all feminists were to work individually – decide on the ethics of vajazzling for themselves – there would be a vast difference in the conclusions that differing feminists come to. However, I believe that all feminists are created equal. There is some essential component of what it is to be a feminist that escapes definition though it surfaces in the questions that are asked of women in their everyday lives.
The fact that vajazzling has entered the arena of feminist discussion says to me that feminism is at its heart a collective movement. The same questions are still being asked. "Is the quest for beauty oppressive to women?" is merely transformed into, "Is a vajazzle a beautiful thing to behold on a free woman, or simply a sparkly symbol of her oppression?"
Of course, that argument sequence is very reductive and the relationship between beauty and oppression is a very complex issue. Recent "Slut Walks" in the UK attempted to combat the myth that rape and sexual violence towards women may be provoked or augmented by "slutty" clothing. Signs painted with "My little black dress is not a yes" and "My clothes are not my consent" stated clearly the collective opinion of these feminists; that women should have total rights over their own bodies. How they wish to dress themselves and their consent to sexual contact is unrelated.
Yet the seemingly trivial question of vajazzling is being asked specifically in a UK women’s magazine. What about the questions being asked of women in other cultures? Can a woman living in the Middle East wear a burka and be a feminist? Can Indian women use cosmetic skin whiteners and be feminists? Can Japanese women undergo eyelid surgery (slicing their mono-lid into two to appear more westernized) and be feminists?
Though some of these questions may relate more to beauty and ethnicity, they all concern the many pressures that are put upon women to conform to the ideals of beauty within their culture. The very fact that cultures vary means that feminism as a collective is a series of branches. The branch on which I live asks me to make an ethical decision concerning the removal or non-removal of my pubic hair.
Though the answers to the big questions may not be agreed upon and even the questions themselves modified according to audience, I feel that it is ultimately within the rights of the individual feminist to act according to her own reasoning.
My vajazzle is neither my freedom nor my chain.