A Magazine Reader is a workshop in which a fashion magazine (mainstream, high–end) is being dissected, critically analyzed from various perspectives and put together again in an alternative form. The material from the magazine is used to create a new zine that gives insight into the cultural power and forms of value production that’s at the core of fashion media. Re-reading the magazine by analyzing the words, images, materiality, items and strategies of the specific magazine, changes the way we read fashion. The zine will be published in Amsterdam, NL in Nov 2021.
Hairy beavers and heavy brainwashing in Harper’s Bazaar
This article explores the subliminal messages in the pages of magazines and the ironic fact that we have to fight a battle to claim back our cunts.
The first thing I saw as I opened the November 2020 issue of Harper’s Bazaar – a fashionable model, gracefully posing in front of a gaping snatch.
What?!? Did I accidentally shop in the pornographic section? I double checked the cover. No just a normal fashion magazine.
Of course, the shape in question was not literal female genitalia, but the pink padded felt chamber surrounding the model unnervingly appeared to be just that. Why would they print such salacious content in a mainstream publication?
The salmon-coloured sticky notes in my hands or the rose-coloured outfits of the actress in the featured article might have had an influence on me fixating on caverns of ‘binnepoes pienk’ (an Afrikaans word literally translated to inside vagina pink). It’s also worth mentioning that I paid a visit to the gynaecologist that morning so had vajayjay’s on the brain. Regardless, on almost every page of the Harper’s Bazaar, I was bombarded by the allegorical shapes and colours of coochies.
Once engrossed in the shape I couldn’t unsee it. I saw labia enclosed within the folds of jackets. I saw gaping open holes formed by ballooning ballgowns. The curves of bracelets tracing the outlines of ovaries. Bows puffed up like clitori and hairdos styled like golden pubic triangles. Less subtlety the magazine featured the work of an artist that described her work as chaste eroticism. She paints female forms playfully hidden in minimalist flowers.
Ros Bramwell, in an article for the journal Sexual and Relationship Therapy1, analyzed 10 glossy female magazines and found that “in pictures of women naked or in tight clothes, the pubic area is usually obscured in some way, or represented as forming a smooth curve between the thighs.”
If the norm is to style all women like Barbies, why was this Harper’s Bazaar so heavy on fleshy flaps?
The yonis plastered on the pages as prolifically as the phallus appeared in ancient Greek, Roman and Egyptian art, made me suspicious as to the intent of this subliminal exposure. Was the Harpers Bazaar’s employing its own version of the Ludovico technique (the aversion therapy administered to the protagonist in Anthony Burgess’s Clockwork Orange in an attempt to indoctrinate and placate him) 2? Are they on a mission to change our ideology; to supplant the traditional male/female power dynamic? Are they preaching freedom through sexuality? What was the end game in bombarding us with images of our girly bits as ‘sex sells’ is hardly an appropriate trope for the 2020s?
This made me think about the mixed messages fashion magazines contain.
Harper’s Bazaar was packed with words plucking at our emotional heart-strings like “Sophisticated silhouettes”, “Newly reinvigorated” and “Girls are superheroes”. Even though these phrases and messages sound uplifting, the insinuation is that we need to stive for more, which means there is a cultural belief that we are not good enough as we are. Are magazines really selling us empowerment?
Our obsession for self-improvement was unintentionally shaped by entities in an attempt to empower us. By intellectualizing life through psychology and philosophy humanity has essentially problematized normality. Eva Illouz’s book, ‘Cold Intimacies: The Making of Emotional Capitalism’ explores the arc of our indoctrination. Excerpts from the book outlines how “Freud systematically blurred the boundary between normal and pathological and posited a new kind of normality, an open-ended project, an undefined and yet powerful goal for the self”. It also mentions Abraham Maslow and his “idea that there is a need for self-actualization that led him to offer the hypothesis, namely that fear of success is that which prevents a person from aspiring to greatness and self-fulfillment.” Even feminism and therapy had good intentions when they paved the road to our personal introspective hell. “Therapeutic discourse, like feminism, constantly encouraged women to synthesize two contradictory sets of values, namely care and nurture on the one hand, and autonomy and self-reliance on the other. These values, when properly synthesized, would constitute emotional health and political emancipation. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, both feminism and therapy shared the idea and the practice of converting private experience into public speech” 3.
