How Kim Kardashian’s latest nude photos are breaking taboos around women’s vaginas

On Jan. 1 of last year, in an underwater lair on the Marshall Islands or wherever the inner workings of the Internet are located, it was decreed by unanimous consensus by the elders of the Internet that 2014 would be the Year of the Booty.

It was the year that two separate pop anthems about asses—J.Lo and Iggy Azalea’s “Booty” and Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass”—climbed the top of the charts. It was the year that Kim Kardashian attempted to #BreaktheInternet with her booty-centric Paper magazine cover shoot. And it was the year that both Nicki Minaj and New York magazine separately penned odes to a sex act most popular in pornography and men’s penitentiaries.

But one month into 2015, it seems that the times, they are a-changing. Sports Illustrated has made headlines by featuring model Hannah Davis’ pudendum on the swimsuit cover. Gwyneth Paltrow, that icy icon of one-percenter femininity, made a public plea for women to start steaming their vaginas. Even us plebes got in on the act, with a 74-year-old woman receiving a “vagacial” (or “vagina facial”) on British television. And none other than the ultimate arbiter of cultural relevance, La Kardashian herself, has done yet another nude magazine cover shoot where she displays not her trademark backside, but her labia majora.

If 2014 was the Year of the Ass, 2015 is on track to be the Year of the Vagina. So it is written, and so it shall be.

To be fair to the vagina, this is not the only year it has ascended in cultural prominence. A quick Google search indicates that BlogHer declared 2012 the Year of the Vagina following the release of Naomi Wolf’s eponymous—and very bad—history of the organ. A year later, actress Rashida Jones also declared 2013 to be an Annum Vulvae, but she didn’t mean it as a compliment: She used the term in a Glamour op-ed decrying Miley Cyrus’ and Rihanna’s racy music videos, chiding, “If 1994 was the Year of O.J.’s White Bronco, 2013 was the Year of the Very Visible Vagina.”

If 2014 was the Year of the Ass, 2015 is on track to be the Year of the Vagina. So it is written, and so it shall be.

But lately, it seems the vagina (this word will be used interchangeably with the more accurate “vulva” in this piece, so it is written and so it shall be) has been dominating our collective cultural consciousness. While the word hasn’t quite transcended the status of fourth-grade schoolyard punchline, if the giggly response to Paltrow’s steam treatment was any indication, it’s received much more attention and been much more normalized than it has been in ages past.

Think about it: While we spent nearly a year recovering from the shock of Janet Jackson’s 2004 Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction (we were so terrified of talking about her nipple that we even came up with a cute term for it, a “wardrobe malfunction”), we can put Kim Kardashian’s labia or a supermodel’s pudendum on the cover of a nationally circulated sports magazine, and no one bats an eyelash.

Natural pubic hair, while still not something you can show on Instagram, is in the midst of a years-long comeback, to the point where you can see it on store window mannequins for American Apparel. There’s even a small cottage industry for smart pelvic floor exercisers like the kGoal and the Elvie, gadgets that serve dual functions as medically-approved health devices and personal sex toys. We’re even at a point in vagina awareness where formerly A-list actresses like Paltrow have a platform as a certified yoni expert, despite the fact that vaginal steaming sounds like something you’d joke about with your girlfriends during your junior year at a Missouri commune.

So what’s driving this new surge of pussy power? As wont as we are to credit pretty much everything trendy to the Internet, it’s tough to attribute the cultural ascendancy of the vulva to any other source. Due to the lack of discussion and sex education surrounding the female anatomy, vaginas have traditionally been considered a source of shame and stigma, with people referring to them as smelly, hairy, floppy, angry-looking, gross. Even vagina owners themselves have fallen victim to the trap of vaginal self-loathing. Google “i hate my vagina” and you’ll get one sad story of needless shame and sexual dysfunction after another.

As a result of this stigma, if you search Yahoo Answers for the most common questions women have about their own vaginas, the result is pretty shocking. “Where is my vagina hole?” one woman asks. “How do I make my vagina smell good?” posits another. The list of questions women have about something they’ve been carrying between their legs since birth goes on and on and on.

