Friday, 14 April 2017

The Sociology of the Camel Toe Knickers

Just when you thought you'd seen it all, along comes the latest in must-wear apparel: the camel toe knickers. I'm sure discerning women of whatever age will never be seen in anything else. This product is available on Amazon (though not presently in the UK - I've checked), but of interest their opposite number, the "Smooth Groove" which prevents the effect these knickers set out to advertise are yours for 22 quid. Given the incredible amount of time and effort most societies put into the observation, critique, and sanctioning of women's appearance and how bodies should be stylised and carried, what does the emergence of such a product have to say about the politics of gender and women's sexuality? Quite a bit.

Books shelves groan under the weight of titles and journals that have spilled ink on tracking, critiquing, and theorising the relationship between gender and sex. This blog periodically comments on it too. If there is a consensus, it is that the relationship between Western societies and what human beings have in their underwear is a fraught and ambiguous one. Fraught because, in recent centuries, clocking what a newborn baby had between their legs has an inescapable bearing on, well, everything. On your life chances, your upbringing, your relationships to virtually everyone you'll ever meet, the consequences of that classification of biological characteristics is so deep, thoroughgoing and fundamental that it appears taken-for-granted, natural and, until very recently, immutable. And ambiguous because the practices of femininity and masculinity Western cultures map onto them are contradictory and changeable internally, and interdependent and mutually constitutive of each other.

Unsurprisingly, just as the biological markers of sex are taken as the determination of gender, so the place genitalia occupy in received and conventional modes of gendered performance differ. With men, the jolly old meat and two veg is more out there. The cult of the penis casts a shadow over what it is and what it means to be a man, and particularly so (ironically) with straight men. It's the figurative seat of masculinity because it's the near-absolute focus of sex. Where it goes, what you do with it, how long for, and the number of women (or men) it comes into contact with all contribute to one's sense of self as a man. Small wonder dick pics are a oft-encountered hazard on dating sites for women. What do you look like? Dick pic. How do you like spending your free time? Dick pic. I've just joined, hello! Dick pic. If it doesn't measure up, so to speak, or is dysfunctional, not being able to perform in the bedroom (however one defines performance) can lead to/be a source of anxiety and, in some cases, exaggerated compensatory behaviours. Hence, even though men tend not to get it out and wave it around in front of other guys, willies are repositories of masculine performance and the locus of manly display.

The politics of the vagina are different. Traditionally, hegemonic notions of femininity were not about the genitals. In fact, it could be interpreted as a flight from them. The romantic ideologies of toys, magazines and films aimed at girls, through the practices of becoming a woman as filtered through make up, dressing, shopping, to the inculcation of care as the key feminine virtue, the apparatus of normative discourse and institutions on the surface almost position the ownership of a vagina as a secondary characteristic. Almost. In fact, it exercised an absent presence. It asserts itself as the unmentionable and, as such, it too was suffused with angst. The uneasy relationship between the refinement of femininity and an organ that bleeds, of poise and - for many - regular pain and discomfort. Of womanhood and cleanliness on the one hand, and the potential site of infection and illness on the other. And of femininity absolutely actively avoiding the pleasures of possession. Sex was a duty, the vulva a site for male pleasure, not one's own. This was how sex was framed in the feminine complex, and woe betide any girl or woman who eschewed its coy prescriptions.

Time waits for no woman, and what were private parts have now become public parts. The successes of the feminist movement almost entirely destroyed the feminine denial of sexual pleasure, whether at the hands of a partner or, ahem, yourself. Women's body autonomy, still a battleground in the ceaseless wars over sexed bodies, has enshrined the right to say no in the law and the right to say yes, yes, yes in popular culture. The right to have sex and the right to have good sex has, since the 1960s, become an increasingly important facet of the feminine. But like so many other achievements of progressive social movements, it has been incorporated into dominant flows of power and subjection, and has undergone commodification and repackaging. The acceptance of sex within hegemonic femininity coincides with the explosion of sexual anxiety. Just as men have performance worries, large numbers of women fret about their climax. The stress of premature orgasm for men finds its obverse in orgasm (forever) delayed in women.