As soon as our private thoughts become public domain, we surrendered our agency to external forces such as marketers and promotors. We equipped them with the tools to capitalize on our insecurities and flaws. Distance from our emotions – viewing them in an objective light – turned them into commodities and now everything we touch read and feel has been optimized to make us believe we are not good enough – because being happy and comfortable with your imperfections doesn’t sell. The integrity of our looks has been under attack for decades, but Harper’s Bazaar was so flagrantly heavy on genital symbolism that it felt like sinister clandestine manipulation was at work.
It seemed like the battle for self-help and self-improvement, satiated with objectifying our bodies, had shifted south – and now our nether regions were under attack.
Why was Harper’s Bazaar trying to focus our attention down there?
In a culture obsessed with penis and testicle size we blush when uttering the word vagina and when we do, we are usually talking about the vulva. Men touch their dicks every day, but women almost never touch our vulvas. We have a less tactile relationship with our pussies and traditionally we were also taught to be shy of our sexuality. This is why we still speak about the vagina in inaccurate, misleading ways. According to Healthline, “there wasn’t even a medical term for the female sexual passage until around the 1680s. Before then, the Latin word ‘vagina’ referred to a scabbard or sheath for a sword. So it shouldn’t be surprising that in the medical realm, the vagina and other female reproductive parts were long viewed as mysterious, and even treacherous, bits of anatomy” 4.
Western medicine and science have also been complacent in myth creation and a lot of awful bogus ideas. A 2018 exhibition by the Royal College of Nursing “showcased a series of strange, sometimes disturbing objects used in women’s healthcare. From pink pills to help women with so-called hysteria, to vaginal douches to keep them ‘clean’, the historical displays show how gynaecology has often been dominated by superstition and ignorance”.5
This is why many women, especially minorities and transgender women who have suffered even worse maltreatment, justifiably mistrust the ways conventional doctors address their concerns and treat their pain.
The internet has opened up a new avenue for discovering answers. Today, women can find more information about their bodies than ever before, but that also means they’re bombarded with more negative and inaccurate messages. There’s so much misinformation on the internet.
Judy Norsigan, one of the publishers of ‘Our Bodies, Ourselves’6 has much to say about how uninformed women are about their pelvic areas. “Women today get the idea that you have to look like they do in porn, so they’re shaving and altering the vaginal area”, Norsigian says.
Vaginal rejuvenation is a hot surgery now.
“Women also often don’t understand about menstrual health and urinary tract infections or they don’t even know they have two different orifices!”
“Women’s magazines and many health-oriented websites don’t help, promoting nonsensical ideas like ‘how to get your best summer vagina ever’ and normalizing cosmetic procedures and surgeries that serve to shame women into thinking their perfectly normal vulvas aren’t attractive enough” 4.
No real estate in Harper’s Bazaar was overtly assigned to showcasing or peddling labiaplasty (a plastic surgery procedure for your labia minora)7 or other vaginal remedies, but a whole industry has been developed around priming us to feel inadequate. With a recipe favouring everyone complicit in the beauty and wellness industry, collusion on a universal scale subtly preaching self-doubt, enable brands to profit off us. “The feeling of insecurity is carefully cultivated, and it’s especially potent when a brand targets people who feel that their concerns and problems have been overlooked”8. When the hook is ‘Your problem matters,’ whatever pseudoscience you tout as fact will become a veritable course of treatment. Even damaging ones.
The obvious culprits are unnecessary invasive surgeries, but even alternative therapies chanting the brain-vagina connection can have detrimental effects. Yoni eggs, very popular of late, are heavy crystals eggs that are supposed to be kept inside your vagina for extended periods of time. A workout, consisting of reps of contracting and releasing your vaginal muscles around the egg, is supposed to strengthen your pelvic floor. Clenching your biceps all day won’t make them bigger and applying that logic to your vagina will potentially lead to fatigue or intensification of other painful symptoms. The crystal the eggs are crafted from is also porous and difficult to clean properly. Which means by inserting them you can put yourself at risk for infections like toxic shock syndrome and bacterial vaginosis.9
And then there is vaginal steaming.
Steam, on your delicate labia. Come on ladies!
The likelihood for disaster is high. Your skin or epidermis is much tougher than the delicate pieces of flesh comprising your labia. Are we so insecure about ourselves that we are willing to burn our sex organs off?
Get rid of douching and special soaps. The vagina is a self-cleaning organism and all it needs is admiration and your own personal brand of stimulation.
