February 13, 2012

Evulvalution: Playboy Centerfolds a Threat to Women and Children

Women's Genitals Infantilized
Evulvalution is an article reporting on a recent study examining the representation of women's vulvae in 647 Playboy Magazine centerfolds. The research team considered both the representation of the women's genitals as well as their whole bodies. Taken together, the team found that the centerfolds perpetuate a "Barbie Doll" ideal characterized by a low BMI, narrow hips, a prominent bust, and hairless, undefined genitalia resembling those of a prepubescent female.

Disturbingly, this prepubescent sexual ideal may affect not only women's body image and sexual health, but also the safety of our children.

Concludes the authors about the possible effects on children:
The safety and well-being of younger members of the female population may also be affected by the prepubescent ideals promoted by Playboy Magazine. By sexualizing childlike physical characteristics, Playboy photographs have the potential to condition readers to experience sexual arousal in response to viewing or fantasizing about girls and young women. In addition, repeated masturbation to these pornographic images is likely to reinforce and enhance any formed associations. Moreover, the ‘‘childification’’ of Playboy models may lead readers to not only regard children and adolescents as sexual objects, but to justify treating them as such and desensitize them to any internal inhibitions surrounding pedophilia (Russell & Purcell, 2006). Disturbingly, in addition to depicting models in a childlike form, Playboy Magazine often includes childhood photographs of its centerfold models within their individual pictorials, further intensifying the connection between children and sexuality presented to its readers.

And on women:
As these ideals are increasingly embraced, women’s physical deviation from the prototype may become especially salient to them and cause significant body image disturbance. Moreover, with some population norms shifting in the opposite direction of Playboy ideals (e.g., increasing BMI; Spitzer et al., 1999), more women are likely to be affected and greater discrepancies in appearance are likely to be perceived. [...]

Media images may not only contribute to concerns about genital appearance, but may also affect women’s sexual health via the body modifications they encourage. According to a 2001 excerpt from Shine Magazine (as cited in Braun, 2005), ‘‘A lot of women bring in Playboy, show me pictures of vaginas and say, ‘I want to look like this’’’ (p. 413). Women who undergo cosmetic genital surgery in an attempt to more accurately fit media ideals put themselves at risk for reduced physical sensation (Liao & Creighton, 2007), among other complications. Even seemingly more feasible and benign physical changes may confer negative health repercussions; for instance, shaving pubic hair increases the likelihood of spreading sexually transmitted infections (Palefsky & Handley, 2002). Thus, the unnatural ideals presented in Playboy Magazine can have far-reaching implications for women’s physical self-image as well as their sexual health.

You can download the whole article "Evulvalution: The portrayal of Women's External Genitalia and Physique across Time and the Current Barbie Doll Ideals" (2011) in PDF-format here.

Photo from Women's Genitals Infantilized.


  1. This article is the most ridiculous thing I've ever read. How can they even begin to say that a bare vagina somehow will inspire pedophilia. Also how is playboy magazine a threat to young women? Are they saying young adolescent woman are being allowed to look at playboy? Hey why just stop at playboy magazine. Why not target every pornographic magazine on the planet. How about Victoria secret. We can start blaming all magazines that show the preferred grooming habit trends of the decade for all sexual crimes against woman and children.

    Why is it that society consistently blames media or music or Barbie for how women feel about themselves. Has any one bothered to looks inside their own front door? Last I knew low self esteem had more to do with how you're raised versus what toys you played with.

  2.  I understand and appreciate your opinion. I still don't buy that women are in pursuit of the perfect body or labia because of playboy. There are so many nude magazines that show labia's of all shapes and sizes.

    Statistics are both useful and useless, because they always show only one point of view. There are many men that I personally know that prefer larger labia, some prefer smaller. Same goes for pubic hair preferences. Ultimately it's truly up to each woman to decide what *they* prefer to look like.

