body image · clothing · fashion

The day I discovered the dreaded camel toe

Okay so I live in a bit of a cave. It’s a happy cave filled with friends, family, and other assorted human and non human loved ones who largely share my attitudes to a whole bunch of important stuff. (Except maybe the cat. The cat might be an anti-feminist infiltrator. You can never tell with cats.)

That’s either because we talked one another into these views or they’ve been socialized into them (hi teens!) or they’re part of the price of admission to the cave. But the downside of living in a happy cave is that it can be a bit of an echo chamber with the same shared ideas rattling around.

That’s my long way of explaining how it was I came to know about camel toe so late in the game. And in this case, I’ve got to say I’m not sure either the world or me is any better for the knowledge. It just makes me grumpy.

First, what is it with these turns of phrase to describe women’s ‘flawed’ body bits? Camel toes, back fat, dinner plate arms, muffin tops, ‘turn off the headlights’? What? Just stop it please. Loathe your own body if you want but end it with the labels.

Until a story complaining about Lulelemon’s ‘no more camel toe’ ad crossed my Facebook newsfeed, I had no idea this was an issue. At first I didn’t get the ad since I didn’t see the problem they were talking about as a problem. And the name made no sense to me.

I was forced to Google the phrase. (My advice: don’t. Celebrity camel toe tumblrs? It’s a sad world.)

Wikipedia tells me this: “Camel toe is a slang term that refers to the outline of a human female’s labia majora, as seen through tightly fitting clothes. Due to a combination of anatomical factors and the snugness of the fabric covering it, the crotch andpudendal cleft may take on a resemblance to theforefoot of a camel.”

There you have it.

My question: Why do we care?

It matters to women who lead physically active lives since it’s fitted sports clothing which causes women who care the most grief. I started to wonder if the dreaded camel toe was part of the story about what made running skirts so popular. (Read about running skirts and sexism here.) Bike shorts are safe (phew! ) since the chamois crotch padding covers up that part of women’s bodies.

But why does it matter in the first place? Why is it even an issue?

Here’s some musings:

Partly I think it’s connected to nervousness about weight and disgust about fat. (Chubby there is bad because chubby everywhere is bad, now your labia can be too fat along with everything else.)

Partly it’s about moving to one homogenous body type. Soon we’ll all look like Barbie, with a hairless, featureless, flat public region.

Partly it’s because there should be no reminders that women’s bodies are at all sexual. No visible labia goes along with no visible nipples. (Read about nipple phobia here.)

And of course it’s about selling us things. Create a problem, some new body insecurity and then market a solution.

This makes the most sense to me since I didn’t know what camel toe was until Lululemon came along with the solution. Ignorance is bliss, I guess. Like the visible panty lines of my youth (pre thong, I bought special underwear designed to minimize VPL about which I only became aware after an ad campaign for said underwear mentioned the problem) and visible nipples now (saw special bandaid like stickers in a store just today, to wear on your nipples, under clothing and to avoid visible nipples), it’s one more thing women have to check on the way out the door. Body policing and the internalized panopticon continues.

It’s hard not see it as part of an ever increasing trend of high maintenance self care. Not just shaving, now waxing, labial cosmetic surgery and beauty standards for body bits that in the past we could happily ignore.

I look at photos from my high school days. All tight jeans and camel toes everywhere. Who knew?

30 thoughts on “The day I discovered the dreaded camel toe

  1. I think we might be making a little too much of this. Men now have “moobs.” Remember the “bro” a.k.a. “mansierre”? Don’t you remember the hilarious “camel toe” scene in Muriel’s Wedding? What about the episode of Modern Family where Mithchell wants Cam to stop wearing bike shorts around everywhere just because he lost a few pounds? We could be vague about it, but I actually prefer precision. “Those are the wrong yoga pants for you” is not as good as “Mom, those yoga pants make you look like you have one butt cheek, not two. Wear the Lucy capris.” Mono-cheek!

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    1. Not sure if it’s progress if we ridicule men’s bodies too. And my cave doesn’t have tv so I’ve only watched Modern Family on planes…missed that one. 🙂

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  2. I didn’t know there was such a campaign by Lulu, but I can’t even afford to look at their clothes, so haven’t seen this going around.

    I knew of the concept of “camel toe” for awhile, but I learned the term about a year ago.

    I don’t think it is that women want to hide their femininity by hiding the camel toe, but rather we don’t want the world to see our bits if the intention is to cover them up. I hate workout pants that are see-through because I don’t need my polka-dot panties showing through, and of course don’t want my private parts on display to the world.

    So as much as I think this is a silly campaign by Lululemon and would never consider using this in an advertisement, I am on board with not showing off the camel-toe.

