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Around the world, women are bleaching — or lightening — their vulvas.
Sarah Lawrence for Vox

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The dangerous rise of vaginal lightening

You can have the “perfect” vagina, but it’ll cost you.

“This is a serious issue and I cannot allow anyone to make light out of it,” Eva Taub tells me. “To me it’s very serious, and to the thousands of women I see it’s very serious, and they cry and they are upset. As a woman, maybe, you can understand. It’s a real issue.”

Taub is a 63-year-old esthetician who emigrated from the former Czechoslovakia 33 years ago; her spa, Bay Harbor Med Spa, has locations in Atlanta and Miami Beach. She is also a popular YouTuber whose channel, the extremely straightforwardly named SkinCareChannel, has more than 100,000 subscribers.

It’s easy to see her appeal: With her dyed hair, chunky glasses, and thick Eastern European accent, Taub comes off like a slightly more cosmopolitan Dr. Ruth. Her uber-search-optimized videos offer tips on everything from laser hair removal to how to treat chapped lips.

Her most popular videos by far are about vaginal lightening, which involves using a specialized treatment to lighten the vulva or general bikini area. (It does not, as the term would seem to imply, lighten the vagina itself, which is located on the inside of the body.) Most practitioners treat the labia majora, or the external lips of the vulva; many people request lightening the labia minora, or inner lips, as well, though this is not recommended and many practitioners will not do it.

In her practice, Taub estimates that she gets four or five requests for the treatment per day; in terms of the popularity of the services she offers, she says it is a “50-50” split between vaginal lightening and laser hair removal. She’s seen the number of requests spike in the past few years due to her speaking openly about the subject on her YouTube channel. (Note: While women are not the only people with vaginas, the treatment is primarily marketed to women.)

Like many trends devoted to improving the aesthetics and overall performance of the vagina and the area surrounding it, from labiaplasty to Brazilian waxing to Gwyneth Paltrow-endorsed jade eggs, vaginal lightening is often attributed to the widespread prevalence of internet porn, as performers tend to have lighter, more compact vulvas.

“When you look at the porno industry, for the most part, you see Hungarian, Russian, Eastern European girls. They’re light-skinned girls with pink vaginas and anuses who’ve never had any babies,” Taub says. “Everyone wants that. Everyone wants a pink anus.”

But the truth about why so many people request vaginal bleaching — and why, as Taub recounts, it is a source of immense anguish for many — is more complicated and more distressing than that. There are also numerous safety risks. Generally speaking, the American Committee of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has taken a stance against the rise of genital cosmetic procedures, writing that people should “be informed of their potential complications, including infection, altered sensation, dyspareunia, adhesions, and scarring.”

It’s not uncommon for labias to darken with age, says Alyssa Dweck, a gynecologist in Westchester County, New York. “Women sometimes worry about the skid marks and war scars that occur from childbirth and chafing from thongs and what have you,” she says. “And one of the things that changes over time is pigmentation.”

While discoloration can sometimes be caused by underlying medical issues, such as eczema or psoriasis, for the most part, it’s simply a consequence of being a person in the world with a vagina. “It’s not abnormal or uncommon,” says Dweck.

In the past, vaginal and anal bleaching were largely the purview of porn performers and exotic dancers — basically, people whose incomes were dependent on having pristine genitalia. “This is a trend that started in the porn industry,” says Dweck. “[Directors] always wanted vulvas and vaginas and anuses to look more youthful and less pigmented.”

Thanks to the widespread availability of internet porn, as well as references to intimate bleaching in pop culture ephemera like Keeping Up With the Kardashians, Bridesmaids, and, bafflingly, an Ed Sheeran song, more people have started seeking out the service. “The women I see want their vulva to match the rest of their skin and get a more pubescent-type look,” says Dweck.

And while this may sound like an uncomfortable procedure, Grace Evangeline, a Florida-based sex worker who regularly bleaches her anus, insists it is anything but. “It doesn’t hurt at all,” she says. “It just feels like gel, but [it’s] not a thick/sticky feeling.”

Many high-end spas have started offering vaginal and anal bleaching, from laser treatments to specialized peels to lighten the area. Cindy Barshop is a former “Real Housewife of New York” and the proprietor of New York City’s V-Spot Medi Spa, which provides a laundry list of services such as vaginal steaming, labia plumping, and a 24-karat gold wax.

V-Spot started offering vaginal lightening a year ago. The treatment involves an in-office mandelic acid peel, an almond extract-based peel that is purported to break down the melanin in the skin and lighten the area, followed by an at-home treatment of 60 exfoliant pads. The goal is to slough off the superficial top layer of the skin, thus leading to a more even and lighter skin tone.

