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The perfectible vagina: size matters
VIRGINIA BRAUN and CELIA KITZINGER
With the construction of women’s genitals as problematic, the `private’ female body becomes
a site for potential improvement. Socio-cultural accounts of vaginal size in the West construct
a tight (but not too tight) vagina as desirable, and a `loose’ vagina as undesirable. The impor-
tance of size is evident in contexts as diverse as slang, comedy, and surgical practices to
tighten the vagina. After identifying the desirability of tightness, we analyse talk collected from
women in individual and group interviews, and in undergraduate tutorials on intersex. In
women’s talk, we found a curious pattern: women identi®ed the cultural desirability of a tight
vagina, and noted negative uses to which this is put (such as the positioning of women with
`loose’ vaginas as promiscuous). However, when women described their personal concerns
about vaginal size, these were couched in terms of anxiety about being too tight. We argue
that constructions of vaginal size are problematic because they create another site of bodily
concern for women, and are used to control and abuse women. We suggest that they also
re¯ect a disregard of women’s sexual pleasure, and a lack of familiarity with the functions of
Clear standards of beauty and `normality’ exist for Western women’s bodies,
and the widespread use of diets, ®tness regimes, and cosmetic surgery attest
to the fact that the female body is a site for improvement. Work theorizing
the female body as subject to the Foucauldian notion of disciplinary power,
as a site of self-surveillance and improvement (e.g. Bordo 1986, Bartky 1988,
Morgan 1991), has focused on a female body that is visible, whether clothed
or not, to the outside worldÐi.e. the `public’ body. However, the cultural
obsession with improving or `normalizing’ the female body does not stop at
the visible/public body. The notion of a perfect vagina, and its corollary, an
imperfect but perfectible vagina, is evidence that such norms extend to the
private/hidden domain as well. However, other than female genital mutilation
(e.g. Bibbings 1995, McCaffrey 1995, Wright 1996), practices around the
private body have not received the attention of feminist critics in the way that
practices of the public body have done (although see Adams 1997, Mander-
Constructionist frameworks have proved useful for researching sex, the
sexual organs (e.g. Laqueur 1990) and sexuality (e.g. Weeks 1981, C. Kitzin-
ger 1987, Tiefer 1995). In this paper, we use a broadly constructionist
Cult ure, He alth & Sex uality
ISSN 1369-1058 print/ISSN 1464-5351 online q2001 Taylor & Fra ncis Ltd
Vi rgi nia Br aun works i n the D epartment of Psy chology at the U niv ersity of Auc kla nd, New Ze al-
an d. Celia Kitzinger is with the Department of Sociology at the University of York, UK. Address
all c orr espondence to Vi rgin ia Brau n, Depart me nt of Psy chology, Un iversity of Au ck land, Priva te
Bag 92019, Auckland, New Zealand; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
CULT URE, HE ALTH & SE XUALITY, 2001, VOL. 3, NO. 3, 263 ±277
framework to focus on the vagina (the `passage’ between cervix and external
genitalia, although see Braun and Kitzinger (2001) for a critique of such
de®nitions), exploring the issue of vaginal size. Our analysis centres ®rst on
the cultural context which renders women’s genitals problematic, consider-
ing the various discourses and practices that construct vaginal size in
Western cultures. Our theoretical position assumes that socio-cultural prac-
tices and processes help create the means by which women and men make
sense of women’s bodies. Women’s experiences of the vagina, and their talk
about those experiences, is constructed in relation to broader cultural
systems of meaning. Moving from a cultural level to a personal one, we then
examine women’s talk about vaginal size. Finally, we provide a critical exam-
ination of `size’ as a concern, focussing on the implications for women’s
health, sexuality and identity.
The cultur al context: wom en’s genital ia as problematic
A signi®cant amou nt of women would gladly swap their real vaginas for some thing less trouble-
someÐan unexploded warhe ad in their back garden, say. (Ellen 1999: 33)
Forming a perfect partnership with the `unhappiness’ many women feel
about their outwardly visible bodies, women’s genitals are often constructed/
experienced as a `problem’ and a source of concern (Greer 1971, Dodson
1974, Laws 1990, Shaw 1995, Ensler 1998). The problem pages of popular
women’s/teen magazines and internet sites frequently contain letters inquir-
ing about genital normality (e.g. Cosmopolitan 1997a, Company 1998a, Stearn
1998), so-called feminine hygiene products grace shop shelves and advertise-
ments (Kane 1997), and options for `aesthetic’ genital surgery abound (e.g.
vaginal tightening, labial trimming, liposuction of the pubic mound, vulval fat
injections, hymen reconstruction; Rogan 1994, Adams 1997, Greer 1999,
Manderson 1999). Such practices construct the female genitals as a potential
problem (Banks-Smith 1997, Kamps 1998) and as a viable site for beauti®ca-
tion and normalization.
