Journey with us as we travel back in time through the varied, harried, hairy and sometimes scary history of that womanliest of parts, the vagina. Let’s begin our journey …
1Prehistoric Punani, Paleolithic Period
The oldest known representations of the female form date back to 23,000 to 35,000 years ago. Hundreds of miniature Venus figurines, as they’ve been dubbed by archaeologists, have been unearthed across Europe and Asia. Are they fertility symbols? Realistic depictions of actual women? Idealized bodies? Experts aren’t sure. But the voluptuous carvings all share a few key traits: large breasts, wide hips and prominent vulva. Also of note, most don’t have faces.
2Bathing Beauties of the Old Testament
The ritual bath called a mikvah has been part of Jewish tradition from the Old Testament to the times of Jesus to today as a rite of purity. (We’re not talking literal bathing here; in fact, you have to scrub every inch of yourself before getting in.) The mikvah mainly serves married women, who, under Jewish law, are considered “ritually impure” during menstruation and have to submerge themselves in the bath seven days after the end of their periods. The law also says that during menstruation and the week following, a woman and her husband can’t have sex—and are discouraged from doing anything that might lead to it, including direct physical contact. Mikvahs, though still around (there are over 300 in the U.S.), are not as popular these days as they used to be. Shocker.
3Women Start Faking It, 15th Century
Long before going bare was a beauty treatment, it was a medical treatment—for crabs. Labial legend has it that, as far back as the mid-1400s, prostitutes shaved their pubic hair to prevent lice. But since the Brazilian wouldn’t come into fashion for another 600 years or so, ladies of the night used pubic wigs, or merkins, to cover their bald mounds, sticking them on with spirit gum. Far from fading into history, the modern-day merkin shares the spotlight with shy Hollywood actresses during nude scenes, is a must for many drag queens and is available in a variety of styles and colors online from vendors such as Hollywood Merkin, International Wigs and Max Wigs.
4Pussyfooting Around, 16th – 17th Centuries
In the buttoned up Elizabethan era, Shakespeare and his fellow bawdy bards had to get pretty creative in how they tackled certain subjects in print and on stage. Here, from Gordon Williams’s A Dictionary of Sexual Language and Imagery in Shakespearean and Stuart Literature, a selection of euphemisms for the female sex organ:
- Jelly bag or jelly box
- Nick, cut, chink, crack, gash, wound
- Terra icognita (Latin for “unknown land”)
5The Clitoris is Discovered, 1559
If any man is going to get credit for finding the clitoris, it’s Realdo Colombo, who first described the erogenous region in his 1559 book, De re anatomica (On Things Anatomical). He dubbed it “amor Veneris,” the love of Venus, and postulated that without it, women would not derive pleasure from sex (and therefore wouldn’t have children). Good man!
6The Original NSFW, 19th Century
It seems that the storied history of the chastity belt is just a story. That story says that medieval Crusaders would lock up their wives’ metal underpants before going to battle, bringing with them the only key, to ensure fidelity during their absence. Turns out, that’s a myth, based on symbolic art, literature and satire (like the 16th Century wood carving at left), and propagated over the last few centuries. And the artifacts from the Middle Ages you find in museums? Probably fakes. Indeed, according to researchers at Hungary’s Semmelweis Medical History Museum, chastity belts didn’t really show up until the 19th Century. During the Industrial Revolution in England and France, women were entering the workforce alongside men in factories and offices. The belts were intended to protect them from rape. They were also used to keep European and American middle-class adolescents from masturbating.
7Painted Lady, 1920s
Born in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, in 1887, Georgia O’Keefe entered the New York art scene when famed photographer Alfred Steiglitz (whom she would later marry) hung 10 of her charcoal drawings in his gallery in 1916. In the 1920s, she began painting large-scale color images of the centers of flowers, which were seen then, as now, as blatantly vaginal. Two decades later, O’Keefe responded to what she considered a wide misinterpretation of her work: “…You hung all your own associations with flowers on my flower and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower—and I don’t.” Indeed, though many are familiar with her desert landscapes and sun-bleached skulls, her legacy is etched as the woman who painted giant vagina flowers.
8Between the Covers, 1972
Alex Comfort, Ph.D., wrote that one of his aims in writing The Joy of Sex, published in 1972, was “to cure the notion, born of non-discussion, that common sex needs are odd or weird.” Devised as a “gourmet guide to lovemaking,” and modeled after the seminal cookbook Joy of Cooking, the book is divided into Starters, Main Courses and Sauces & Pickles, and drills down on topics such as standing positions, foursomes and moresomes, the Viennese oyster (use your imagination) and pubic hair. Indeed, with its 16 pages of full color artwork and over 100 black and white illustrations, The Joy of Sex is a veritable Bible of unkempt 70s bush.
9Up-Skirt Uproar, 1992
Sharon Stone and Michael Douglas costarred in the sexy thriller “Basic Instinct.” But Stone snatched the spotlight with her infamous interrogation-scene leg-uncrossing beaver shot. (Note: However many times the scene was eagerly pause-rewind-played on VHS, it’s downright quaint compared to the wave of Celebrities Getting Out of Cars crotch shots that would dominate internet headlines in the early 2000s. Lindsay, Tara, Britney, Paris: You’re no Sharon Stone.)
10Vaginas Take Center Stage, 1994
Eve Ensler became the veritable patron saint of vaginas the moment her play, The Vagina Monologues, hit the stage. Ensler interviewed more than 200 women about their vaginas to compile a series of first-person stories—funny, touching, terrifying, illuminating, orgasmic. The show had runs Off-Broadway and on London’s West End, and in the last 15 years has been performed in over 140 countries as part of Ensler’s V-Day movement to end violence against women.
11Landing Strips Land in the States, 1994
In the same year Eve Ensler exposed the world to vaginas, the J Sisters exposed vaginas to the world. The seven sisters from Brazil opened the first Brazilian bikini waxing studio in a tony townhouse in midtown Manhattan. By the end of the decade, celebrities like Gwenyth Paltrow and Kirstie Alley were waxing fanatic about the process, which would become de rigueur in the new millennium.
12“Vajayjay” Enters the Vernacular, 2006
We have “Grey’s Anatomy”‘s Dr. Miranda Bailey to thank for bringing us the word vajayjay — and Oprah to thank for making it the go-to way to talk about your genitals on television or anywhere else. Urban Dictionary made it the word of the day on December 1, 2007. Vajaj, vajooj and vajay all join the lexicon and pave the way for future iterations (see next slide).
13Jewel Boxes, 2010
I guess we should have seen it coming. The Bedazzling generation grew up, grew pubes, waxed them off and got bored. Enter: Vajazzling. Jennifer Love Hewitt christened the crystallization craze, revealing to the public that she was decorated down below with a Swarovski design. The every-woman could get rhinestoned at a salon, or order a DIY at-home kit. The UK’s Daily Mail reported a rise in hospital visits due to “misplaced sequins.”
14The World Spreads, 2012
Tumblr: The HQ of V. Large Labia Project (largelabiaproject.tumblr.com) joined Vaginas of the World (vaginasoftheworld.tumblr.com) as a place where women can upload and share pictures of their vaginas and celebrate the full labial spectrum. As Emma, the self-described meaty-lipped founder of Large Labia Project writes, “by adding your labia to the growing body of contributed photos on this site, you’ll be able to join with me and the other girls and let everyone else out there with fears, misgivings and even hatred towards their labia know that they are not alone, that they are normal, that they are beautiful, and that they have nothing to be worried about.”