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Will the camel toe ever stop being taboo?


TextMegan Wallace

While the bulge and dick print continue to be celebrated on apps like TikTok, the camel toe still comes with a lot of harmful stigma that can have long-standing impacts

The bike short trend, which seems to have been near-inescapable over the past couple of summers, might have many upsides including nailing the sporty-chic aesthetic. But for many vulva-having people, there is one, glaring, downside: the creeping possibility of a camel toe and the inevitable body-shaming that comes with it.

Likened to “crotch cleavage” by Urban Dictionary, a camel toe, for those of you not in the know, occurs when the outline of the labia (the “lips” of a vulva) become visible through clothing that fits tightly around the crotch, such as leggings, playsuits or gym clothes. Unlike the “dick print”, the equivalent for cis men and male-presenting mon-binary people which features prominently in memes about grey sweatpants, or the “bulge” which is omnipresent in advertising for male underwear, the camel toe is not seen as a sex symbol. Instead, as any number of round-ups of “worst celebrity camel toes” attest, even the slightest display of your labia is seen as quite the opposite: dirty, embarrassing, and entirely un-chic.

People with vulvas have been shamed for centuries, encouraged to conceal their bodies and harshly judged by narrow beauty standards, but where does the contemporary taboo around camel toes come from? As Tracy Clark-Flory writes for Jezebel, we can trace the term’s popularisation (it was already in use in the late 90s) back to Late Night with Conan O'Brien’sCamel Toe Annie” – a 2001 skit featuring the titular Annie, a character who believed that “men shouldn’t be the only ones who get to stuff their crotch area”. Shimmying across the stage in spandex pants, set up like an obscene joke, it’s no surprise that Annie left a legacy of mocking vulvas in her wake. 

After Conan O’Brien was Fannypack, a girl band whose 2003 single “Cameltoe” asked, ‘is your crotch hungry girl? / ‘cos it’s eating your pants’. Then, came a scourge of articles from the likes of Marie Claire on how to fix the “fashion disaster,” as well as the disparaging critique of “camel toe chic” from the likes of The Guardian journalist Hadley Freeman – who saw the ubiquity of the noughties leggings trend as a thinly masked challenge to “show as much of your anatomy as possible”. 

The internalised misogyny of the 00s fashion press, which had its beady eyes trained on vulva-having people’s crotches, seems to have set the scene for the hyper-surveillance of women and non-binary people’s bodies throughout the 2010s too. Tabloid reporters hungrily captured glimpses of celebrities on holiday, homing in on the outline of their bikini briefs and, in response to growing awareness, opportunistic companies even began marketing “camel toe concealer” – reusable silicone inserts to help reduce the visibility of your vulva. 

Concealer is one thing, but camel toe shame can even drive people to surgery, specifically labiaplasty. Commonly referred to as “designer vagina” surgery alongside vaginoplasty (vaginal tightening), this cosmetic gynaecological procedure involves shortening the inner labia so that they are more in-line with the outer labia, usually while under local or sometimes general aesthetic. In 2013, the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons recorded a 109 per cent increase in labiaplasty procedures compared to the previous year – with demand continuing to rise until flattening out in 2018. 

Can we draw any links between the culture of shame surrounding camel toes and this sharp rise in global labiaplasty surgeries throughout the 2010s? According to Dr Angelica Kavouni, the UK’s ‘go-to’ surgeon for labiaplasty, the number of people going under the knife is on the rise but not, necessarily, because of camel toe shame. “Labiaplasty has become increasingly popular the over last five years due to increased awareness of the labiaplasty procedure,” Dr Kavouni tells Dazed Beauty, before drawing attention to the fact that; “Many women can suffer physically and psychologically from hypertrophic (longer or thicker than what is considered “normal”) labia.”

There’s no “right” size or shape for your labia but, as Dr Kavouni points out, sometimes individuals with larger labia report discomfort during sex and exercise. She reports “a tenfold increase” in individuals in their 20s and 30s requesting labiaplasty surgery for this reason, not for aesthetic reasons. Professor Isaac Manyonda, a consultant and professor in obstetrics and gynaecology, tells a slightly different story, however. Professor Manyonda is dubious about whether the surgery really is becoming more popular, instead maintaining that; “the demand certainly exists, but whether it’s changed I don’t know.” But from his experience, rather than being motivated by physical discomfort, the main motivation for labiaplasty is cosmetic; “the majority of people request this surgery purely because they themselves don’t like how (their labia) look.” 

