Lets talk about our labia! (P.1 of 2)
Updated: Dec 15, 2020
‘Beef sandwich’ is the expression I remember most from school…
Someone had passed around a magazine and one of the articles was about a girl who noticed she had longer labia minora than labia majora protruding out of her vulva (longer inner lips than outer). She was terrified that she was abnormal and was asking the magazines agony aunt for help. The response from my class was as you might expect. Laughing, making fun, saying it looked ‘gross’. There was a photo next to the article of the girl’s vulva and it was quickly torn out, thrown around the classroom and stuck to various peoples backs.
I can remember this day vividly because it was the first time I thought my labia were abnormal. I was twelve years old…
So, why does the degradation of the vulva begin at such an early age? Why is it difficult to find out what the vulva really looks like? And why, in this void of information, are we surgically removing the length of our labia, a procedure medically known as a labiaplasty, at such an increasing rate?
To summarise (and I really do think it is this simple) … because we are all desperate to be ‘normal’. But the irony is, ‘normal’ is always changing. As a society we celebrate and praise sexualised images of half naked women on social media, especially Instagram. We envy them, we imitate them and we do it all because, well, of course we have the right to do so. We have the right to celebrate our bodies in any way we choose and should do so freely, but, where does the celebration of one’s self image stop and the desperate search for perfection begin? To put it simply, there are not enough conversations about the vulva and what it actually looks like. This is a social issue, not a personal one.
‘Designer vagina’ is a now an actual term, coined by cosmetic surgeons across the world. We augment breasts, bums, lips, cheek bones, suck fat out here, put it back in there, inject ourselves with plastic, laser our hair and so much more, all to reach the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow – happiness with one’s own appearance. So why wouldn’t the vulva be called into question? We’ve nipped and tucked about everywhere else. It was inevitable that the shape and look of our vulvas were going to put on the chopping block sooner or later.
In Health magazine, Jennifer Gunter, an ob-gyn MD who runs a specialist clinic for vulva conditions in San Francisco is quoted saying, ‘I am asked about labiaplasty at least once a month … Five years ago, I was probably asked one to two times a year.’
We desperately need to ask ourselves - why? Why do we feel that freely handing ourselves over for consensual genital mutilation is preferable to loving what we have? Without so much as having all the facts and without even having a conversation first. So… let’s have it.
Over the past year (and with much time on my side … thanks corona virus) I have been confronted by my feelings about the look of my labia. They protrude out of the labia majora and are slightly asymmetrical.
In an article in Cosmopolitan magazine, prominent inner lips are said to be:
“the most common type of vulva, yet ironically the one women have historically felt most self-conscious about in the surgeon's experience. Here, the labia minora are longer than the labia majora. Because of the difference in length, the inner lips extend below the outer lips. This can range from a very subtle, slight protrusion to a much more visible one.”
The most common type, yet ironically the one most people feel self conscious about. Where is the sense? I’m part of the majority and considering we’re all so desperate to belong to a group, to be part of the pack, I should be jumping for joy to find out that me and my labia are far from alone. But still, I’m not. Of course my immediate reaction is to blame porn. Unrealistic, unattainable images of men and women, often playing out fantasy’s being presented as if they could be ‘normal’. But I think that would be too hasty. We all know porn can be degrading, especially to women, but it can also be used as a tool. You might have to search a little further than the PornHub homepage, but its out there, its just not considered ‘desirable’ right now. And we can’t blame porn for that, after all, they are just providing us with what we tell them we want to see. We have to look at ourselves. Why have the look and shape of our vulvas become subject to trends?
It is my belief that it all started to go awry when pubic hair went out of fashion. As soon as people could actually see their vulvas, we started to put a price on their aesthetic value (labiaplasty surgery can cost anywhere from £2500 - £4000, plus consultation costs and aftercare). Just remember, the same works for penises and vulvas – the shorter the hair the longer it seems! Over the past few decades in particular, mostly with the invention and wide spread use of social media, the importance and pressure put on our beauty standards have increased ten fold and are doing so at a scarily rapid rate. We need to take our vulvas out this ongoing beauty contest and put them back into the realm of biology where they belong. The realm of functionality and … dare I say it … of pleasure!