The wellness industry and female magazines like Harper’s Bazaar are oxymoronic entities. It’s selling us remedies with the obvious limitation that it cannot really resolve the stress, exhaustion and inadequacy that we feel. Their only endgame is cold hard cash – selling, upselling and reselling us the same bogus ideas, repackaged with a different tone, in a different context and pandering to the current zeitgeist. When not even our minges are taboo and have become the province of industry, it’s time to subvert the subjugation they wield have over us. Don’t let them steal your power. Love your vulva!
There are healthier ways to increase your awareness and sexual pleasure. It doesn’t have to be complicated or cost a fortune. My personal solution is doing it through craft.
Design a Vagina
There is no one ideal vulva. Your vulva and labia come in many different colours, shapes and sizes. The clean slit – the types of genitalia seen in porn are the least common type. If your vulva and vagina are clean and healthy – meaning there is no unusual smells, itching, discharge, change in colour or swelling – it’s perfect!
To the left is a spread-eagle graphic. Please feel free to draw or design your own vulva in the space between the legs. You can draw from memory. You can draw by doing research. I recommend that you hold a mirror to your beaver and then draw what you see.
Written on the buttocks and inner thighs, are some common characteristics of vulvas. If you are so inclined highlight the ones that apply to you or add more if your particular characteristics are missing – vulvas vary as much as snowflakes do! Say your qualities out loud and with pride. Wear them as a badge of honour. Let the appearances of your vulva become your new emotional lexicon.
Artist and bits
- Create your own sensual soliloquy like Eve Ensler did with Vagina monologues.10
- Get Cliterate with Sophia Wallace – Let your snatch ask the questions science isn’t!11
- Sketch it out and submit your clit to Hilde Atalanta’s Vulva Gallery.12
- A picture of your pussy might fit perfectly in Laura Dodsworth gallery, Womanhood.13
- Learn to secrets for priming, pruning and pleasure on Pussypedia.14
- Cultivate your gynecological curiosity. Pay a visit to London’s Vagina museum.15
- My inner lips are very prominent
- My inner lips are asymmetrical
- My vulva is really dark
- My clitoris is huge
- My clitoris sticks out
- My labia are really big
- My outer lips are curved
- My outer lips are very long
- My labia minora are 2cm longer than my labia majora
- My labia majora are very loose
- My vagina has a lot of extra skin
- My inner lips are enclosed by my outer lips
- My lips are small and open
- My labia minora and labia majora are the same size
- My lips are very thick
- My lips are very thin
- My labia look like a horseshoe
- My inner lips are protruding
- My folds hang outside of my underwear
- My labia minora are exposed
- My labia majora are slightly separated exposing my clitoris
- My vulva is very pink
- My labia look like long heavy curtains
- My clitoris is not showing
- My vulva looks like Barbie’s
- My vagina has changed with age
- My vagina looks like a tulip
Fold your way to fascination: Pornogami instructions
After inadvertently being exposed to pornography (which is perhaps not what you signed up for), let’s destress by engaging our hands and minds with the ancient practice of Origami. The collage (to the right) is comprised of some provocative images from Harper’s Bazaar. Let’s use fannies to fold a fanny. Follow the instructions on the back of this spread, instructions are from the book ‘Pornogami’ by Master Sugoi18. Origami stimulates other cognitive modalities like spatial visualization. As the design manifests, you should feel a sense of satisfaction. Coddle your paper cooter in your hands. Transfer that sense of achievement to your own fleshy twat. It’s something your body fashioned. It’s one of the most fascinating and magical orifices you have. An essential slit you use every day and responsible for transcendent pleasure. Take care and love every plump, hairy bit of it. If you feel cheeky, covet the real deal in your hands and love your vulva!
