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May 10, 2010 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

Loveliness and the Labia

I learned of my vagina long before I knew it had a name. It wasn’t through inquisition or sexual awakening; I simply became conscious of it pressing against itself as I stood, sat, moved. I didn’t dwell on what it meant, but enjoyed its existence as I enjoyed all the bodily faculties available to me.

Growing older, one’s own skin and body too easily become templates for all sorts of projections. Culture, as they say, gets in. I learned, as one does, that vaginas are political. They mean something, and that meaning is mapped out by their functions and uses, most prominently those related to heterosexual relations. (The word ‘vagina’ comes from Latin. It means sheath. As in, for a sword.)
I also learned that women’s genitalia are as varied as their faces. Some are frilly, some flare out, some are voluptuous, some are dainty. There are ‘innies’ and there are ‘outies’. Their colours range over pinks, mauves and browns, and each responds to touch differently, each a loveliness unto itself.
I was taken aback for a moment when I learnt that cunts too could be cosmetically enhanced by plastic surgery, and have been for the past fifteen years at least. In hindsight, it isn’t that unthinkable that cosmetic vaginal and vulval reconstruction happens. Upsetting, maybe. But not unthinkable. After all, the scene has been set: we have braces, boob jobs, eyelash extensions, penile augmentation, skin grafts, hair grafts, the reassignation of gender, brazilians for men and women alike—and that’s just naming a few. Over time, more and more aspects of the human body have come under vanity’s gaze and become candidates for perfection.
If vaginal rescaping was once deemed impossible or unpalatable, times have certainly changed. Put it down to the mainstreaming of pornography: these days, even straight women and monogamists of whatever sexual preference can see the genitalia of lots of other women. The bulk of these anatomies have been digitally or surgically airbrushed, but for those of us who have not had the pleasure of bedding many ladies, they are the point of reference and, by default, they shape expectations.
Elizabeth Haiken, author of Venus Envy: A History of Cosmetic Surgery, remarks that “before crotch shots were published, nobody was interested in this”. Dr Gary Alter, the fittingly named plastic surgeon famously associated with vaginal ‘rejuvenation’, calls it the ‘Penthouse Effect’. His clients allegedly come in wielding glossy porn magazines, demanding that he “make mine look like that”. 
Like many of you, I’m not one to pander slavishly after genital ideals propagated by porn. Big dicks, big tits: big deal. But possessing a pussy, one is bound to wonder (hopefully casually): what’s good? Am I okay? Even people who first hear of vulval reconstruction through criticism of it are startled into wondering how their goods measure up to what’s ‘good’. It goes to show how easily seeds of ‘what to want’ and ‘what to tolerate or change’ can be sown.
Judging by the before-and-after shots boasted by plastic surgery websites, it seems what everybody wants is the same: slim, straight and narrow, minimal ornamentation.
Reduction of the labia minora, the inner lips of the vulva, is the most requested procedure. Other procedures on offer include: trimming elongated or uneven labia, scraping excess skin off the clitoral hood, plumpening of the labia with a fat transplant, liposuction of pubic flesh, tightening of the vagina walls and surgically creating new hymens. To warrant these measures, age, human diversity, childbirth and active sex lives are cast as traumas. Their physical effects—larger labias, relaxed vaginal muscles and what have you—are held responsible for great discomfort, plummeting self-esteem, and thwarted sex lives by proxy.
Take a look at these testimonies from Shine and Cosmopolitan:
“My sex life has improved so much since the operation—we have more sex now than ever before. I’m much more into my boyfriend and now that I’m tighter, I’m much more confident about initiating sex. Even better, my boyfriend is enjoying sex with me more, as there’s much more stimulation for him too.”
“I was so thrilled by my new vagina. Dan and I ‘tried it out’ after just four weeks. What a difference—it was like my whole sex life was beginning again. Suddenly I discovered how amazing oral sex can be because I could finally relax and be myself during sex. I didn’t have to worry about my boyfriend seeing me naked.”
Reading between the lines of these and other testimonies, surgery salves sex-lives by modifying psychological outlooks via the modification of flesh. When it comes to sex, the body is mind incarnate. Our thoughts embodied in hands, necks, mouths, throats, cocks, cunts and sphincters. Feeling appealing means being appealing. It really is all in the mind. Most of the women getting the procedure recognise this. “Once you get a hang-up it just grows and grows. It’s all mental,” comments a woman interviewed by’s Louisa Kamps. “If you see something affecting your relationship, then, yeah, save yourself the head trauma and get it done.”
There are still risks, though. Dr Alter insists that he avoids cutting near the clitoris to guarantee your orgasm’s safety under his knife. But according to Dr Norman Schulman, chief plastic surgeon at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, Alter’s logic is impossible: “There are women whose nerve centers are collected at the clitoris, women whose nerve centers are collected at the labia, women whose nerve centers aren’t even in the genitalia.”
Needless to say, beautifying the human body is not a contemporary phenomenon, neither is it culturally exclusive. Somewhat ironically, vaginoplasty’s West African cousin comes to mind. FGM (female genital mutilation OR modification, depending on your diplomacy) is more or less demonised in popular media. It is outlawed in several American states by a constitution that relies on FGM’s specific tribal and cultural context to distinguish it from plastic surgery of the same region.
FGM takes a variety of forms, but basically the clitoris is scraped down and the lips sewn up. The idea is to wrench physical pleasure from sex in an effort to keep women chaste. The oppressive motives in this are blatant. But cultural expectations—however subjugating—have an interesting way of sneaking in and making themselves at home in people’s ideas about what they want to look like. Case in point: an Egyptian mother whose daughter awaits excision expresses passionate distaste for the appearance of long labia in a nineties documentary, Hidden Faces. “Do you want her to be like a boy with this floppy thing hanging down?” she asks, painting the offending feature in the air with her hands. “It should be straight. Shhh. Smooth as silk.”
Anthropologist Christine Walley discovers something similar among the teenage girls she teaches in West Kenya. Her students display neither ignorance nor naivety when she gently asks them about the pain and loss of sexual sensation their infibulations entail. They assure her they are aware, already, of these consequences. They are also well familiar with criticisms of their custom (which has been illegal in Kenya since 1982), and on some levels, they concur with these. But much to their teacher’s mystification, their inductions to ladyhood make them feel prouder and prettier all the same.
The Egyptian ladies, the Kenyan girls, and the women confessing to Cosmo may come from very different cultural backgrounds. But in their differences lurks this sameness: ‘beauty’ precedes politics and is a way out of shame. It is conformity to populous ideals and it is also a state of mind. It’s a pity a person’s notions of beauty and ugliness cannot be resculpted as easily as a vulva can. Dr Nada Stotland, president of the Association of Women Psychiatrists, acknowledges that energy should really be used to help people feel proud of their bodies. “But at the same time,” she adds, “you can’t entirely denigrate the idea that a body feature could cause a person enough psychic pain to warrant surgery.”
With vaginal alteration, we are up against a philosophical knot: the freedom to opt out of ‘psychic pain’ seems to be part of the family of freedoms fought for by feminists and humanists alike. Labiaplastologists obviously think so. And the delight attested to by women who’ve had their bits surgically prettified cannot be denied. The technology exists, after all. As does the need to use it. The market has spoken and who am I to tell it to shut up? Even if the ‘freedom’ it speaks of feels tainted.