These concerns and practices derive from a cultural context in which
women’s genitals are primarily derogated (Braun and Wilkinson, 2001) and
where many women cannot bear to look at their anatomy (Howard 1997).
They also re¯ect a society where many women are still not aware of the
diversity of `normal’ genitalsÐdespite feminist visual presentations designed
to illustrate precisely this (e.g. Dodson 1974, Corinne 1989, Blank 1993).
The cult ur al v aluat ion of tightness
The best thing a cunt can be is small and unobtrusiv e: the anxiety about the bigness of the penis
is only equalled by an xiety about the smallness of the cunt. No woman wants to ®nd out that she
has a twat like a horse-collar. (Greer 1971: 39)
It is not hard to ®nd cultural evidence that the perfect vagina is `a nice tight
vagina’ (Chumbley 1999: 112). Germaine Greer (1999: 2) writes: `in many
cultures (and increasingly our own) the most desirable vagina is as tight and
264 VIR GINIA BR AUN AND CEL IA KITZIN GER
narrow as a rectum’. Adams (1997: 69) noted that `the ideal ``natural’’
woman’ is `represented in the tight vagina (``one of nature’s miracles’’)’.
This miracle can, however, be (re)created by `God-the-surgeon’. To make a
vagina tighter, fat siphoned from women’s thighs can be `squished’ into the
walls (Banks-Smith 1997, Greer 1999). Laser surgery can `rejuvenate’ and
tighten it (e.g. Matlock 1998). The vagina is also tightened during ostensibly
medical (i.e. necessary) procedures. A common perception of childbirth is
that it `destroys’ the vagina, so that it `gapes slightly’ (Chumbley 1999: 42),
even becoming `a great, gaping void’ (Saunders 1983: 99). After an episiot-
omy or tear from childbirth, women are often stitched `a little smaller than
before’ (S. Kitzinger 1983: 25, Manderson 1999). Caesarean sections not
only make birth more convenient for the surgeon, they `avoid vaginal sagging’
(Robinson 1998, Manderson 1999), and keep the vagina `honeymoon fresh’
(Orr 1998: 7). Kegel exercises (after birth) tighten and strengthen the vagina
(e.g. Howard 1997, Manderson 1999), and this is part of their appeal
Matlock (1998) emphasizes, as do media articles covering his work (e.g.
Havranek 1998), that vaginal tightening increases sexual pleasure for women.
The idea that a tighter vagina might increase men’s sexual pleasure as much
as, or more than, women’s, is conspicuously absent (although the tight stitch
after episiotomy is sometimes known as the `husband stitch’, S. Kitzinger
1994: 71). Feminist commentators have been more sceptical, suggesting that
such procedures are principally focused around male sexual pleasure (e.g.
Braun and Ensler 1999). We are not denying that a tighter vagina might
increase women’s sexual pleasure, but remain unconvinced that concern
about tightness is primarily a concern for women.
This ideal of vaginal tightness is also transmitted through a wide range of
other cultural contextsÐin comedy, media, conversational interaction, slang,
and so on. For example, in her 1995 award winning comedy stand-up, Top
Bitch, British comedian Jenny Eclair makes frequent reference to the state of
her vagina. In relation to childbirth, she talks about it becoming so big that
she uses `rolled up duvets’ instead of tampons, and that it is `like a woolly
after the washÐall baggy round the neck’. Slang terms such as bucket fanny/
minge/cunt, horse collar, or welly top (e.g. Green 1998), and phrases such as
`like throwing a sausage down a back alley’ or `like waving a sausage in the
Albert hall’ (Collins 1996: 121) provide an accessible vocabulary (and repre-
sentation) of the loose vagina. Vaginal size is cultural currency.
Heterosexual `preference’ for a tight vagina is not simply a Western
phenomenon. Studies from Central and Southern Africa have demonstrated
desire for a `dry and tight’ (Brown et al. 1993: 989) and warm vagina for
heterosexual intercourse (Runganga et al. 1992, Pitts et al. 1994, Civic and
Wilson 1996), primarily for men’s sexual satisfaction (thus ensuring ®delity).
To this end, women engage in various practices to tighten the vagina.
Women who are in®bulated (the most extreme form of genital mutilation)
have the vaginal entrance sewn tightly shut, resulting in a narrow vaginal
openingÐsometimes the size of a matchstick (Williams and Sobieszczyk
1997). This tightness is reported as being associated with (among other
things) male sexual pleasure (El Dareer 1982, Osman and Mulholland 1992,
Wright 1996). While it is easy to criticize such practices in non-Western
THE P ER FECT IBLE VAGINA 265
countries, `voluntary’ genital mutilations in the West bear parallels. Many
(e.g. labial trimming) are similar in practice to forms of female genital muti-
lation (Bibbings 1995, Manderson 1999, see also Runganga et al. 1992),
although we choose not to think of them in the same wayÐthe rhetoric of
individual free choice and empowerment prevails (see Manderson 1999).