- Bramwell, R. (2002) Invisible labia: The representation of female external genitals in women’s magazines,Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 17:2, 187-190, DOI: 10.1080/14681990220121293
- Wikiedia.Org. (January 2017). Ludovico Technique. [Online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/?title=Ludovico_technique&redirect=no (Accessed: January 2021)
- Illouz, E. (2007) Cold Intimacies: The Making of Emotional Capitalism. Polity Press
- Engelhaupt, E. (January 2017). The Surprisingly, Very Brief History of the Vagina. [Online] Available at:https://www.healthline.com/health/vagina-history#_noHeaderPrefixedContent (Accessed: January 2021)
- Wikiedia.Org. (January 2017). Ludovico Technique. [Online] Available at: https://www.rcn.org.uk/library-exhibitions/womens-health-wandering-womb (Accessed: December 2020)
- Boston Women’s Health Book Collective. ( 2011). Our bodies, ourselves. New York: Simon & Schuster
- Taylor, E. (January 2017). The Quest for the Perfect V: Why Are More Women Seeking Vaginal Rejuvenation?[Online] Available at: https://www.healthline.com/health/vaginal-rejuvenation (Accessed: December 2020)
- Mull, A. (August 2019). I Gooped Myself. [Online] Available at:https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2019/08/what-goop-really-sells-women/596773/ (Accessed: December 2020)
- . (July 2019). Are Yoni Eggs All They’re Cracked Up to Be?. [Online] Available at:https://www.shethinx.com/blogs/speax-foreword/what-you-should-know-yoni-eggs (Accessed: January2021)
- Ensler, E. (2000). The vagina monologues.
- . (2012). Cliteracy. [Online] Available at: https://www.sophiawallace.art/cliteracy-100-natural-laws (Accessed: December 2020)
- Atlanta, H. (2016). The Vulva Gallery. [Online] Available at: http://www.hildeatalanta.com/thevulvagallery(Accessed: December 2020)
- Dodsworth. L. (2019). Womanhood. [Online] Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/resources/idt-sh/Why_I_Photographed_100_Vulvas (Accessed: January 2021)
- Pussypedia.Net. (n.d). Pussypedia. [Online] Available at: https://www.pussypedia.net (Accessed: January2021)
- Vagina Museum. (2019). [Online] Available at: https://www.vaginamuseum.co.uk(Accessed: January 2021)
- Lowen, L. (January 2020). Common Slang Words for Vagina[Online] Available at:https://www.liveabout.com/common-slang-words-for-vagina-3533814 (Accessed: December 2020)
- Noun Project Inc. (n.d). Icons and Photos for everything.[Online] Available at:https://thenounproject.com (Accessed: December 2020)
- Pornogami: A Guide to the Ancient Art of Paper-Folding for Adults. Green Candy.
- V. Braun & S. Wilkinson (2001) Socio-cultural representations of the vagina, Journal of Reproductive and Infant Psychology, 19:1, 17-32,DOI: 10.1080/02646830020032374
- Ellen Laan, Daphne K. Martoredjo, Sara Hesselink, Nóinín Snijders & Rik H. W. van Lunsen (2017) Young women’s genital self-image and effects of exposure to pictures of natural vulvas, Journal of Psychosomatic Obstetrics & Gynecology, 38:4, 249-255, DOI:10.1080/0167482X.2016.1233172
- McGrath, P. (November 2019). Five things everyone with a vagina should known [Online] Available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/health-50289607 (Accessed: December 2020)
- Borges, A. (April 2017). 16 Bad Vagina Habits You Should Ditch ASAP [Online] Available at:https://www.buzzfeed.com/annaborges/unhappy-vagina (Accessed: December 2020)
- Wikiedia.Org. (January 2017). Ludovico Technique. [Online] Available at: https://lioness.io/blogs/sex-guides/i-measured-my-orgasms-after-trying-yoni-eggs-a-how-to-with-data (Accessed: December 2020)
- Lioness.io. (December 2018). I measured my orgasm to see if yoni eggs actually worked[Online] Available at: https://lovemattersafrica.com/our-bodies/female-body/vagina-shapes-and-sizes-myth-buster (Accessed: January 2021)
- Glamour. (November 2020). 20 amazing facts about our vaginas we bet you didn’t know [Online] Available at: https://www.glamourmagazine.co.uk/gallery/vulva-vagina-facts-you-didnt-know (Accessed:January 2021)
- Urquhart, B. (March 2020). So apperantly there are nine types of vaginas, but which one do you have? [Online] Available at: https://thetab.com/uk/2020/02/17/nine-types-of-vaginas-women-have-144324(Accessed: January 2021)
- Hawkins, Kate & Lewin, Tessa & Cornwall, Andrea. (2011). Sexuality and Empowerment: An Intimate Connection. Pathways Policy Paper
- Wolf, N. (2012). Vagina: a new biography. Ecco: New York, NY.
- Harper’s bazaar. (November 2020). London: National Magazine Co. Ltd.