With the convergence of genital angst around matters of sex, the vulva has come out from the trousers, the skirts, the undergarments, and the knickers and is newly visible. Women's bodies have gradually become more exposed as hemlines have headed upwards, sleeves retreated, and necklines have plunged, so the revealed skin plays hosts to zones patrolled by magazine columnists, celebrity watchers, and the wandering eyes of men ... and women. The passage of the swimming costume to swimwear, allied to hegemonic femininity's century-long war on body hair has allowed for new anxieties and new territories for the manufacturers of razors, depilatory cream, and the professional waxer. Perhaps this would have always happened, but porn has had a hand in pushing the visibility of the vagina too. First the easy availability of video cassette recorders and then the internet, its ease of access has had a number of consequences for sexuality as a whole. That visibility has also staked out even more territory for the aesthetics of the pubis. The variously stylised and displayed vaginas viewed by millions of men have generated new vectors of pressure on women's bodies. It's not just the glossies telling women they need to engage in this or that style of downstairs topiary, large numbers of women are managing men's expectations and preferences. And that is not all. As the vagina is ubiquitous, so hegemonic femininity itself has appropriated and decreed particular looks and shapes. Lo and behold, a burgeoning industry for the surgical alteration of a non-problem has bloomed into existence.

As femininity has shifted to accommodate and inculcate a genital sexuality for women, so men's bodies have come under the purview of waist down aesthetics. North America has always had a preoccupation with the utterly unnecessary practice of male circumcision simply because (they believe) it offers a better look. All those heaving vaginas in porn aren't always unaccompanied, and so, what you might describe as "male grooming", has become annexed by hegemonic masculinity as a permitted option and femininity also. As part of the changed sexual habitus of women, they too are now encouraged to develop the sorts of preferences men have for their genitalia. Waxed, shaved, styled, trimmed, untamed, tattooed, pierced, men, especially younger men, are increasingly encouraged and pressured into rocking a particular look.

This is where we return to the camel toe knickers. Most women aren't about to grace their smalls drawer with a pair. Yet had the vagina not been repositioned as the repository of women's sexual pleasure, if the mons pubis wasn't a zone of surveillance and a battlefield fought over by journalists, beauticians and surgeons, if its display and maintenance wasn't assiduously policed by culture and, consequently, presentations of the gendered self, then such a product would be unthinkable. Whether it's a progressive or regressive development I'll leave others to judge, but as well as producing a bulge of a particular dimension and shape, it says a great deal about where women's sexuality is today.

5 comments:

K Fearon said...

Refreshing to see what look like un-photoshopped images of the model in that article.

In the 70s, feminists were proud to be hairy and to consciously not conform with beauty standards (which didn't then include shaving genitals). Showing my age probably, but the mass acceptance of pornified standards of female beauty really depresses me. Although I guess removing pubic hair does make the clitoris much more visible and accessible to the camera.

I did wonder whether they originally designed these for trans women.

IainF said...

"North America has always had a preoccupation with the utterly unnecessary practice of male circumcision simply because (they believe) it offers a better look."

My son was born in a hospital in Houston, Texas while I was working there. I came under pressure from the health visitor to get him circumcised. She went on about the supposed health benefits. Are there any?

My wife and I resisted and didn't get it done.

Phil said...

There are no health benefits whatsoever. And the surgery undertaken to perform it does not come without risk.

K Fearon said...

Iain, it should tell you something that it was common practice in the UK from the mid-19th C to the 1950s. We dropped the practice without seeing a widespread increase in disease.

MikeB said...

The North American "preoccupation" with neonatal circumcision is more complicated than the purely cosmetic and shows how ideology can seep in to ostensibly "objective" medical judgement.

For example, a 2011 review in the highly-esteemed JAMA gives clear support to circumcision on health grounds, referring to an earlier report by the American Academy of Paediatrics. What the review doesn't point out, is that this report concludes that the evidence "is not sufficient to recommend routine neonatal circumcision". Similarly, reputable US-based websites such as WebMD offer opinions which whilst not actually lying, contrive to present pro-circumcision conclusions. The contrast with our dear old NHS Choices website is marked.

It doesn't take a Marxist ideologue to spot that infant circumcision offers a way of generating a little extra income for privately remunerated paediatricians, nor the significance of another point contained in the JAMA review - "... a ban on neonatal male circumcision denies religious freedoms to Jewish and Muslim parents..."