In one particularly poignant thread, a 16-year-old Australian girl who has never had sex before asks if the “flaps that stick out of vagina”—i.e., her labia minora—are normal. Apparently, this question was prompted by a cousin, who had seen her vagina while she was changing and pointed out it was “not normal.” “Please i can’t talk to my mum or dad or go to the doctors can u tell me if this is normal,” she writes. “I am scared it’s going to affect me having sex when I’m older because i don’t want anyone to see it.”

We can put Kim Kardashian’s labia or a supermodel’s pudendum on the cover of a nationally circulated sports magazine, and no one bats an eyelash.

When I came across this Australian girl’s question on Yahoo Answers, I thought back to when I was 16, and what my relationship with my own vagina was like. Though I was sexually active, I would not let my then-boyfriend see me naked with the lights on, nor would I let him go down on me except following hours of intense negotiation. Had I applied my negotiation skills from getting out of receiving oral sex to a career in entrepreneurship, I probably would’ve made a lot of money on Shark Tank by now.  

The reason for this was because I had had a similar experience to this Australian girl: When I was in ninth grade, I had been changing once in front of my mom on a family vacation, and she had made me go to the gynecologist because she thought there was something “weird” about my vagina. (After about thirty seconds in the stirrups, my gyno, bless her heart, closed my legs and told me there was nothing wrong with me, and that my mother was insane.)

Yet despite the fact that the normativeness of my vagina had been validated by the ultimate source (i.e., someone whose job it was to look at hundreds of vaginas a day), I, like most women, still felt disgusted by my own anatomy. I had been sexually active for about five years before I realized that if none of my partners had filed any formal complaints about my vagina, I probably had no reason to either.

Like most young women, my understanding of the female anatomy was clouded in mystery and confusion, so I sympathized with the Australian girl asking about her labia. But since I came of age in the pre-Facebook, post-Friendster age of the Internet, I had had little frame of reference for how “normal” my anatomy was. This girl, however, had an enormous support system of anonymous women on Yahoo Answers to validate her.

“You are normal. Labia’s come all kinds of different shapes and sizes,” one of these women on the thread wrote. Another chimed in, “I don’t think there are any guys who don’t like them. If in future you ever meet such a guy, well, he’s an @sshole and you’re well rid of him.”

The Internet is blamed for a lot of things: The decline of marriage, rising STD rates, the fact that teens spray graffiti in California national parks. However, one thing it does not get enough credit for is the role it has played in normalizing and universalizing human sexuality. We spend so much time focusing on misogynybullying, and sexual harassment of women on the Internet that we forget there is an enormous wealth of resources dedicated to making women feel comfortable with their bodies.

Some, like Yahoo Answers, are informal and poorly regulated; others, like WebMD, have a more technical bent. Tumblrs like the Beauty of Vaginas and the Large Labia Project (NSFW), which feature close-up shots of vaginas as a way to showcase all shapes and sizes of labia, skirt the line between female empowerment and prurience. Others, like free online porn, are a double-edged sword: Depending on the type of material you come across, it can either make you feel better about your body or worse.

No matter what your vagina looks, smells, tastes, or even sounds like, there is nothing weird, gross, or aberrant about it. 

Regardless, if you are a woman on the Internet, it’s never been easier to find the message that I was so desperately looking for in my own teenage years: that no matter what your vagina looks, smells, tastes, or even sounds like, there is nothing weird, gross, or aberrant about it. Kim Kardashian showing off her shaved vulva on a magazine cover isn’t necessarily an explicit endorsement of that idea, but it’s significant nonetheless, given that ten or fifteen years ago, we would never have seen a vulva in a non-pornographic magazine to begin with.

After decades of fighting for gender equality, we are at a point in the feminist movement where it’s never been easier to be a functioning member of society while simultaneously having a vagina. This year, let’s work to ensure that it’s never been cooler to have a vagina. Let’s make sure it’s a must-have accessory, like a slouchy hat or a hobo satchel or the stainless steel nozzle blasting the combination of “infrared and mugwort steam” that Gwyneth Paltrow regularly sprays her undercarriage with. Let’s make 2015 an Annum Vulvae, so the vagina gets the spotlight it deserves. 

Photo by zennie62/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)