How down there became big business

In a year that has seen self-care catapulted to the forefront of beauty trends, women are now extending their skincare regimes down below. Kelsey Ferencak investigates how v-care became a booming industry.

When her lifestyle brand Goop released a scented candle called “This Candle Smells Like My Vagina” in January of this year, actor-turned-lifestyle guru Gwyneth Paltrow explained the name came from an offhand comment she’d made when she initially encountered the scent. The raft of puzzled headlines alone made it clear the entire concept made many squeamish, but the fact they sold out in seconds – and a waitlist for back orders was created – proved plenty more wanted to get their hands on a home fragrance described as “funny, gorgeous, sexy and beautifully unexpected”.

Paltrow has been pushing below-the-belt boundaries for years, with Goop publishing stories about everything from vaginal steaming to those infamous jade eggs, and its complementary Netflix series The Goop Lab making waves when, in an effort to spark the conversation around female pleasure and sexuality, it showed real women’s vulvas on screen.

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But if she has made serious inroads (and serious money) by being so blunt about a topic many prefer to avoid, Paltrow has also nailed her approach by not taking it too seriously. As Goop’s chief content officer Elise Loehnen tells Body+Soul, “Humour is a fantastic icebreaker around conversations that have traditionally been taboo or hard – earnestness isn’t always the best or most expedient path forward. The ‘This Smells Like My Vagina’ candle put the stigma about feminine odour right out there on coffee tables across the globe.

“I think women collectively realised that by shaming ourselves into silence around sex, we were potentially limiting our own access to pleasure. At Goop, we wanted to break that norm and start having conversations about all parts of our sexuality in an open-minded, non-judgemental way.”

It is a tactical shift that would have been unheard of even a few years ago.

In the past, self-care products for vaginas in plain and clinical packaging languished in aisle 12 of the supermarket, where they were ignored or not noticed.

These days, a number of cosmetics and lifestyle companies, much like Goop, are presenting and marketing feminine intimate care as they would any luxury beauty brand. Products for your privates are now very much up for public consumption, and Body+Soul cover star Lindy Rama-Ellis is the latest to join the conversation.

Last month, the Bali-based mother of four launched her wellness brand FIG Femme, a skincare line for your intimates that debuted with just one product: a sheet mask for the vulva. Rama-Ellis is the first to admit she is no gynaecological expert, and, mindful of medical consensus that vaginas are self-cleaning, clarifies that her products are for external use only. “The products themselves are simply to nurture, soothe and care for the area that we’re doing [not-so-nurturing] things to – waxing, laser, wearing tight clothes and pads,” Rama-Ellis tells Body+Soul.

“So why not put something on to soothe it afterwards?”

Sexologist Dr Nikki Goldstein welcomes this shift in thinking, albeit with a few reservations. Firstly, she tells Body+Soul, “If you experience any changes to the vulva or vagina you should be talking to your doctor first, not reaching for a vulva mask.”

She also questions if these products perpetuate distressing stereotypes about female anatomy. “As much as I’m thrilled we’re discussing women’s sexuality and health more openly, I fear there is an underlying negative message that consumers aren’t aware of,” she says. “For me, it continues to tell women this is another part of their body that needs to be changed, improved or cosmetically maintained. We should focus more on what a healthy vulva is – and the factual health information with research to back claims – over how it looks from a beauty perspective.”

Rama-Ellis is aware of the criticism.

“I’ve had some backlash, with people saying I’m body- and vagina-shaming, and preying on women’s insecurities,” she says. “Which is upsetting because I’m trying to do the opposite of that.

So many women don’t even know what their vulvas or vaginas look like. I want to normalise the conversation. What vagina looks normal? Well, there is no normal! No vagina and vulva are the same. That’s normal. I want to take away the shame that a lot of women feel.”

She suggests these kinds of products allow women to indulge in a self-care ritual that also connects them with the most intimate part of their bodies. And if you’re thinking you don’t even have time for a face mask, let alone one for your privates, Rama-Ellis hears you.

“I know I’m in the shower brushing my teeth, shaving my legs and shampooing my hair all at the same time. But this is where you take 20 minutes, lock your door and lay there, listen to a meditation, drink a glass of red wine… do whatever it is that makes you feel good,” she says.

Whether you’re willing to extend your skincare regime to down below or not, Rama-Ellis – like Paltrow and her colleagues at Goop – says her primary aim is to encourage positive public discourse around women’s sexual health.

“If all [it does] is get that conversation on the table and try to lift the taboo, then I’m happy,” she says. “If it’s not for you, it’s not for you. But at least we’re normalising it. And hopefully it’s going to be less of a shock to people’s ears to hear the word ‘vagina’.”

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FIG Femme Restore, $25,

Expect to see this vulva mask along with a line-up of new products (that includes a post-birth mask) in Priceline stores before the end of the year.

Lady Suite Probiotic Refreshing Cleanser, $24,

A gentle cleanser made with good bacteria to balance the skin’s microbiome and nourish the vulva as it cleans.

Queen V Pop the Bubbly Bubble Bath, $15,

Green tea, mango and chamomile extracts work to soothe your senses and your skin as you soak in this bubble bath.

Fur Oil, $66.95,

Actor and activist Emma Watson has revealed she’s a fan of this 100 per cent natural essential-oil blend designed for pubic hair.