Vulvae and labia are possibly one of the only parts of a cis-gendered woman’s body that we see more frequently in media than in real life. Yet they are body parts which receive an incredible amount of scrutiny and are the cause of a great deal of distress for many young people who worry that their labia aren’t ‘normal’. This paper will examine the rising trend of labiaplasties and look at why this is a gender equality issue. It will also explore what, if anything, is being done to promote labia of all shapes and sizes as being ‘normal’.
|Why are people going under the knife to alter their labia?|
It is important to differentiate between elective cosmetic labiaplasties (and other cosmetic gynaecological surgery) and reconstructive gynaecological surgery which takes place to reduce pain and discomfort after female genital mutilation (FGM). O’Regan states that “labiaplasty is a procedure which trims the labia minora (the inner lips of the vulva) to fit neatly within the outer lips”, which is predominantly done for aesthetic reasons.
The rising trend in elective, cosmetic labiapasties can be attributed to a number of factors, most notably the presentation of labia in the media. Labia and vulvae are considered ‘crude’ in a way that penises and testes aren’t, and so are rarely portrayed in mainstream media or ‘shown off’ among friends. As such, many young people will have a very limited pool of vulvae to compare their own vulvae to. Therefore, if the source is misleading or not representative of all types of vulvae, insecurity may arise among young people in particular as to whether or not their labia are ‘normal’, or they may be led to believe that there is only one type of ‘normal’ vulva.
One of the most common sources of depictions of labia is soft porn magazines, or ‘lad mags’. According to Drysdale , Australian soft porn magazines digitally alter the vulvae and labia of models in order to make their genitals look ‘healed to a single crease’ – that is, so that the labia minora are almost completely, if not fully, covered or enclosed by the labia majora. These digital labiaplasties are routinely carried out because Australia’s classifications guidelines state that “realistic depictions [of genitalia] may contain discreet genital detail but there should be no genital emphasis”. While this seems vague, Drysdale notes that as far as the classification board is concerned, inner labia are “too rude for soft porn”. This practice of digital labiaplasty isn’t unique to Australia – Calabrese et al’s study found that in US Playboy magazines, over 80% of vulvae pictured had no visible labia minora, with a further 15% showing very small and ‘neat’ labia minora, largely hidden by labia majora. Only 7% of photos actually showed visible inner labia. Calabrese notes that the models’ genital areas “emulate those of a Barbie Doll”.
|If soft porn magazines are to be believed, this is what most vulvae look like|
The rising rate at which people are seeking labiaplasties “may reflect a narrow social definition of normal, or a confusion of what is normal and what is idealised”. As such, we can see that this is an issue of gender inequality due to lack of representation of the diverse range of ‘normal’ vulvae and labia. This happens not only in the soft porn industry, which is targeted for the most part at men, but also in more mainstream media and society. There is a fear that a lot of people are being “duped by the media and by unethical doctors who are preying on their insecurities”, that the sexual objectification of their bodies is leading them to have concerns over the way their genitalia look.
Vulvae and labia are simply not something that are seen as appropriate topics of conversation – the stigma and shame associated with having a vagina remains a barrier to communicating worries or uncertainties people have with the way their labia look. As such, finding out what is ‘normal’ is considerably difficult, particularly in comparison to the range of dialogue which surrounds what is ‘normal’ in terms of penises and testes.
However, there is a growing awareness surrounding the different types and sizes of vulvae and labia, and projects like the Great Wall of Vagina are creating an environment in which discourse surrounding labia and vulvae is becoming more socially acceptable. Projects like this, as well as simply having open conversations about the way our bodies look, challenge our perceptions of normality.
|A panel from the Great Wall of Vagina, showing the variation in labia shapes and sizes|
However, as the documentary The Perfect Vagina (2008) shows, there are still, and will possibly always be, people who are still deciding that that a labiaplasty is a procedure they want or need. It is important to note that controlling other people’s bodies would be problematic in itself. We cannot deny people the ability to alter their bodies, particularly if their mental health is being affected by the way they look, even though these feelings may stem from false representation of how their bodies ‘should’ look in the media. Goodman et al come to the conclusion that while a person definitely has the right to choose a labiaplasty, it should be an informed and counselled choice, and the NHS advises that young people in particular should be advised on solutions other than surgery in response to concerns about their genitalia.
While the reasons people choose to undergo elective cosmetic labiaplasties may vary, one of the core factors is a feeling of non-conformance, of being somehow different. This is often brought on by the narrow, if even present at all, representation of vulvae and labia in the media, and the lack of discourse surrounding the wide range of ‘normal’ labia due to stigma and shame. However, although labiaplasties themselves are a gender equality issue, to deny someone their right to bodily autonomy should they make an informed choice to have the surgery would also be a gender equality issue. As such, we need to promote a greater range of ideas surrounding ‘normalcy’ when it comes to vulvae and encourage positive discourse about labia and vulvae in order to both reduce the rate at which people are having labiaplasties, and ensure that those who continue to have them are making an informed, and therefore empowered, choice.