“The majority of people request this surgery purely because they themselves don’t like how (their labia) look” – Professor Isaac Manyonda, gynaecologist

But while it’s largely adults remedying dissatisfaction with their labia through surgery, the body-shaming around camel toes starts much earlier, with young people receiving negative messaging in social environments – not just the media. Sex and relationships blogger and speaker Tatyannah King can remember first hearing about camel toe when a teenager in high school, from boys in her class who were audibly commenting on her body. “I overheard some guys talking about which girls had the biggest butts and camel toes in their leggings,” King remembers. “When I heard my own name in the conversation, I immediately looked up the definition on Urban Dictionary and my jaw dropped; I didn’t know people paid that much attention to the way vulvas look in thin material.”

Similarly, Beth Ashley, a writer on sex, feminism and queer culture, remembers that her introduction to the term was from “boys openly assessing who had (a camel toe)” during school PE classes in year seven. Ashley explains that this kind of behaviour, while it might not seem very serious to the people behind it, can have a long-standing negative impact; “It’s that horrible laddish British banter to take the piss out of someone for having a camel toe when actually that’s just setting a shame stigma really early on, which is so unfortunate.” 

But, like all things, camel toe stigma doesn’t discriminate equally. As King explains, Black women and Black AFAB non-binary people, already objectified in media and subject to a lengthy history of body-policing, are more harshly judged for having a visible camel toe. “There are definitely racist undertones to how people might look down upon a Black woman with a camel toe, or equate it to something hypersexual,” King states. “(Especially as) Black women are more likely to be objectified than other races.” 

“I have unfortunately seen many a fat woman attacked in public verbally for having a camel toe, with people laughing and commenting on their bodies as if they aren’t even there. I don’t think the people who are doing it even realise how frightening it is for someone to make a comment on your genitals” – Beth Ashley, writer 

Similarly, Ashley points out that camel toe-shaming is also much more severe for plus-size people. “It’s difficult enough to be a woman or a queer person in a plus-size body but if you have a camel toe or a FUPA (“fat upper pubic area”) it adds that extra layer of something to attack from people who are in thin bodies or people who are in male cis bodies,” she says. “I have unfortunately seen many a fat woman attacked in public verbally for having a camel toe, with people laughing and commenting on their bodies as if they aren’t even there. I don’t think the people who are doing it even realise how frightening it is for someone to make a comment on your genitals.”

Fear of the kind of dehumanising verbal attacks which Ashley draws attention to, directed with more frequency at plus-size people and women and non-binary people of colour, is what makes camel toe such a point of deep-rooted shame for many. Against this toxic backdrop, what, if anything, is being done to reclaim the cameltoe? If we look to the media and entertainment industries – only just beginning to fathom the idea that we don’t all exist solely for the cishet male gaze – it certainly appears that not much is being done.  

Similarly, celebrities aren’t exactly lining up to come out in support of the camel toe cause, and the one that has might come as something of a surprise (at least if you’re not familiar with Keeping Up With The Kardashians). With her penchant for selling flat tummy teas, Khloe Kardashian isn’t exactly much of a body-positive icon. But it would be a disservice to ignore her efforts to cancel camel toe stigma. Khloe, who first named her camel toe “Camille the Camel” in an Instagram post from 2015, before counting down her own top camel toe moments and writing “move over #FreeTheNipple, it's all about #FreeTheCamelToe!!!" in a now-deleted blog post, would seem to be robustly pro-camel. 

Yet, it remains to be seen whether Khloe’s stance is as radical as it might seem. It’s certainly tempting to think that her intimate defence of camel toe is really just intended to be a funny in-joke with her fans, rather than some kind of feminist statement. But with so few celebrities stepping up to the plate, we’ll just have to accept Khloe as our camel toe queen for the time being. So, with wider society putting forward such a lacklustre case for #FreeTheCamelToe what can we really do to make vulva visibility less of a point of shame and embarrassment?

For King, the answer lies in challenging the cishet-male focus of sexual education and in empowering women and AFAB non-binary people to learn more about their own vulvas. “Research has shown that 50 per cent of women don’t know what an average vulva looks like, and 15 per cent haven’t seen another vulva since watching tapes during a sex education class,” King explains. “So, if these individuals aren’t aware of the different shapes and sizes that a vulva comes in, then they’re likely to base their assumptions of (what their vulva “should” look like) off of what they’ve seen in mainstream pornography, which is never a great place to start. I’m sure (this) social influence is a huge contributor to why women seek labiaplasty.”

She’s right: without adequate education about vulvas from outside the world of pornography (where, ICYMI, camel toe is already a booming fetish category in its own right) it’s unlikely that the taboo around camel toe will ever really dissipate. That’s one of the many reasons why it’s so important sexual education in schools stays current and incorporates a range of identities and relationships, so that, with each generation, outdated notions become less ingrained. 

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