Part Two of our Labiaplasty Series:
Fueling the Labiaplasty Trend:
The Labiaplasty Trend – This is part two in a series on an increasingly popular cosmetic surgical procedure called labiaplasty. In part one of our labiaplasty series, we gave an introduction to this procedure: why women do it, patient statistics and side effects.
While we recognize that there are non-cosmetic reasons for this surgery, it seems as though most women and girls are seeking this surgery because they think their labia are ugly and abnormal.
Plastic surgeons should be (but are not) obligated to conduct mental assessments on patients prior to doing surgery. Nor are they obligated to assure women that their genitals are “normal” (as this would conflict with their bottom line).
So business is booming in the industry of cosmetic vaginal surgery. Now we will attempt to figure out the “why.” Why has this procedure spiked in popularity over the last few years and why are some young girls so uncomfortable with the appearance of their vulva, that they would attempt to cut off parts of their own labia?
The most common answer: pornography. As we discussed in an article on children and pornography, it’s estimated that children are first exposed to Internet porn at the average age of 11. Porn is easier than ever to access. Plenty of it is free and available online. It’s literally at our fingertips. Anyone who surfs the net is likely to come across it at least once. Whether they’re looking for it or not.
Pornography is often blamed for women having body image issues. Mainstream porn usually features the unattainable female “ideal.” This can be seen in the photo below (of the typical Playboy model). She is blonde, busty, slim, with a flat stomach and perhaps even a photo-shopped vulva? We know it’s a common practice for magazines and other media to photoshop models.
They do this to slim them down, make them look younger and remove any and all physical “imperfections.” But are they also given a Barbie doll vagina (if they haven’t already achieved that look through surgery)?
Photo-shopping the labia minora out of a photo is a common practice in soft-core porn magazines in Australia. They call it “healing to a single crease.”
The following documentary segment provides an overview of labiaplasty. It then discusses how magazines in Australia are forced to censor / augment women’s vulvas in order to get a certain approval rating from the Classification Board. This board puts magazines into categories based on how “sexually explicit” they are. This, in turn, determines the age restrictions of the consumers (ie 15+, 18+ etc).
As the documentary points out, labiaplasty is a growing phenomena in Australia as well. Coincidence? Hmmm……
Some female readers may be thinking that “These are men’s magazines. I don’t read them, nor do I watch porn. Why would I and other non-porn-watching women be affected by this?” Research has demonstrated that most regular consumers of porn are indeed men and 1 out of 3 visitors to all adult websites are women.
So how does porn affect women who don’t view porn regularly? Well, if boys are getting their first exposure to naked women from porn, then logically they would expect to see the same (hairless vulvas with all the bits tucked in) on the girls they “hook up” with.
Although girls and women do not watch porn regularly, they are still just as likely to be exposed to at least soft-core porn, at a young age. Whether it’s in a magazine or online, “Soft-core porn” can be as simple as the nude Playboy model above (presumably meant to titillate men).
If this is basically girls’ only exposure to nudity, then it is only natural that they will inevitably compare themselves to these nude models (and as a result, they will conclude that their vulva is abnormal). In regards to their genitals, the message they’ll get is that they need to shave their pubes and get labiaplasty. Otherwise they will not be “normal,” nor will they be sexually desirable to men.
In researching labiaplasty, I’ve also come across several accounts of girls and young women who claimed they were getting teased by friends, family, guys or boyfriends about their protruding labia! This sort of bullying must be coming from young people who have no idea that the female vulva is as varied as the number of women who have them.
They are as unique as a person’s face. The Museum of Sex currently has a large exhibit entitled “The Sex Lives of Animals,” which includes a section about animal genitalia. I found this quote which illustrates my point: “There is no one ‘right’ shape for a penis or for a vulva—among people and throughout the animal kingom. Few, if any, structures show more variation than the genitals.”
As many naturists have observed, the current trend for pubic hair is to go totally bare. Naturally, porn is often seen as the driving force behind this trend. The overall lack of pubic hair today is also cited as contributing factor in the recent labiaplasty trend. Since bare vulvas are so prevalent in mainstream pornography, it allows producers of porn to show even more genital detail and to make the labia that much more visible.