Transmitted in all these contexts, from the quasi-medical to the popular,
is the message that a tight vagina is the right vagina to have. However, the
`too tight’ vagina is also a concern (e.g. Brumberg 1997; Company 1998b),
particularly in relation to vaginismus (e.g. Valins 1992). In fact, many women
with vaginismus report a belief that their vagina is `abnormally small’ (Valins
1992: 121, Wilson 1998, Goldsmith 1995), but this too-tightness is almost
always represented as psychological rather than physiological, as `the vagina
itself is never too small to accommodate a penis’ (Stearn 1998: 127, Llewel-
lyn-Jones and Abraham 1998). As recently as 1992, Black’s Medical Diction-
ary (Macpherson 1992: 616) noted that vaginismus is `usually psychological
in origin, due, for instance, to a neurotic temperament or to frigidity’ (empha-
sis added). These accounts notwithstanding, socio-cultural representations
of the too-tight vagina, and what it means, are considerably less common
than descriptions of too-loose a vagina.
Talking abo ut size
Having discussed the broader socio-cultural context, we will now turn to a
consideration of talk about vaginal size. Our data are drawn from two differ-
ent sources: First, size was a topic in ®ve interviews (coded I1±I6) and 13
focus groups (coded FG1±FG16) with women (including one male-to-female
transsexual), conducted as part of a more encompassing study of the vagina
conducted by the ®rst author. Interviews were designed to explore women’s
experiences of, and perceptions about, the vagina, including questions about
language, doctors, sex, and their feelings about their own vagina. Size was
not a question included in the interview schedule, and in all but four of the
interviews was raised by the participants themselves. The women interviewed
were almost all white and predominantly heterosexual. Over two-thirds were
aged 30 or under. Second, data were collected in undergraduate tutorials on
intersex (coded T1±T16), run by the second author as part of a human
sexualities course. The tutorial topic included a discussion of cultural
notions/representations of what `normal’ female and male genitals should be
like and, in ®ve of these, vaginal size was discussed. In four, it was raised by
the participants themselves. No demographic information was collected for
tutorial participants, but the students were primarily or exclusively female.
Data were audio-taped and transcribed. We conducted a thematic analysis
which drew on insights offered by discourse analysis (e.g. Potter and
Wetherell 1987, Potter 1996). Our analysis takes into account both the broad
thematic patterns of talk, but looks in more detail at what object those
accounts construct, and how they construct them. In the analysis that
follows, we explore the two primary themes evident in participants’ talk
around size: the cultural imperative for a tight vagina; and personal concerns
about being `too tight’.1
266 VIR GINIA BR AUN AND CEL IA KITZIN GER
The cultu ral impe rative: `va ginas are sup posed to be tig ht’
Numerous slang terms and phrases were identi®ed to describe a `slack’
vagina, including: `bucket minge’ (Gillian, FG3), `Mersey Tunnel’2
(Suzanne, T4), or `like slinging a sausage down the high street’ (Claire,
FG15). Such expressions codify the undesirability of a slack vagina, suggest-
ing tight-as-good through the negative equation of loose being bad. Women
also articulated this more explicitly:
Claire: You’re always supposed to be kind of small tight little c reatures, aren’t you, ready for
Marion: Yeah that’s the whole point. It’s like,
Claire: `Cause it’s gotta fe el nicer for them.
Marion: Yeah, and the sensation. If it’s like, if they can hardly feel it themselves, when they’re
having sex with yo u, then obviously. Like, with a±, someone who had like particularly
loose muscles or so mething, [Claire: oh yeah] then if they didn ’t feel a nything then
they might as well be not bothe ring. (FG15)3
In this extract, the women collaborate to produce an account that clearly
identi®es (and reproduces) the cultural desirability of a tight vagina.
However, the `imperative’ nature of tightness was not only noted by women,
but also reinforced through the use of terms such as `supposed’ and
`should’. As Emily (T9) identi®ed, `vaginas are supposed to be tight’. Simi-
larly, Carol (I1) commented, `I’m very aware of the, of the sort of cultural
imperative that vaginas should be tight’. The use of such language simulta-
neously allows the speaker to acknowledge the cultural imperative, and to
display disagreement with it. These young women present themselves as
cultural knowers but not cultural dupes.