Rachel Bowlby brings intellectual relief to my vague sense of ill-fit between liberation and labiaplasty. She points out that the feminist’s freedom to choose and the freedom to choose as a consumer are two very different creatures. Either one may be intended when that gift-horse ‘choice’ is evoked, but one springs from an ethos of equality and the other from dissatisfaction and greed.
The onus to resist buying into the ‘Penthouse Effect’ doesn’t rest solely with women. Or with men, for that matter. Many people as horrified by labiaplasty as I might disagree, as they link its injustices to the long history of males designating feminine form and behaviour through art, literature, medicine and politics. This dynamic cannot be denied, but both genders must take responsibility for perpetuating ideas about what twats should look like. Beauty—said to be the harmony of form and function—loses something spectacular when its essence is sought in appearances alone. If there is a social divide here, it seems it is not between men and women, but between those who understand that aesthetic beauty means more than what is prescribed by popular culture, and those who have yet to figure this out.
Culture can’t be unlearned. The ideas drawn upon to formulate it, however, can—and must—be elaborated beyond those we are fed. Women’s genitals are tricky in this respect because they get so little airtime outside of porn and seduction. So inform yourselves: if a show and tell session with girlfriends doesn’t take off, I suggest beginning with porn made for lesbians and the book Femalia by Joani Blank, which compiles several photographs of female vulvas without conferring values onto their different forms.
Perhaps saying this to console someone whose self-loathing collects between their thighs has a smidgen more weight than having your mum vouch for your coolness? I don’t know. I can only hope their reasons for feeling how they feel are considered and well-informed.

This feature was also published in Kate, the Auckland University Students’ Association’s women’s magazine.


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