In 2011 some British feminists staged “The Muff March.” It was a protest against the negative influences of porn which make women feel the need to shave their pubes and / or get vaginal cosmetic surgery. This article about the protest states that from 2007 to 2008 labiaplasty surgeries increased by 70% in the UK.
Some people are not so quick to pin the blame solely on porn. Some believe that the problem stems directly from sex education – or lack thereof.
In a Huffpost Live segment entitled “Designer Vaginas,” sex-positive educator Carlin Ross says:
“The number one issue, globally, with men and women, girls and boys, is genital shame. And I feel it’s because we don’t teach that there is a variety of genital styles…everyone is different and unique..You can see penises in pop culture but when do you see a woman kind of spread open? You don’t…as far as from an educational standpoint, at what point does a young girl see 10 or 12 images of a range of what a vulva can look like? …the average vulva has dangling inner lips.”
Right! A typical sex-ed class in America will show girls a simple (medical journal type) illustration of a vulva. It will have the names of all the different parts, but that’s it. That’s all I saw in my 6th grade sex-ed class. If I hadn’t grown up as a naturist, I’d have no idea what the average vulva or penis looks like.
Ross, together with famous sexologist Betty Dodson, runs a sex-ed website, dodsonandross.com. Dodson has frequently said that up until the age of 35, she thought her vulva was deformed. She felt this way because she had no other visual reference of what the average vulva looks like.
Sex-positive activists like Dodson and Ross, Laci Green and others provide some wonderful online resources and information on sex and sexuality. But how about sex-ed in American schools? Are educators moving beyond textbook illustrations and minimal information?
Al Vernacchio is a sex-ed teacher in Philadelphia who was profiled in the New York Times Magazine in 2011. Vernacchio has a very honest, sex-positive and progressive approach with his students. He teaches an elective course (which I feel should be required) called “Sexuality and Society.” As part of the curriculum, he shows the students photos of different vulvas and penises.
The article shares this telling observation from Vernacchio:
“What’s interesting, he added, is that both the boys and girls receive the photographs of the penises rather placidly but often insist that the vulvas don’t look ‘normal.’ ‘They have no point of reference for what a normal, healthy vulva looks like, even their own,’ Vernacchio said.” (p. 3)
Unfortunately, I think teachers like Vernacchio are too few and far between these days.
Mainstream pornography is likely a contributor to some of women’s body image issues (such as anxiety about labia appearance). But it has been, and by the looks of it, will continue to be around, for a long time to come. Teenagers are going to see it regardless of how many Internet safety filters are put in place.
Therefore, in my opinion, we need to focus more on education rather than “prevention.” We need to offer young people a healthier view of the human body and a far more complete sex education. Sex education can help remove this genital shame and show girls that their labia are indeed normal.
Parents can also talk to their kids about sex and porn. They need to explain to their kids how the imagery depicted in pornography differs from reality (I personally wouldn’t leave it all up to schools).
Young girls today are already dealing with so many issues surrounding their bodies. Vulva-shame does not have to be one of them!
This post about the recent Labiaplasty trend was published by – Young Naturists And Nudists America YNA
Sources and More Resources on Labia and Labiaplasty:
The Large Labia Project – a great Tumblr that posts photos of labia submitted by women, answers questions about the vulva, labia & body image, provides resources, videos and news relating to these topics.
UK Documentary: The Perfect Vagina – highly recommended and free to watch in full online. This documentary follows a journalist as she tries to figure out why vaginal cosmetic surgery is the fastest growing surgery in the UK. She interviews women who hate their vulvas, plastic surgeons, advocates of body-positive values, and many others.
Make Love, Not Porn– the project of sex-positive activist Cindy Gallop. Her goal with this project is to clear up sexual myths perpetuated by mainstream porn and to spark up healthy conversations about sex and sexuality.
One last note: Cindy also has a website selling sex videos submitted by users. There is tons of “amateur” porn out there featuring average people with average bodies having real sex. There is even such a thing as “feminist porn”! Mainstream porn is typically the more problematic type.
And just for fun: Singing Vulvas !