Women not only recognized the cultural desirability of tightness, but also
discussed how such ideas are used to position and judge women:
Kate: On these videos and things, when they actually talk about, ah, the size of women’s vagi-
nas, and then they talk about how many ®ngers, and knuckles, and all this kind of thing
that they can get up, and it’s the more they can do,
?: Is the worse.
Kate: the worse a woman’s supposed to be.
Sunita: Yes but the smaller and tighter I think is better.
Kate: Supposed to be.
Sunita: `Cause of, the bigger it gets the worse it is. It’s the to± to± total opposite [of penis size]
Kate: Yes, because you become a slut or whateve r, some derogatory term.
Sunita: A slapper or something like that.
Kate: Yeah, once± once it becomes bigger. (FG4)
A slack vagina, then, is speci®cally associated with (negative) judgements
about sexual promiscuity, a meaning many women identi®ed. For example,
Susie (FG10) commented, `If a girl’s been around a lot it’s like she’s got,
you know, a bucket fanny [laughs]’, and Marion (FG15) observed that a
`bucket cunt’ means `she’s easy, it’s like a huge cavernous space’.
Most women commented on the gendered nature of this imperative, and
the judgements associated with it. It was men who were described as want-
ing tight vaginas: `that’s men’s fantasy though, isn’t it, tight little petite
THE P ER FECT IBLE VAGINA 267
women’ (Jo, FG1). And it was men who were seen as the creators of vaginal
Gillian: I’ve got a lot of friends that are boys now say things, like, really crude, and talk to me
really crude. And they are like saying, how they went away they went round Europe two
summers ago, and they sort of had girls in different places. And they were going on and
on about how the best ones were the Swedish girls, `cause they had such tight fannies
that they could only get one ®nger up there, and things like that. [laughs] [Ginny: oh
my god] So yeah, I s’pose it’s from boys that you get that sort of idea that they are, they
are, they are better to be like that. (FG3)
According to these women, then, the `culture’ that promotes tightness is not
a `female’ culture. Rather, men produce generalized accounts of desirable
`tight fannies’ and undesirable `bucket minge[s]’. Some women also repor-
ted that men made personal evaluations of the state of their vagina (when
having sex). For example, Mary described (the presumably relatively rare
event) of having sex with a man ®rst as a `virgin’ and the second time 2 years
later (having had other sexual partners in the interim).
Mary: I was a virgin in 1987, and I fell in love with this guy and made love to him, and then
saw him about 2 years later. And we were making love, and he said to me `Oh you’re
not the same girl I knew before’, and I thought he meant, I thought he meant person-
ality wise, and this was sort, `What do you mean’. And he said, `You’re just not as tight
as you were before’, and he meant my vagina. (FG1)
Some women noted that anxieties around penis size may be a motivating
concern both in male desire for tight vaginas, and in the identi®cation of
women as having large vaginas. Men supposedly reassure themselves with
`I’ve not got a small penis, you’ve got a Mersey Tunnel’ (Suzanne, T4). The
actor Tom Arnold is reported to have made a similar comment in relation to
his former wife, the actor Roseanne: `even a 747 looks small when it lands in
the grand canyon’ (Cosmopolitan 1997b: 84).
Ultimately, the cultural imperative for a tight vagina is a moral story: a
loose vagina positions a woman as (hetero)sexually promiscuousÐas a loose
woman.4This positioning is premised on knowing that tight is good, but also
reinscribes such knowledge. It mirrors a morally informed common-sense
that the vagina becomes loose through `overuse’. This is easily identi®able
culturally as well. For example, ’the more people use it the bigger it gets’ is
reportedly the ®rst of 19 reasons `Why the Internet is like a vagina’ (http://
neil.franklin.ch/Jokes_and_Fun/Internet_is_Like_Vagina.html). The notion of
loose, then, allows for a certain policing of (young) women, heterosexually,
similar to the way in which words like `slut’ and `slag’ do (Lees 1993, J.
Kitzinger 1995). Parallel talk about what being `too tight’ means on a
cultural level, and how it positions women (`frigidity’ being a possible inter-
pretation), was virtually non-existent.
Personal co ncerns: being t oo tight
Given the recognition of a cultural context in which tight vaginas are desir-
able, we might expect heterosexual women to express concerns as to
whether they are `tight enough’. However, apart from two instances, where
such concerns were represented as being in the past, and overcome, the
268 VIR GINIA BR AUN AND CEL IA KITZIN GER
articulation of personal concerns about not being tight enough was very rare.
