I came of age in the ‘90s, a decade when actress Kathy Bates prompted many young women to come face-to-face with our pussies. Bates inspired our self-examination by playing the character Evelyn Couch, a middle-aged Southern white lady on a journey of self-empowerment. Evelyn’s storyline was one of several that the filmakers of “Fried Green Tomatoes” wove together and in an iconic scene, Evelyn participates in a workshop geared at wives. Once the workshop leader announces that participants will use mirrors to scope out their vulvas, Evelyn leaves.
As an adolescent tomboy femme, I found this move cowardly, and the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to be the anti-Evelyn: I’d face my pussy! What was the big deal? How scary could a pussy be? I knew mine had hair but I was pretty sure it didn’t have teeth.
I marched to the bathroom and rooted for my mother’s gaudy handheld mirror, the one with a peacock preening on its non-reflective side. After spritzing the glass with cleaner and polishing it, I took it to my bedroom and shut the door. I wriggled out of my bike shorts, tossed them on my bed and sat on the rust-colored carpet, legs eagerly spread. I lowered the mirror, suspending it between my legs, and beheld a surprise.
Uh-oh, I thought. Isn’t it supposed to be…pink?
My pussy’s pigmentation shook me. It looked unlike the pussies an elementary school classmate had shown me. I’d seen these on an afternoon we’d spent drawing and flipping through comic books in her bedroom. She interrupted these activities to announce, “Hey, come to the bathroom with me. I wanna show you something.”
Intrigued, I followed her.
“Close the door,” she said. “And lock it.”
I obeyed as she dove into the sink cabinet, emerging with magazine-laden arms.
“These are my dad’s,” she whispered.
She sat on the bathmat, paging through one. Unsure of what to do, I grabbed a copy of Playboy and mimicked her. I had never seen so many naked ladies! Playboy after Penthouse after Hustler held buffets of women twisted into every conceivable pose, pretzels included, and some of the magazines didn’t bother showing the whole lady. These publications featured crotches, holes and flaps that were meat-like in their presentation. Had I not known what I was looking at, someone could’ve easily convinced me that I was looking at ham.
My pussy deviated from this pornography. The crotches my classmate showed me were mostly hairless. They shared the same color palette: Vanilla cream inner thighs always led to bubblegum pink labia.
I set Mom’s mirror down, put on my shorts, and darted back to the bathroom. I grabbed a washcloth and lathered my pussy with soap, scrubbing it, hoping to remove the dark brown stain that bloomed between my legs. Once my crotch felt raw, I returned to my bedroom to see if my efforts had excavated a pristine vulva.
Nope. They had not. Now, my light brown inner thighs transitioned to irritated dark brown lips. As my shock subsided, embarrassment replaced it. I wasn’t the badass I thought I was. I was worse than Evelyn. My anatomy had indeed proven to be too much for me to handle. Shame replaced my embarrassment, and in an attempt to erase the darkness, I squeezed my knees together.
That was my first experience with female genital shame and I’ve spoken to many racially minoritized women about how patriarchy uses pussy shame to disempower and control us. One Latina shared with me a horror story about a group of young white men she overheard plotting. They planned to peak at the genitals of an Asian woman who’d passed out. They wanted to check if her labia were vertical or horizontal. A Palestinian woman told me that in Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport, a female agent ordered her to strip in front of several male soldiers. Once she was naked, the Israeli group mocked her genitals, laughing as they repeatedly accused her of being “a hairy Arab whore.” A Black woman confided that when she was a teen, a white boy messaged her to request a picture of her “vagina.” When she asked why, the boy answered that he’d heard Black girls’ genitals look like “roast beef.”
Racialized pussy shaming is a corollary of female genital mutilation. By denying our pussies pride and pleasure, shaming projects perpetuate, maintain, and strengthen white supremacist heteropatriarchy. These practices distinguish genital pride and pleasure as goods unintended for those of us with racially minoritized pussies and ultimately, pussy shaming projects serve to crush our autonomy. Under such regimes, pussies of color become problems, ones that must be solved by those who are not problems.
An anecdote told to me by a Latina demonstrates the aforementioned dynamic. This Latina explained that when she was a teen, her mother took her to a gynecologist for her first pelvic exam. As the doctor peered between her legs, he noted the “hyperpigmentation” around her vagina, informing her that “mixed girls” often have this “unsightly issue.” Racial capitalism, of course, offers a solution to our condition: “intimate skin whitening,” otherwise known as vaginal bleaching. Whitening services are in high demand. As of 2018, the global skin lightening products market size was valued at 8.3 billion US dollars.
2017’s Women’s March provided a rare moment during which white supremacy’s cult of pink could be seen parading through cities across the United States. As I marched in Los Angeles, I cringed at the many white women I saw with bright pink knitted pussy caps plopped on their heads. They look like they’re wearing hysterectomies, I thought to myself. The other thing I thought was, That is not what my pussy looks like. Mine is BROWN. When I’ve mentioned to white women that those hats only reflect their anatomy, many rebuff my critique.
“Our insides are all pink!” some have snapped. Other white ladies have been even more assholish about it. “They’re meant to be cat ears,” these contrarians have argued.
Bullshit. The whole world knows they are white lady cooch beanies.
Should our current president be re-elected in November, women will, perhaps, stage another march. If I attend, I won’t be wearing my panocha on my head. You might, however, catch me snacking on papaya.