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    1. I’m not sure anyone wants to show this off. I’m much more concerned with naming and labeling…side boob, back fat, etc….and that this adds to women’s insecurities about body conscious athletic clothing. I wore a bathing suit for racing so tight I’d never wear it to the beach but I’d hate to feel I was doing something wrong by racing in it. Ditto skin suits for track cycling and time trials…

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      1. Agreed. I have no intention of displaying my vulvar region for the general viewing public. That said, when I’m engaged in a physical, athletic-oriented activity, I would just like to not worry about it.

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      2. Exactly it. It’s the difference between street clothes and performance athletic wear…then it’s just one more thing.

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  3. I’m very unsure about this, Sam. Believe me, if a man at the gym were to wear a certain type of tight fitting shorts in the gym whereby the actual, shall we say, intimate “details” of his clearly circumcised package were quite clearly and visibly on display, I’m quite sure alot of women might complain vehemently and alot of guys might laugh and make up expressions far worse than “camel toe”. Men are juvenile and make up alot of expressions for things for humourous purposes which can be inappropriate and quite vulgar in some ways, but….I don’t know. That said, there are very few commercials or advertisements directed toward men for purposes of covering up their sexual parts. The truth is: the simple fear of ridicule by other men serves that purpose just fine. This is not to say that I care about camel toes or nipples on display, or anything else like that. I may look, since I am attracted to women and cannot really help that. But I would never be disrespectful. And I didn’t even know about the expression until I read your blog. I am fairly certain that the expression was coined by a man though***laughing under my breath admittedly and really am sighing at the same time here – don’t know what’s right***

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    1. Funny. Men’s cycling shorts do just that! The only razzing about this comes when they wear coloured shorts but everything is pretty visible with black shorts too. FWIW, male cyclists also hop off the bike to pee without much concern and in some racing communities they take off their shorts, nothing worn under bike shorts, and change right besides their cars. Women tend to drive home in wet bike shorts if that’s the only choice. So I don’t see very much male modesty! Why men shouldn’t wear red shorts: http://forums.teamestrogen.com/showthread.php?t=18136

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  4. I have to also say, Sam, and it’s just my guess – but if you have teenage boys who play sports – they hear these types of things all the time, and they laugh like stink – my guess is that they just might not share all of these things with you, likely out of fear. They too want a nice cave, and they have to watch out for Mother Bear who clearly rules the roost (or cave), at least in some ways. This is NOT to say that you haven’t been an excellent guide for them. You have likely awakened their minds to a plethora of important issues and cultivated very progressive attitudes in them. My humble guess though is that they live outside your cave on occasion and maybe alot. 🙂

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  5. I didn’t know that about men’s cycling shorts! If it’s acceptable in that forum (certainly would NOT be in the gym!), hey, cool.

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  6. BTW, is cycling a sport where women avoid all of this sort of thing generally, or at least more so than they might at the gym, for instance?

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    1. Not necessarily. I’ve raced with men, ridden with men, and watched them change in front of their cars after a race while still carrying on a conversation. My point is that men don’t seem as self conscious, don’t seem to suffer body shame and athletic men, taking part in sports competition, just seem kind of ho hum about it all. I admire that.

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  7. I’m definitely with you on the “let’s stop shame naming parts of actual women’s (and men’s) bodies”. Enough body policing and fashion commenting, already. And yes, activewear IS different than street wear. I wear stuff in the gym and the dance studio that I would never wear outside the doors (I have warmups for that) but when I’m actively working, I’m all about the functional over the decorative. As for the nipple Bandaids, I think those are as much for male runners/athletes to avoid chafing as they are for women to cover up the highbeams. I’m fairly flat and love to go without a bra as long as I have something to retain my very perky prominent nipples a bit. I’m not ashamed of them, I just feel better when they aren’t as visible/calling attention to my chest. 🙂

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    1. Yeah, I know they sell nipple band aids to runners of both sexes but these were in the women’s lingerie section of the departmment store and the packaging was pretty femme.

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  8. Oh, okay. I think I’m beginning to understand. It’s totally true that men don’t give a crap whether other men or women see them nude, especially in the sports context. Maybe that’s part of why men can make these stupid jokes all the time and think nothing of them or their possible effects on people who can be shamed easily. Not to say that excuses them for making up expressions like camel toe. Part of being human is learning that not everyone is like you.

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  9. I really think we won’t make any progress on this until Sam watches Modern Family. And the episode of Seinfeld where George’s dad is self-conscious about his man boobs.

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  10. Hey Sam, I’m pretty sure we could hook you up with that episode of Modern Family.