In our data, then, there is a notable contrast between the recognition of the
cultural desirability of a tight vagina and the absence of an explicit articula-
tion of personal concerns about not being tight enough. However, while
women rarely articulated concerns about being too loose, some women did
express personal concerns about being too tight. For instance, Yvonne (FG6)
commented, `I have a concern that I’m very small’, and Mia recounted the
following teenage experience:
Mia: I felt very worried that I would never be able to have intercourse, that’s what, that’s it,
I’m just too small. Or then when I got older and started reading around, I’ve got vagis-
mus obviously, I can’t even ®t a tampon up there, I’m never going to ®t a penis
Accounts of tightness were often embedded in fairly lengthy and intimate
discussions of personal sexual experience, and we will focus our analysis
here on three extracts from one group. In the following extract, Marion is
responding to Ginny asking about whether `size’ has `ever been a concern or
a worry’. She assumes `size’ here means being too tight.
Marion: I think if you’re comfo rtable with yourself a nd the person you’re with, then. I mean,
obviously if you’re with someone who doesn’t turn you on, you don’t like them, you
don’t really want to be there, then of course everything’s gonna sort of dry up, and
tighten up, because you don’t want to be having sex with that person, and so it’s gonna
make it dif®cult. But if you’re relaxed, you’re turned on by the person you’re with, y±. It
all depends on the situation, you’ re in love with them, you really fancy them, whateve r,
you’re really drunk [laughs]. (FG15)
Rosa responds to Marion’s comments with a personal experience:
Rosa: I don’t know, `cause I’ve been in love with him for over a year now, and we’ve still got
the problem that I’m too little, and [laughs] he’s too big, and whatever we do it still
hurts. I need a smaller boyfriend.
Claire: That’s `cause Donald’s huge,
Claire: And you’re only little.
Ginny: How does that, is that a real problem?
Rosa: I think it is, but he’s [laugh] not bothered. But I’m just like, `No it hurts’ [laughs]. `I
do, I do love you but it hurts’.
Claire: But fuck off.
Rosa: Yeah, it is, it is quite, sometimes it is.
Marion: I think it depends, like, sort of, if my boyfriend was particularly eager to have sex and I
wasn’t quite ready, like he’d mucked around for a bit and then said, `right now I want to
have sex now’, and it just just didn’t happen for me. It was like a it was almost a bit
forced. It w asn’t painful, but I think you could tell things weren’t, [Claire/Rosa: mmm]
that everything was a bit dry, and you thou ght, `oh if you’d waited like a few more
minutes’, you know. But it wasn’t ever, it’s never been, um, it’s never been really painfu l.
Rosa: `Cause sometimes I’m in pain for weeks after. It’s just like, `Why am I with you’,
[laughter] because I as can never, never, ever stay with him, or have babies [laughs].
About 15 minutes later, Ginny asked Rosa about being too small, and
whether that had ever been an issue with previous male partners. This led to
further elaboration of tightness as a personal concern, by both Rosa and
THE P ER FECT IBLE VAGINA 269
Rosa: Not as much of an issue, but it’s always been an issue. But then it doesn’t really bother
me that much, I don’t think, I don’t know, sometimes it’s a bit,
Marion: I do sometimes worry about that, because I think it’s sort of whether you are. `Cause it
has happened occasionally with my boyfriend, well ex-boyfriend, kind of thing, um.
Ginny: Sounds messy.
Marion: Let’s not go down there. Um, but that, it has happened sometimes where it has been a
bit more dif®cult, and it, almost a bit sort of dry, as it were, and I do worry that it was
me being like hung up or something, like really tense, or just not being in the mood or,
and I± I would wonder if what it would happen. I’ve been going, I was going o ut with
him when I was, when I was 17, and so he’s the only person I’ve slept with, and I was,
I’m always worried now that if it, it might happen with somebody else. And I think,
[laughs] just to cross that bridge if we come to it [laughs].
Rosa: I don’t know, because I used to sort of complain and say, `Oh look, look’, like we’d have
sex, you know, sex two nights in a row, and sort of, and then I’d say, `I’m in agony, I
can’t even walk’ and he would sort of say, `you know it can’t be that bad’, and I’d be
like, [?: [laughs]] Oh God, you know, like being raped, and like, you know, this sort of
really awful. And I was just sort of `Oh’, and, I don’t know, [Ginny: mmm] I’ll just have
to ®nd a boy friend with a little willy [laughs].
Group: [laughter]. (FG15)
The ®rst thing to note here is the detailed, deeply personal accounts that the
women produced, far more so than anything describing fears or concerns
about being `too loose’. Interwoven into these detailed accounts, however, are
two very different stories about being too tight, and what that means. Each of
these is considered in turn.