At first, “I was surprised how important it was to women,” Barshop said. “But a lot of women get it because you can see the spots on the side when they wear bathing suits or when they’re naked, and a lot of times they’re more visible because people remove the hair in the area.”

It is now one of V-Spot’s most requested services. (In fact, when I reached Barshop by phone, she said she was using the at-home vaginal lightening treatment while she was speaking to me.)

Additionally, there are hundreds of search-optimized DIY vaginal lightening hacks on YouTube, as well as a thriving cottage industry for vaginal and anal lightening creams such as Divine Derriere, a millennial pink-packaged cream and a serum, and Pink Privates, which is sold by the company Body Action. Per a 2013 report, the global skin lightening product market is worth an estimated $19.8 billion, though it’s unclear exactly how many of these sales can be attributed to anal or vaginal bleaching products.

Grace Power is the founder and creator of My Pink Wink LLC, which sells an eponymous anal bleaching cream and a product called Bleach Babe, a discreetly packaged, $39.99 product that claims to contain “unique peptides that brighten the skin.” (Both products use the same formula.)

An esthetician by training, Power was inspired to create the product in the mid-aughts, after women came in with complaints about darker labia or linea negrea, a dark line on the stomach that occurs during pregnancy and may be slow to fade for some women after delivery.

“They were asking, ‘Is it normal that I’m darker there? Can I get rid of it?’” she remembers. “They knew what their skin was before the baby and they wanted to get to that level.”

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Since she started offering the product in 2007, Power estimates she has sold approximately 2 million to 2.5 million jars of My Pink Wink, as well as 300,000 to 500,000 jars of Bleach Babe. She says sales have dipped in recent years due to increased competition in the space: When she started out, “There were only two to three anal bleaching creams out there, and now there’s just tons.” Nonetheless, My Pink Wink brings in a tidy income for Power, and she says she still sells about 2,000 jars of the cream per month.

My Pink Wink is poorly reviewed: 40 percent of the users on Amazon who have tried it have given it a one-star rating, with phrases like “ineffective” and “a waste of money” popping up throughout the comments. (Power chalks up the bad reviews to people not using the cream for long enough: “Everybody nowadays wants instant results,” she scoffs. “It’s not gonna be an overnight success.”)

But generally speaking, the medical community’s concerns about the vaginal lightening trend have less to do with efficacy and more to do with safety. The American Committee of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has taken a stance against the rise of genital cosmetic procedures, writing that people should “be informed of their potential complications, including infection, altered sensation, dyspareunia, adhesions, and scarring.”

Dweck has witnessed these firsthand, saying people have come into her office “because they’ve had complications having it done,” citing allergic reactions, rashes, or burning.

Many bleaching products also include hydroquinone, a chemical that is purported to have skin-lightening properties. Hydroquinone has been banned in many European Union countries due to its link to a serious, albeit rare, skin disorder called ochronosis, which causes the skin to darken and thicken.

Though the Food and Drug Administration proposed a ban on skin-bleaching products containing hydroquinone in 2006, it is currently legal to sell products containing less than 2 percent hydroquinone in the United States.

My Pink Wink does not use hydroquinone. Taub also refuses to use any products featuring the ingredient in her practice. (When I asked her what the risks were, she said flatly, “Only cancer”; while this has not been proven in humans, a handful of rat studies have pointed to potential carcinogenic effects in animals.)

V-Spot, however, does use hydroquinone in its at-home treatment. When asked about the safety of the chemical, Barshop referred me to a number of studies refuting the assertion that hydroquinone is linked to cancer in humans or exceptionally high rates of ochronosis. “It is a drug that has been used by millions of people for decades that has superior results over other options,” she says. “It really just has a bad reputation.”

In addition to the safety concerns posed by ingredients like hydroquinone, vaginal lightening treatments have also been accused of perpetuating unrealistic body image ideals and exploiting people’s insecurities about their vulvas. “Some women have been body-shamed into thinking they don’t have the quote-unquote ‘right vulva,’ so they will aim to do this,” Dweck says.

When Huda Beauty, the company founded by Instagram beauty guru Huda Kattan, published a blog post instructing people on how to lighten their vulvas, the backlash was immediate and intense: “Vaginal lip darkening is NATURAL,” one commenter wrote. “You don’t need to make it lighter so you look like a prepubescent little girl to ‘appease’ men.”

Barshop rejects the suggestion that vaginal lightening is anything but 100 percent sexually, spiritually, and emotionally empowering. “I don’t believe it exploits anyone’s insecurities. ... I think it’s about women empowering themselves to feel good about themselves,” she says. “It’s not like I’m selling this or promoting it as something being wrong with your vagina.”