    And while I do agree with you on the naming and shaming thing for the most part, I definitely have to come out in opposition to camel toe for two reasons. One, it’s uncomfortable to run with fabric in between your labia. Two, I think there is a line between body shaming and just having a little modesty. I’m all for feeling comfortable with your body. I feel comfortable with mine (the desire to lose 10 pounds so I can get back into the closet full of pre-grad school party dresses notwithstanding) but I don’t feel the need to let everybody know about the precise contours of my nipples or vulva. They’re mine. Nobody else needs to be that intimately acquainted with them.

    Also, I wanted to share an experience I had last year. I was with the male professor for whom I was TA, when he was approached by a slip of a young thing wanting to talk to him about something. She was wearing thin grey leggings with the most spectacular camel toe I’d ever seen. I actually felt quite uncomfortable suddenly knowing intimate things about a total stranger’s body, but I couldn’t help but feel even more uncomfortable about the fact that my male colleague must surely have noticed the same thing. You really couldn’t miss it.

    So, for me, saying no to camel toe isn’t about body shaming. I think it’s about maintaining modesty, something which I feel contemporary society seems to have forgotten about. And I don’t feel that that is an anti-feminist stance.

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    1. I don’t think it’s anti feminist to be modest. And I would never dress like that for class either. My worries are first, that shame about certain body parts, nipples, labia etc, put women off sports with tight fitted clothing. I’m also intrigued by the bits that get attention. The tight jeans of my teen generation were camel toe heaven, and I know they weren’t comfortable, but we didn’t have that label and we certainly didn’t care. And then there’s all the marketing to fix the problem areas, spanx tops to end muffin top, special band aids to avoid visible nipple, etc etc. I keep wondering what body part is up next for scrutiny and marketing! So yeah, there’s got to be a middle ground between showing everything and neurotically worrying about all the possibly exposed bits.

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  11. Coming back to add one more latent thought. I’ve never noticed someone else’s camel toe unless or until it was pointed out to me. Even then, it required a fair bit of staring and scrutiny. (I’ll point out that I’ve only done this with photos, not people in real life.) So I have to wonder — Are people who notice camel toes on people around them more likely to spend time scrutinizing crotches? And if so, doesn’t that say as much about them as my tight pants say about me?

    Or — more realistically — Is social preoccupation and anxiety about camel toes — or any other body faux pas — overblown so that we’ll spend more time second guessing and policing ourselves?

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  12. Hey Sam,

    Thanks for this. Great post.

    I was a teen in the 80s, and it seems to me that this term was definitely in circulation then.

    Dunno how to think about the cycling comparison. It’s a great example of gendered differences in athletic dress and public undress. Yet cycling is a pretty specialized context relative to active-wear more generally (of the lululemon yoga pant sort); isn’t the idea in cycling that you’re wearing tights for aerodynamics and to hold everything in place (not just junk, for guys, but the chammy, for everyone)? And you’re holding one position, on your own isolated apparatus.

    I’m a firm believer in Lycra, and have been that guy grabbing a quick change between cars at a cycling event. But I would never wear cycling shorts to the gym, where, first, there’s no need for it, plus I’m laying on benches in crowds, walking past people sitting or laying on the floor, and so forth. Rather, I wear shorts long enough in the leg that if they ride up a bit I’m not adding an ‘l’ to ‘pubic’. Clothes so baggy that they catch on machines or bars are surely a no-no, but clothes revealing details of genital terrain would, I think, be an unwelcome distraction (and mocked accordingly).

    None of which is to dispute your “musings,” which are entirely compelling to my mind. Nor am I downplaying the significance of the fact that this widely known term even exists to describe the uniquely female case, and that its existence and use are manifestations of body- and slut-shaming, within and without athletics. Just thinking about the extent to which the bike shorts phenomenon in cycling illustrates gendered differences w.r.t. super-tight shorts or pants in, say, the gym.

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    1. I graduated high school in 82 and hadn’t heard it. Maybe it’s an Ontario first thing. Our it could just be that I was oblivious. 🙂 Entirely possible.

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      1. This would have been in BC, I think. I’m remembering what was (I think) the first time a guy used the expression in my hearing — memorable, I believe, for the “Why is there even a word for that?” feeling. If it was that guy who said it, it had to be the late 80s, maybe 1989.

        Oh, so I was no longer a teen. (Though it remains true that I was a teen in the 80s.)

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  13. For me, insecurities about cameltoe has nothing to do with my weight or body image issues. I’m a dancer and it’s very awkward to have to perform a routine in front of a roomful of people, or an examiner, or even worse, onstage, and know that my privates are on full display. It makes me feel exposed &self-conscious, and I know that the people watching are probably uncomfortable with it as well. Thankfully, there are lots of way to ‘cover up’ or prevent cameltoe. Anyway, just thought I’d share my thoughts!

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  14. Was the referring to the pubic region as “public region” a typo, or a comment on the objectification of the female body to the extent that everything is considered public property?

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