Marion’s story is one about tightness when having sex with a person that
`you don’t want to be having sex’ with.5Tightness is normalized within this
account, through statements such as `obviously’, `of course’, and `it all
depends on the situation’. These strategies effectively construct tightness as
an expected effect, not at all unusual, given the context. They also construct
the vagina as of potentially changing size, depending on the context or the
psychological state of the woman. The story thereby functions as a moral tale
about the proper way to have heterosex and avoid a tight vaginaÐ`if you’re
relaxed’, or `if you’re comfortable with yourself’. Marion’s second account
reinforces this, functioning as a tale of tightness in the face of her personal
failure to have heterosex in an appropriate manner. She is either `hung up’
or not `in the mood’. In this sense, Marion psychologizes tightness as relat-
ing to mood and emotion. In so doing, she constructs herself as responsible
for her own state of vaginal tightness. However, in this account, this is also
something that can easily be overcomeÐif only she were relaxed, in the
mood, or drunk.
Rosa presents an alternative account of being tight that `naturalizes’
the problem in terms of physiology, and potentially challenges Marion’s
account. The problem here is translated into an ongoing couple problem
(`we’ve still got the problem’), and one that results not from lack of
love, but from the seemingly `natural’ (and therefore immutable) state of
Rosa being `too little’, and her boyfriend Donald being `too big’. This is
not something that relaxation or comfort can ®x, and is not clearly
either party’s `fault ’Ðit happens, `whatever we do’. While Donald is
constructed as `too big’ and indeed `massive’, the personal identity Rosa
constructs does not seem to be problematic, perhaps because it is
270 VIR GINIA BR AUN AND CEL IA KITZIN GER
represented as both `naturalistic’ and therefore `factual’, and as a joint
However, the seemingly unproblematic account of a couple size problem,
and hence no-one individually being responsible, is challenged by Ginny’s
questioning as to whether this had happened with other male partners. If
Rosa answers `Yes’, her construction of size as a couple problem becomes
untenable, and her very vague and `resistant’ answering of this question
suggests that it is problematic. When she does produce an account of
extreme pain (`I’m in agony I can’t even walk’; `like being raped’), it appears
to be in relation to Donald. However, the immutability of vaginal size is rein-
forced by her `humorous’ evaluation, `I’ll just have to ®nd a boyfriend with a
Another way of exploring the tension between these two accounts is to
look at the way in which pain is described in each. Marion’s `I think it
depends’ signals the start of an account in which sex that hurts is associated
with `I wasn’t quite ready’ and it being `almost a bit forced’. However, she
repeats, twice, that this is not `painful’, attending to her account being heard
as one of rape or `unwilling’ and `coerced’ intercourse, particularly given her
description of `force’. She later reiterates that it has `never been really pain-
ful’ (this shift from `painful’ to `really painful’ allows for the possibility that
sometimes it is just painful) and the af®liation Marion receives from both
Claire and Rosa suggests the common-place nature of this story within
Rosa’s account of pain rejects this explanation, contrasting Marion’s
account of `never been really painful’ with her own experience of `sometimes
I’m in pain for weeks after’. The outcomes of their two scenarios are
constructed as very differentÐRosa’s `problem’, the natural physiological
one of her `small’ vagina, cannot simply be solved by taking more time. In
Rosa’s second account, the contrast between the two is more worked up.
Rosa’s account of pain is more detailedÐshe’s `in agony’ and `can’t even
walk’; it is `really awful’; while Marion’s experience has become one where it
is `a bit more dif®cult and it almost a bit sort of dry as it were’. Despite
Marion’s account of this happening only `occasionally’, she reports she is
`always worried now that if it, it might happen with somebody else’.
These detailed accounts construct being too tight as a personal concern,
and something that results in pain (`agony’ in Rosa’s instance), be that
physiologically or psychologically grounded. The detailed concerns they offer
around tightness do not, however, include attention to the possible cultural
meanings of tightness. Talk about tightness, then, reverses the `pattern’
found in talk about looseness, where cultural imperatives were frequently
noted, but personal concerns markedly absent.
Dis cu ssion
Despite identifying a cultural context in which tight vaginas are constructed
as desirable, we do not want to suggest that size is an overwhelming concern
for most heterosexual women, or even a concern at all for many. Our sample
was limited to predominantly heterosexual, white women who were relatively
THE P ER FECT IBLE VAGINA 271
young. However, in the intersections between the cultural and personal, and
being `too tight’ or `too loose’, we found a curious pattern: `too loose’ was
almost exclusively talked about in cultural terms, while being `too tight’ was
almost exclusively discussed as a personal concern.
There are two ways of explaining this pattern. The ®rst is that being `too
tight’ is a concern among the group of women we talked to, while being `too
loose’ is not (yet), although they do recognize that looseness has cultural
currency. Many of the women were young, and it is possible they might not
have encountered situations where being `too loose’ had become salient.