She says she gets a wide range of clients in terms of age and race, but the one thing they have in common is that “they take care of themselves. You know, they work out.”

Evangeline echoes that sentiment, saying she’s never been told to bleach her anus by a director or a sexual partner. “I do it for myself because if I know the area is darker, I’ll just keep thinking I don’t look my best,” she says. “Same reason I retouch my hair color or my nails — just to feel better and be my best me.”

Taub, however, paints a more complex picture of the type of woman who comes to her for vaginal lightening. In addition to the hundreds of emails she gets from people who come across her videos, she regularly does consultations with women in their 20s and 30s, who she says often come in after being shamed by their partners.

“Seventy percent of the time, it is the woman who wants to [get it done to] please their partner,” she says. When this happens, “usually I say, ‘You go home and take your telephone and you ask your boyfriend or husband to drop his pants and go forward, and I want you to take a picture of his anus and testicles. And if they are white or pink, I promise, I will do whatever you want.’”

There’s also an additional complicating factor, one that makes the vaginal lightening trend arguably even more distressing than, say, the rise of Brazilian waxing, or “detoxifying” methods like vaginal steaming: It seems to be particularly popular among women of color. Taub, who specializes in treating women of color, estimates that 70 percent of the people who find her on YouTube and contact her about vaginal lightening are black or Latino. And indeed, the skin lightening product market in general is huge in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia, due to internalized colorism and lighter skin shades being prized over darker ones.

If you look at the other YouTubers posting videos about DIY lightening hacks, as well as the comments on Taub’s channel, many, if not most, of them are from women of color. For the most part, they’re asking questions that are as pragmatic as they are heartbreaking: Does this work for underarms as well? How long do I have to leave it on to work? Can you come to my country and do this for me? Where can I buy this?

“If you read the comments that come from black women who feel they have less of a value because they are dark, [they think] if they bleach themselves or lighten themselves, they will find a partner,” Taub says. “And it makes me very angry.”

While she says her clientele is fairly racially diverse, Barshop says that generally speaking, more people of color may be interested in vaginal lightening because hyperpigmentation, or excess production of melanin, is both more prominent and more common among people with darker skin.

“If you have lighter skin, your hair follicles are usually finer, so when you get waxes, it’s not such a disruption to the skin that you get dark spots,” she explains. “If you have darker skin, you have coarser follicles. So darkening of the area is more likely to result from something like a wax, or rubbing of the jeans.”

Barshop denies that the vaginal lightening trend has anything to do with people trying to achieve unrealistic or racist beauty standards: “They’re not trying to lighten the area to look like a white person. They’re trying to even the skin tone out.”

But the very idea that people of color need to have uniformly colored pudendae to begin with — or that one skin color is inherently “better” than another — is, in itself, horrific. And people in the lightening industry are reinforcing this idea as well as profiting from it, as Power perhaps unwittingly demonstrated in our conversation. “When Caucasian women are dark, [that area is] a light brown or a tan,” Power said. “But dark brown or Indian women — that skin is, like, black. There’s a really big contrast. And it does look kind of dirty. Their knees will be dark [too] and it looks kind of dirty.”

To make matters worse, for some people, these feelings of shame around skin tone have been internalized to such an extent that they will resort to extreme measures to make their body parts seem lighter, more “clean.” “I’ve had women trying to scrub their skin thinking they could scrub off the melanin,” says Power. “And they’ve made their skin raw.”

But she doesn’t see the desire to have lighter private parts as a racial or even cultural issue. In fact, she says she has never considered the prospect of businesses like hers encouraging people to feel bad about their bodies. As an esthetician, she views the quest to have a light vulva as a purely aesthetic one.

“It’s a completely cosmetic thing,” she says. “It’s like women getting their eyebrows shaped. It’s not natural to have perfectly shaped eyebrows. But we want them.”

Taub is a bit more circumspect. Although lightening is a major part of her business model, not to mention her YouTube content strategy, she says she resents her clients’ partners for making them feel insecure about the color of their private parts.

“It is in my opinion inhumane and wrong to make women feel subzero because of their vaginas,” she says. Still, she provides the service, and she gives her clients the information they’re looking for. The way she sees it, it’s preferable to the alternative: someone sitting in their bathroom, watching skin lightening hacks on YouTube, scrubbing their skin till it is raw and bleeding.

Because despite what many of us may think about vaginal lightening — that it’s risky, that it’s unnecessary, that it’s the unfortunate byproduct of a culture that, despite the progress we’ve made in terms of gender equality, is only getting more creative at shaming women for their bodies and their sexuality — the fact still remains: “Whether I advertise it or not,” says Taub, “people want to be lighter.”

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