In MensHealth Dr Justine Schober, director of academic research at UPMC Hamot in Pennsylvania, suggests that longer labia can actually heighten sexual pleasure.
“The larger her labia, the greater her sexual pleasure. The vast majority of women in the study said their labia majora and minora are 3 inches long. But about 1 in 10 said their lips are large (4 inches) or very large (5 inches). And these ladies may be the lucky ones: The women with larger labia reported greater sexual pleasure in this area than those with small or average-sized labia. The simple explanation? “[There’s] more area to contact—more nerve endings…”
This is not to say the small labia are bad either, or that this should be the case for every vulva with protruding labia, it is just to demonstrate the fact that there can actually be pros to having longer labia minora! God forbid we focus on our own sexual pleasure rather than what might be deemed aesthetically pleasing to society. Aside from pleasure, and most importantly, our labia are actually there to serve a functional purpose, lest we forget. They are there to protect to our vaginal opening, clitoris and urethra. They are there in the same way any other body part is, to aid us in some way. We are the ones who say what they ‘should’ like, nature only gives us the best canvas it can to live our lives.
Jaimie McCartney is an English artist. One of his most best know pieces is the The Great Wall of Vagina, a project that took him nearly five years to make, in which he cast over four-hundred different women’s vulvas. The result was something completely beautiful and enlightening. For one of the very first times people were actually able to look at the wide range of different vulvas and not just look but admire, learn from and celebrate!
‘The reason I’ve done all of this, and cast all of these models is because I came to realise that a lot of women have anxiety about their genitals … I then discovered that labiaplasties are the fastest growing cosmetic surgery. So the idea that women are … cutting off parts of their genitals to conform to some notion of a popular aesthetic … I found it repulsive… how did we get here? Why are women cutting off parts of their genitals? We talk about female genital mutilation as a bad thing, of course it is and that isn’t with choice, but women are choosing to do this … why? So I got into trying to work out why and having decided why I wanted to do something about it… so this is about saying this is what normal women look like and if you’re going to make the choice to have surgery … at least make it an informed choice because up until this was made there really wasn’t a lot of other places to go to see what other women look like.”
We need a complete attitude change to our vulvas. To remember what the word ‘normal’ actually means, (and no it does not mean the tiny percentage of people presented to us on social media). Most importantly we need to remember that the more surgeries women have to reduce the length of their labia, because of social pressure, the more labia that look like ours will become part of the minority. We are enforcing the the very thing we are trying to escape from...
This article is part of series that I will be uploading in the coming weeks as we open up the topic about our vulvas! Next time I will be talking about my experience in looking into labiaplasty surgery and more information on the procedure as far as I have found.
I would like to leave you with one quote from Adam Kays, This is Going to Hurt, which I think leads us nicely onto to our topic next time… thank you for reading and remember, love your labia, whatever the length, we are normal … period.
“Called to A&E to review a nineteen-year-old girl with heavy vaginal bleeding … What I’m in fact faced with is a nineteen-year-old girl who has taken kitchen scissors and performed her own labial reduction surgery. She valiantly managed to chop three-quarters of the way down her left labium minus before she called a) it a day, and b) an ambulance. It was an absolute mess down there, and bleeding heavily. I checked with my senior registrar that I wouldn’t inadvertently be performing female genital mutilation and go to prison if I cut off the loose end and over sewed the bleeding edge. All fine, and I tidied it up. In honesty, she didn’t do much of a worse job than a lot of the labiaplasties I’ve seen … She told me she ‘didn’t think it would bleed’, to which I didn’t have anything to helpfully reply, and that she ‘just wanted to look normal’. I reassured her there was absolutely nothing wrong with her labia; they really, honestly did look normal. ‘Not like in porn though,’ she said … it’s horrifying and depressing in equal parts. How long until we’re seeing girls stapling their vaginas tighter?”
(I would like to make clear that this article, in reference to labiaplasty surgery, is purely focused on those that undertake it for aesthetic reasons, not health or otherwise. And is not intended to criticise or undermine, everyone has the right to make their own decision, lets just make sure it’s an informed one!)
Kay, Adam. This is Going to Hurt, Picador, 2017.