The other possibility is that being `too loose’ offers women such proble-
matic identities that it simply cannot be talked about. Talk about being `too
tight’ manages the possibility of being heard as `too loose’Ðdue to their
oppositional nature, a woman who is `concerned’ about being `too tight’
cannot also be concerned about being `too loose’. While these solutions are
not mutually exclusive, we favour the second, which takes talk as more than
a re¯ection of women’s `reality’. Whether this pattern holds with women
from other age groups, or from different cultural backgrounds, remains to
be seen. Given that the cultural imperative appears to be a male imperative,
it would also be informative to analyse male talk about vaginal size.
In their talk, women frequently displayed an orientation to the problematic
nature of size, both explicitly and interactionally, and this suggests that size
discourse is worthy of our critical attention. Moreover, as our analysis has
demonstrated, size is not simply something `in women’s heads’ or even
something discursive. It involves bodily practices that we consider to be
problematicÐfor instance the surgical tightening of the vagina (e.g.
Havranek 1998), and the husband stitch in episiotomy (S. Kitzinger 1994). It
therefore has very real effects for women’s health and sexuality.
Our concerns with size are: ®rst, notions of size construct women’s
`natural’ bodies as ¯awed, imperfect, and perfectibleÐeither through exer-
cise, surgery, or relaxationÐand create another site of dissatisfaction,
another area for (heterosexual) women to be concerned about. In relation to
First for Women magazine’s article on genital surgery, Rogan (1994: 93)
noted, ` ``First’’ has taken a very unusual phenomena and concocted a new
``embarrassing problem’’ that could get readers squinting nervously at their
privates’. A Cosmopolitan article on `The new sex surgeries’ (Havranek 1998:
146) makes this explicit when it states: `Flip through one of genital cosmetic
surgeon Gary Alter’s ads and you’ll be bombarded with pleas to ``take out
your hand mirror’’ and check out those labiaÐafter all, you just might not
Second, we need to remember that discourse on vaginal size is not
neutral, and is used as a means to abuse women and to position them
heterosexually in certain ways: as uptight or frigid if too tight; and as a `slag’
or `slapper’ if too loose. The `proper’ woman is constructed as childlike and
virginal (Manderson 1999), with an `unused’ vagina. This positioning func-
tion of size discourse is always a potential weapon, because vaginal size is a
relative rather than absolute concept. As it is only evident in relation to
something or someone else (presumably a man’s penis, although it could
also be a concern in lesbian sex), the standard for size changes according to
what it is judged in relation to.
272 VIR GINIA BR AUN AND CEL IA KITZIN GER
Third, there is a general lack of critical examination of what tight might
actually meanÐsuch as a lack of sexual arousal for example. To do so would
involve placing heterosexual female sexual pleasure on an equal par with
male sexual pleasure. While we are not denying that a tighter vagina might
be sexually pleasurable for some women (although our data tell a rather
different story), the net result of size discourse is that presumedly hetero-
sexual women’s bodies are de®ned in relation to heterosexual male pleasure,
rather than their own pleasure.
Finally, vaginal size is constructed as a dichotomyÐeither too tight, or too
loose. It also offers a `snapshot’ view of vaginal size, rather than a repre-
sentation of changing size over varying states of arousal. The vagina is repre-
sented as being a ®xed size. Change, such as the swelling and ballooning of
a sexually aroused vagina (Delvin 1983), or the tightening and spasmodic
gripping of an orgasmic vagina (e.g. Swift 1993), is thereby obliterated. This
construction contrasts starkly with the construction of the penis as an organ
that does change size and state.
In this paper, we have considered both the broader socio-cultural
constructions of the topic of vaginal size, and talk about vaginal size. Cultu-
rally, an imperative for tightness can be found in a wide range of contexts. In
their talk, women acknowledge this cultural context and its negative effects
such as positioning women as promiscuous. Such representations construct
the vagina as a potential problem, and do little to promote a `healthy’ sexu-
ality for women. They can lead to women seeking vaginal plastic surgery,
practices we have argued are problematic. On the ¯ip side, the too-tight
vagina is raised as a personal concern by women, and greater attention to
what size means is clearly needed. To some extent, these concerns re¯ect a
lack of knowledge about the vagina, how it functions, and what it does. In
order for this state of affairs to shift, it is important that the vagina is
comprehensively addressed in sexuality education, that the meaning of size
be considered, and that problematic constructions such as `tight equals
good’ are explicitly challenged.
This paper is based on doctoral research funded by the Association of
Commonwealth Universities and undertaken by Virginia Braun at Loughbor-
ough University, UK. The work was supervised by Celia Kitzinger. We would
like to thank Victoria Clarke, Sara-Jane Finlay, and Liz Peel for their helpful
comments on a previous draft of this the manuscript.
