Sanitary product brand Libresse “Know Your V” campaign ads and products have been recalled in Malaysia after backlash from religious groups against their latest V-Kebaya Limited Edition range. The reason? It featured a modern interpretation of Nyonya kebaya floral designs with vulva-inspired motifs. YADIM Muslim Women’s Council (MAYA) chairperson Safinar Salleh said that using an image of a woman’s vulva on its sanitary products is a “dishonour to women” and “an exploitation of women’s bodies”. 

As a woman who is still trying to dismantle the shame I have towards my vulva and vagina, I have always applauded Libresse Malaysia for their creative and innovative ways of promoting and educating about women’s sexual health. In fact, the controversial “Know Your V” ad won “Ad of The Year” and “Best Ad in Personal Care & Health” at YouTube Works, an awards platform for YouTube advertisements for the most creative, compelling and effective campaigns. 

Why the sudden talk about vulvas and Libresse Malaysia?

If you’re wondering why Libresse Malaysia has been very vocal about the “v” lately, we might have your answer. Essity FemCare, the global hygiene and health company that Libresse is under, had just gone through a brand identity relaunch. According to their Global Marketing and Communications Director, Tanja Grubner, the relaunch is “another step in our commitment to our brand purpose – breaking vagina and vulva taboos so women can live the life they want without fear or shame”. One of the more prominent Libresse campaigns, “Viva La Vulva“, also won accolades of its own.

The controversial packaging on Libresse Malaysia’s products. Image: The Rakyat Post

Libresse Malaysia is not the only brand that has come forward with vulva and vagina awareness—many brands have advocated for vulva and vagina love for the past many years.

A decade ago, Mooncup had their “Love Your Vagina” campaign, which came with a cute little song of its own. This year, Callaly launched “We Need to Talk About Vulvas,” a campaign aimed to encourage #VulvaTalk and debunk the myth of the “perfect” vulva. Just earlier this month, an art exhibition by STRIP & TWO L(I)PS titled “Voyage to the Vulva-verse” showcased the creative exploration of the vulva as a subject. The United Kingdom even has their very own Vagina Museum.

Do we need vulva awareness like how Libresse Malaysia says we do?

On their website, Essity FemCare lists down upsetting truths about women sexual health, such as:

  • 9/10 women would hide their periods.
  • 55% of women believe their society thinks the female bodily discharge should be controlled as much as possible. This is to avoid smell and embarrassment. (This results in many women skipping their pap smear due to shame of how their vulva looks or smells)
  • 42% of women believe their society thinks women’s intimate parts should be kept firm and youthful.
  • Labiaplasty (surgery performed to alter the appearance of the labia) has increased by 217.3% over the past five years.

Ironically, the outcry from religious groups against the positive representation of the vagina and vulva is what contributes to the ongoing mentality that women’s genitalia is something to be ashamed of, which in turn births a generation of women who are ignorant about their vaginas, vulvas, and their sexual health. 

Many women, including myself, have skipped a visit to the gynaecologist due to the shame we have towards our vaginas. We put our lives at stake because we’re terrified of the judgement. Other women also took to Twitter to share stories about how they grew up uncomfortable with their lady parts.

 

That is why brands like Libresse Malaysia are working hard to make women understand that our vaginas and vulvas are perfect the way they are. By learning to love and understand our bodies, especially this intimate part of ourselves, we start making better and healthier decisions.

Apart from that, more women have started purchasing Libresse Malaysia products after the backlash to show their support for the brand, a prime example of the Streisand effect, and proof that women are seeking positive representations of our bodies.

Positive representation of the vulva in history

Now that we understand why we need vagina and vulva awareness, let’s talk about its representation and symbolism across history. Some cultures still view the vagina as shameful. Even the term pudendum, which means “a person’s external genitals, especially a woman’s”, comes from the Latin word pudenda, which means “that whereof one ought to feel shame”.

In the book, Geography of Thought by Richard E. Nisbett, our brains encode the perceptions that are given to us by our surrounding culture. Considering that Asian culture is still generally conservative, it is no wonder that a lot of Asian girls grow up to be women who are uncomfortable and ashamed of their vaginas.

The vagina has actually been revered across the millennia. Yep, that’s right. The vagina is considered sacred in many cultures and myths.

The representation of the vulva in religions

In Hinduism, yoni, meaning “abode,” “source,” “womb,” or “vagina”, is the symbol of the goddess Shakti. The yoni is conceptualised as nature’s gateway of all births, our cosmic source of life. The yoni is usually depicted with its masculine counterpart, lingam. Together they represent the divine eternal process of creation and regeneration.

 

Sheela Na Gig. Image: The Guardian

 

In Sumerian religion, Nin-imma is a fertility goddess and deification of the female sex organs. Her name derives from the Sumerian words nin meaning “goddess”, and imma meaning “water that created everything”. 

Of course, we cannot forget about the sheela na gigs. One can find these 11th and 12th-century figurative carvings display humans with exaggerated vulvas throughout most of Europe. While it was theorised to be a warning against the sin of lust, modern researchers are now leaning towards the idea that the sheela is a pre-Christian folk goddess and her vulva is a sign of life-giving powers and fertility.

A lot of women for so long are raised to view their vaginas as commodities instead of taking care of their vaginas for themselves, . It is a part of themselves they need to keep “pure” and “clean” for their partners. Historically, the vulva has been used to represent divine femininity and I think it’s time we brought back the reverence it deserves.

Let’s start loving our vaginas

Growing up in an Asian household, there was a lot of shame surrounding female sexuality and our vaginas. We were taught the basics such as periods and childbirth, sure. But vagina exploration was seen as inappropriate, even sinful. Sometimes, the use of tampons or menstrual cups are discouraged. This is because inserting something into our vaginas was believed to make us “impure”.

This stigma can affect our health if you’re too ashamed to visit a gynaecologist, schedule a pap smear, or acquire contraceptives. Coupled with feminine washes lining up shopping isles, and advertisements of vagina firming and whitening creams, it’s no surprise that many of us start viewing our absolutely normal and natural vaginas in a negative light.

Examples of Malaysian ads selling vagina tightening creams for women to “get their virginity back” to please their husbands.

How vagina confidence helped me

When I started loving my vagina, my periods became more tolerable. Understanding her externally and internally has also improved my mental health and well-being; I am less judgmental of myself and became more mindful of the things I consume. I am healthier and happier.

Vagina and vulva confidence has not only helped me. The work that brands and organisations have been doing to raise awareness on the effect of “vagina-shaming” on women’s sexual healthcare is providing positive results. Since 2017, labiaplasty has seen a 10.7% decrease in procedures performed. However, there are still many of us who are insecure about our vaginas. 

So, to answer the question: Do we really need campaigns about vulva and vaginas? Yes… We do. In the words of Libresse, “We’ll keep working as long as taboos still exist.

In the spirit of embracing our femininity and loving ourselves truly, I encourage you to take the first step in loving your vulva. Let’s bring back the reverence that our vaginas deserve. Talk about it with other women. Educate yourself and each other. I promise you, it will change your life for the better.

 

Who could forget this iconic scene in Sex Education Season 1 Episode 5?

Disclaimer: The vulva is the part of your genitals on the outside of your body — the labia, clitoris, vaginal opening, and the opening to the urethra. The vagina is a part of the vulva. In this article, we used the words ‘vagina’ and ‘vulva’ interchangeably.