The hottest new spa service takes the quest for perfect skin to a new place. Alex Kuczynski bravely investigates.
I went for a beauty treatment the other day. The aesthetician used an array of products by Yon-Ka and Sonya Dakar-exfoliants and cleansers and masks-and all the regular tools: tweezers, lancets, cotton pads. There was just one thing that was different: It was not my face getting the facial, it was my vulva.
Many years ago, back when my marriage was new, before we had two babies, there were days when I would dance off to get a bikini wax as if it was no big deal. I could blame something vague and anthropological like the influence of pornography on American culture. I could blame Eve Ensler and all those monologues. (Coochi Snorcher, anyone?) But I personally place all the blame on my friend Candace Bushnell, the author of Sex and the City. Because of her, the bikini wax somehow stealthily warped itself into one of the required grooming routines of the urban female.
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You all know I'm not talking a little trim around the edges here. I'm talking one of the thorough Brazilian jobs, during which a tiny nut-brown woman would push my ankles up past my ears and pause in her Portuguese recitation of the Lord's Prayer just long enough to grit her teeth and whisper, "Now, breathe," before-with a loud huzzah!-she pulled a six-inch strip of wax off of body parts that had not seen daylight since my last diaper change in 1970.
In the last few years, emboldened by the first spelunkers to manicure the masses down there, beauty marketers have leaped onto your genitalia. Now we have dye for your labia to replace skin color lost with age (My New Pink Button "restores sexual confidence to women everywhere") to join the dye for your pubic hair (Betty, which comes in eight colors). Bleach for the parts that should probably not be bleached. Hair-transplant surgery for those who feel sparse. Initials that can be applied with eyelash glue. For those who worry that their labia flap like wings or who fret that their husbands feel like they're throwing tennis balls down bowling alleys, there's vaginal-rejuvenation surgery. Earlier this year, I watched in queasy horror as Jennifer Love Hewitt described to George Lopez how she'd had her vulva vajazzled, a process in which all the pubic hair is removed and replaced with an ornamental set of-as she described it-stick-on Swarovski crystals. Lopez looked frighteningly wolfish and distracted, like he was about to tear her dress off in a sensual trance. Hewitt teased him about her "disco ball." It was, in a word, unsettling.
Even if you are not bedazzling your vulva, all this aesthetic activity down there-not to mention the basic biological to and fro-means that those defacing Mother Nature are going to have to pay the price. We have earned ourselves the facial for the vulva.
Various salons call it different things-the Peach Smoothie, the vagacial-but the procedure is about the same as a facial for your face. I volunteered for duty, considering the fact that I was at least one childbirth away from a bikini wax and I closely resembled Gustave Courbet's painting The Origin of the World. (Google it. Or, better, don't.)
The Peach Smoothie at Manhattan's Haven day spa in SoHo is performed two weeks after a waxing. I returned for my vagacial with a little trepidation. I'm the kind of person who feels guilty getting a facial on my face-apologizing during the mask application for my spider veins, leaving giant guilty tips to excuse my clogged pores-so imagine my anxiety about some poor woman poking around my vulva. (The vagacial should, of course, be called the vulvacial, since the procedure takes place on only the outside of the body, not the inside, where the vagina, or sheath in Latin, is located, but it's a bit more euphonic to say vagacial, so the female anatomy gets mislabeled-sigh-again.) I showered several times before my appointment.
Atrim Polish woman named Marta greeted me in the salon waiting room, where I fiddled nervously while tea lights flickered and a meditation sand play box sat unreachable behind the doors of a glass cabinet. In our treatment room, I disrobed and reclined. Marta was basically going to give me a facial, she explained, just on another part of my body. "My elbow?" I asked hopefully. She pressed on.
Unlike a regular facial, where you are encouraged to close your eyes and are not a party to the horrors of buffing and extracting and peeling-in denial of any association with those wrinkles and pores-your eyes are open in this case and you and the therapist can have, oh, long conversations about the state of your vulva. Have you ever seen that movie How to Get Ahead in Advertising, in which Richard E. Grant grows an extra head on his shoulder and it's always talking back? This was kind of like that. The kitty was unleashed. It was anthropomorphism with a twist: feminomorphism. Genital transubstantiation. Something weird was going on.
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"Do you normally use an exfoliant?" she asked my vulva as she performed a mild cleansing under the bright aesthetician's light.
Vulva, I wondered, how do we respond to her?
"Um, there?" I asked, looking toward a place on my body that had been seen since 2000 by only my husband, my obstetrician, and a couple of maternity-ward nurses-and even then it had been swabbed in Betadine. "I would say, generally speaking, no."
After cleansing, Marta applied a triple-action organic scrub, then cleansed again. She looked for eruptions. Reader, I am happy for your sake to report there were none. "Some women get terrible acne," she said. "You grab the hair, and once you get rid of it and all the pus and inflammation, you use a high-frequency wand to destroy the bacteria."
We had arrived at the portion of the Peach Smoothie where ingrown hairs are addressed. "Thank God," I mumbled to the ceiling. "I don't have any ingrown hairs." Oh, but Vulva had other plans.
"Look at all these ingrown hairs!" Marta said with a giddy clap of her hands. She got to work plucking and picking and springing free the tiny curled buds, then tweezing them away. She applied a dab of Prince Reigns, a serum that prevents ingrown hairs and razor bumps and also helps with discoloration and hyperpigmentation.
As an add-on, Haven also offers the Baby's Bottom, which cleanses, exfoliates, and uses an acid peel to rid your buttocks of acne, scars, and bumps. I'm not going there.
How necessary is a facial treatment for your vulva? If I didn't wax, it wouldn't be necessary, because there probably wouldn't be any ingrown hairs, accompanied by the potential for acne. Dermatologists freeze when I tell them I've been to a certain spa for a bikini wax, then start lecturing me about all the infections I could contract. Other detractors argue that we ought to leave well enough alone; the vagina is a perfectly pH-balanced, self-cleansing biological zone, so why mess with Mother Nature? Why remove the hair and pretend our vulva needs a facial?
Part of it is what Janet Jakobsen, a professor of women's studies at New York's Barnard College, calls the Sex and the City paradox. "You are simultaneously totally objectified and more empowered than you used to be," she says. Objectified because we're prostrating our bodies on some pedestal of misogynistic, almost pedophiliac-like desire, creating a false kind of perfect woman whose beauty and polish can be attained only after hours and weeks of personal grooming and high-end hygiene. Empowered because it's all marketed to us as some sort of self-improvement.
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Yet another part of the vagacial's attraction is that it is one of those services that can be perceived as a high-end beauty treatment but is a luxury most of us can afford. (At Haven, the Peach Smoothie is $50, while a serious facial for your actual face starts at $145.) "As a personalized luxury experience, what better place to spend the money than your body?" Jakobsen asks.
After Marta had patted me down and given me a list of products I might be interested in for my vulva, I dressed and chatted with her about the popularity of the procedure.
"Women get acne everywhere," she said, "and so we do need something to address that problem. For some women, it's very bad. They probably shouldn't even be waxing," she said, pronouncing it "vack-sink." She shrugged her delicate shoulders. "But what can I say? It's part of the culture now. They feel they have to do it."
And my vulva and I packed up and walked home.
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Reprinted with permission of Hearst Communications, Inc.