1. In this paper we do not focus on the different meaning size might have for lesbians, for women with
Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (C. Kitzinger 2000), or indeed for gay men.
2. The Mersey Tunne ls in Liverpool, England are two multi-lane road tunnels and one train tunnel
beneath the (approx. 1 km wide) Mersey River. Reference to the Mersey Tunnel invokes a very large
and heavily used space, and is an easily identi®able cultural referen t.
3. The different extracts from FG15 we use in this paper are presented in chronological order.
THE P ER FECT IBLE VAGINA 273
4. Genitals have also been seen as `indices of moral character’ (Terry 1995: 143) in other contexts, such
as in evidencing `lesbianism’.
5. Ac counts such as these carry multiple mean ings. Marion’s (and Rosa’s) account can also be read as
that of a young woman e ngaging in unwanted heterosexual intercourse. However, for the purposes of
this paper, we are focusing on the meaning of tightness and looseness.
6. It is worth brie¯y noting the failure of these women to question the coital imperative (McPhillips et al.,
in press), despite the pain of their reported experiences of coitus.
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Avec la construction des organes geÂnitaux feÂminins en tant que probleÂma-
tique, le corps « priveÂ » de la femme devie nt un site d’ameÂlioration poten-
tielle. Les reÂcits socio-culturels sur la taille du vagin en Occident deÂ®nissent
un vagin serreÂ (mais pas trop) comme deÂsirable, et un vagin « laÃche » comme
indeÂsirable. L’importance de la largeur du vagin est eÂvidente dans des
contextes aussi varieÂs que l’argot, la comeÂdie et les actes chirurgicaux visant
aÁ resserrer le vagin. ApreÁs avoir identi®eÂ le caracteÁre deÂsirable de l’eÂtroitesse
du vagin, nous avons analyseÂ les commentaires de femmes obtenus lors
d’entretiens ± individuels ou en groupe ± dans des cours de premier cycle
sur la sexualiteÂ. Nous avons deÂcouvert un modeÁle inteÂressant dans ces
commentaires: les femmes mettaient en eÂvidence la deÂsirabiliteÂ culturelle
d’un vagin serreÂ, et relevaient les usages neÂgatifs corollaires (tels que l’at-
tribution d’un caracteÁre leÂger aux femmes qui ont un vagin « laÃche »).
Cependant, quand les femmes deÂcrivaient leurs preÂoccupations personnelles
sur la largeur du vagin, ces dernieÁres eÂtaient exprimeÂes en des termes
teÂmoignant d’une certaine anxieÂteÂ quant aÁ l’eÂtroitesse du vagin. Nous soute-
nons que les constructions sur la largeur du vagin sont probleÂmatiques,
parce qu’elles creÂent un autre lieu de preÂoccupation corporelle pour les
femmes, source de controÃle et d’abus. Nous suggeÂrons qu’elles re¯eÁtent
aussi un meÂpris pour le plaisir sexuel des femmes et un manque de connais-
sance des fonctions vaginales.
Si se interpreta a los genitales femeninos como un problema, el cuerpo
privado de las mujeres se convierte en algo que hay que mejorar. De los
relatos socioculturales en cuanto al tamanÄo de la vagina en paõÂses occi-
dentales se deduce que una vagina estrecha (pero no demasiado) es lo maÂs
deseable, y una vagina `suelta’ no lo es. La importancia del tamanÄo es
evidente en contextos tan diversos como el lenguaje coloquial, la comedia y
las praÂcticas quiruÂrgicas para estrechar la vagina. Tras identi®car el deseo
de estrechez de la vagina, analizamos los comentarios de mujeres recogidos
en entrevistas individuales y en grupo, y en cursillos para estudiantes sobre
intersexualidad. En las conversaciones entre mujeres, se observoÂ un inter-
esante patroÂn de conducta: las mujeres identi®caban la deseabilidad cultural
de una vagina estrecha, y notaban usos negativos (por ejemplo, tener una
vagina `suelta’ se consideraba promiscuo). Sin embargo, si hablaban de sus
preocupaciones personales sobre el tamanÄo de la vagina, mostraban ansie-
dad si pensaban que la tenõÂan demasiado estrecha. ArguÈimos que si se
276 VIR GINIA BR AUN AND CEL IA KITZIN GER
considera que el tamanÄo de la vagina es un problema se estaÂ creando otro
motivo de preocupacioÂn sobre el cuerpo femenino utilizado en primer lugar
como meÂtodo de control y abuso. ConsideramoÂs que esto tambieÂn re¯eja
poco intereÂs por el placer sexual de las mujeres, y una falta de familiaridad
con las funciones de la vagina.
THE P ER FECT IBLE VAGINA 277