By Arena Thomson
Women are undergoing below-the-belt cosmetic surgery at a growing rate in a quest for “perfect” genitalia. Labiaplasty consists of reducing the amount of tissue in either the labia majora or labia minora through surgery. Many women are turning to labiaplasty as an answer to their feelings of insecurity about their vulvas, some of whom have very little knowledge about the risks associated with the procedure.
This disturbing trend points to the larger issue of our patriarchal society’s tendency to police women’s bodies, and to instill unease in them over any divergence from the norm. Plastic surgeons who choose to perform labiaplasty often do nothing to assuage these women’s anxieties about their bodies, treating natural variations in vulvas as aberrations that can be “fixed”.
In spite of a small number of labiaplasty surgeries executed to alleviate physical discomfort, the prevailing reason for this surgery is far more disconcerting. The vast majority of women undergoing labiaplasty are doing so to conform to an ideal created largely by the adult film industry, which has inspired this disturbing trend of “designer vaginas”. With the online porn industry booming, our perception of what is sexually desirable is ever-more reflective of the toned, tweezed and tucked bodies we see on our screens. This leaves women feeling frustrated and ashamed when we don’t naturally measure up.
Due to a lack of adequate sexual education, we are dangerously out of touch with our anatomy and, when a vulva cannot be shown without being sexualized, we are left to draw conclusions about what our bodies “should” look like based on the images we see in porn. It is seriously harmful for women only to have access to these depictions as they fail to encompass the vast and unique spectrum of vulvas out there and make us feel needlessly insecure about our bodies.
With labiaplasty surgery techniques vary, but the two most commonly employed are the “trim” and “wedge” methods. The “trim” consists of one continuous incision and results in a smooth, less pigmented edge; the “wedge” leaves more of the natural labial edge intact and scars are supposedly less visible post-operatively. Some surgery methods, such as the “Barbie”, cause the patient’s vulva to appear alarmingly prepubescent in aesthetic. This shows that women are subscribing to a standard that should have never been there in the first place for adult females.
Very few obstetricians and gynecologists perform the surgery, with the CEO of the Society of Gynecologists and Obstetricians claiming that there is no valid medical reason to undergo the surgery. However, the number of plastic surgery clinics in North America receiving requests for the surgery are ever-increasing, with the CBC reporting a 44% increase from 2012 to 2013. The procedure has become normalized in the world of plastic surgery, which is unfortunate, because normalizing larger labia instead would eliminate the need for cosmetically-motivated labiaplasty entirely.
One of the main factors informing many women’s decision to go under the knife is shame or pressure from sexual partners. In an online forum dedicated to cosmetic surgery, a user remarked that her boyfriend called her labia “beef curtains” and claimed their size was the result of having a lot of sex. For men – particularly those who are completely misinformed about female anatomy – to be policing and criticizing their wives’ and girlfriends’ bodies and making bogus accusations about their sexual history is completely unacceptable. Reading this user’s story made me wonder how many more women have been subjected to the same judgment and shaming, or have even made negatively impactful decisions to appease their invalidating partners.
I am a firm believer in a woman’s right to choose what she does with and to her body, but it saddens me to think that women are so distanced from their bodies and what is “normal”, that they are falling prey to the erroneous belief that only a certain type of vulva is aesthetically pleasing. Dispelling the notion of a “perfect” vulva is essential, because every woman deserves to feel pride, pleasure and freedom from anxiety. There is power in knowing and loving our bodies as they exist, without hesitation or alteration.
Arena Thomson is a freelance writer for Sex with Dr. Jess and an aspiring sex educator. She is endlessly fascinated with human sexuality in all its manifestations, and wants to provide sex education that is queer and trans inclusive with an increased awareness around pleasure and consent. A Toronto native, she has recently left the smog of the city to embark on a country adventure with her partner and cat. She enjoys cycling, vintage dresses, subversive cross-stitching and Marvin Gaye.