    I've had labiaplasty. Why? I can tell you for sure it wasn't due to Playboy magazine, and I've been collecting that magazine for over 18 yrs now. It was due to what my labia looked like after birthing 3 children.

    My point is that society loves to blame it's self esteem issues on the media. It's a cop out as far as I am concerned. Playboy touches up their photos, so does every single magazine, pornographic or not, on the market. What is even more amazing is that America has cornered the market on sexual oppression, yet we have violence in many shows on prime time television. Aren't we the rebellious lot that migrated across the sea so we could be free to express ourselves? The land of the free, home of the brave...

    We *love* to blame our internal hangups on everything and everyone else, rather than looking at our own crap and households. Self deception and finger pointing at its finest.

    Just one woman's opinion, of course. =)

  3. You may be interested in viewing this documentary on the link between images such as those found in Playboy magazine and the rise in labiaplasty surgeries: http://vimeo.com/9924049 

     Mainstream pornography is almost certainly harming young women who flip through the pages of these magazines and end up feeling completely abnormal when none of the vulvas resemble their own. The original research paper found that in all of the photos spanning a one year period, only 7% showed any sign of inner labia whatsoever. This is in marked contrast to numerous other studies which have found a wide diversity in terms of labia length. Most women (and men) are unaware that digital alteration is so rampant it extends as far as our genitals. 

    You are right that the way we are raised has much to do with self-esteem. Unfortunately for most of us in Western society, this means we are raised to never speak of our genitals, and certainly never ask a friend what their's look like. When women are curious about what other women's bodies look like, too often they turn to mainstream pornography - magazines like Playboy.

  4. Although much of this is valuable, the connection to pedophilia isn't as sound as it seems. There's no reputable evidence that photos cause or increase crime of this sort. That isn't to say that individuals may not be affected in some way (a more complex notion than it may seem); but in the population as a whole, there is no connection beyond reasoned speculation.

    The article "Online “Predators” and Their Victims" by Wolak, Finkelhor, and others, from 2008, is one of several that note a few reasons not to accept the speculation.Regardless, the connection of women to children as sexual fantasies for men is not new; there's notable literature on the subject going back some decades at least, if not a century or two. It's still a major problem.

  5. Paul: I actually can't quite see how your comment disagrees with the article. The authors are very careful not to assert a simple cause and effect connection between these childified pictures and pedophilia; they simply ask us that we consider them. "There's no reputable evidence that photos cause or increase crime of this sort" -- agreed. But we do know images affect us, true? As the publisher of The Century Project, I would think you'd be the first to accept that argument.

    And at Wookies Girl: please read the post again. The article doesn't state that "a bare vagina somehow will inspire pedophilia." Read it, and you'll find the answers to the questions you pose above about how these pictures may affect young women. And yes, there are images available that show labia of all shapes and sizes, but please show me a (porn) magazine that does (here in the US? seriously?!).

    "Society loves to blame its self esteem issues on the media?" -- for good reasons, I'd say. That said, I totally agree with you "that America has cornered the market on sexual oppression, yet we have violence in many shows on prime time television." So you do agree that we live in a sexually oppressed culture; a culture that is unwilling to celebrate and represent actual, natural bodies and sex. A culture for whom real looking genitals are a problem. While guns and violence are not.

    I have a lot more to say in response to all of this; in fact, it turned into its own post. You can find it in my other blog here: let's talk about the effects of porn

  6. Images of women with small breasts could be argued to be infantilizing them, as in the Australian ban of small breasts, see http://theweek.com/article/index/105766/australias-small-breast-ban

    Presumably we should also worry about youngsters who mature early, and have older-looking genitals!

    We know that some cultures go to extremes, particularly with image of women. Their solution is to make women dress in veils and hide their "form". The recent slutshaming issues tells us that dressing sexy is not the same as being sexual, and is not a sexual invitation.

    Women should be able to chose what they do with their bodies and body hair, and certainly not pander to male sensibilities.


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