When I was around 15 or 16, at the height of teenage angst, I literally hated every inch of my body from head to toe. My hair was too fine and unmanageable. My eyes were too blue and my eyelashes too sparse. My nose too pointy, my earlobes too small, my lips too thin, my teeth terribly crooked. My chin too week, my breasts non-existent, my waist too thick, my hips too narrow, my ass to flat, my thighs too chunky (and this before the ‘thigh gap’ even existed). My knees just hideous, my calves too shapeless, my ankles too chubby, my feet too wide for nice sandals, my fingers too short and stubby to play instruments and too ugly to wear rings.
I feel sad when I think of how many hours I wasted in front of the mirror wishing I could be different, scrutinising every ‘defect’ and imperfection. The one thing I am grateful for in this chaos of body hatred is that I never fixated on my genitals. It never even occurred to me that there might be something to hate down there as well. Teenage girls these days aren’t so lucky, because along with new bodily mandates such as lip fillers and the thigh gap, they must also worry about whether or not they have the perfect vulva. If they find themselves wanting in this department the beauty industry is on hand offering everything from intimate bleaches to labiaplasties. A little nip and tuck down below never hurt anyone, right?
Let’s start with a little anatomy 101. The vulva is perhaps the most misunderstood body part, usually referred to erroneously as the vagina. The vulva is everything we can see of our genitals from the outside: the mons pubis, the labia minora and majora, the clitoris, the opening of the vagina (commonly referred to as hymen) and the perineum. There is a great diversity of vulvas as there are bodies in the world. The vagina is the internal muscular structure that runs from the hymen to the cervix. Its main purpose is to allow fluids (menstrual and cervical) pass from the uterus to the outside world. It serves as the birth canal and can be penetrated according to the wishes of its owner. Not all women have vulvas, some men also have vaginas while intersex people can present with a diversity of so called ‘male’ and ‘female’ sexual characteristics.
Rose scented genitals
An ever increasing market has been created based on women’s insecurities about their genitals. Intimate washes that promise to keep you feeling and smelling fresh all day are ever more present in the ‘feminine hygiene’ sections of supermarkets. These products have no health benefits, in fact they can actually alter the sensitive pH of your genitals leaving you more prone to yeast or bacterial infections. Studies have shown that worrying about how your genitals taste or smell can have direct implications on your sexual pleasure, with some women avoiding oral sex altogether (been there).
Women of colour are increasingly pressured into buying intimate bleaches to make their vulvas and vaginas look whiter, because a desirable vulva is apparently a white (or more realistically rose pink) vulva. I don’t think I need to explain why bleaching your genitals could be harmful to your body.
The ever more rigorous beauty standards to which women must conform to, the massive mainstream proliferation of porn where bald, bleached, neat and tidy genitals are all that is on offer, and a diversifying cosmetic surgery industry, have all helped to create a situation where women are genuinely worried that their genitals are somehow abnormal. A lack of comprehensive sex education means the standards set by the porn industry largely remain unchallenged. This can be compounded by pressure from sexual partners who expect real women’s bodies to mirror those they see on screen. It started with extreme hair removal and it is gradually moving on to genital bleaching and surgery to correct ‘unsightly’ or ‘oversized’ labia.[pullquote]An ever increasing market has been created based on women’s insecurities about their genitals.[/pullquote]
Labiaplasty is a surgical procedure which can involve anything from the reduction of the inner labia, vaginal tightening, clitoral ‘lifts,’ clitoral hood reductions, and clitoral repositioning – all with the aim of ‘tidying up’ your vulva and making it ‘look’ more presentable. Demand for labiaplasty tripled in UK private hospitals between 2004 and 2007 and by 70% in public hospitals 2006 and 2008. The greatest demand coming from women between 18 and 24, with girls as young as 14 requesting surgery.
As women grow more conscious of bodily ‘defects’ from too thin lips, to the shape, size and colour of their labia, the cosmetic surgery industry is reaping the benefits of women’s body hatred. Following a dramatic surge in demand over the last few years the NHS has decided it will only offer labiaplasty when medically necessary. They advise counselling in cases where the request is on the basis of aesthetics and warn against possible long term consequences such as nerve damage and loss of pleasure. In a private clinic a labiaplasty can set you back as much as $9000.
Female genital mutilation
Comparisons have been made between labiaplasty and the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) which consists of the part or whole removal of the clitoris, the labia minora and in extreme cases the partial sewing of the vagina. There are up to 130 million women and girls living today who have undergone procedure. The principal differences between FGM and labiaplasty are consent and attitudes towards women’s sexuality. Labiaplasty is an elective surgery performed in medical settings, whereas FGM is usually performed forcibly and without consent, in precarious conditions that often puts the life of the girl at risk. FGM is about controlling and limiting women’s sexual pleasure and sexual desire, whereas labiaplasty is directly related to sexual availability and conforming to perceived anatomical norms.
Cosmetic surgery for women is often defended on the basis of choice: women have a right to make individual choices about how to alter their bodies or not. This is the problem I have with choice feminism. When does something stop being a conscious choice and become a social imposition? There is so much pressure on women to adopt damaging practices (such as genital bleaching) or undergo costly and risky surgeries that will nip and tuck their untidy, unruly and unsightly bodies. How many women would voluntarily put themselves through these things if they were not told constantly that their bodies are abnormal or ugly?[pullquote]How many women would voluntarily put themselves through these things if they were not told constantly that their bodies are abnormal or ugly?[/pullquote]
It can be exhausting to swim against the stream of constant body hatred spouted to us by the beauty and cosmetic surgery industries. Along with worrying about our weight, our hair, our skin, our lips, and our thighs we have aspire to a whiter, cleaner, fresh smelling, hairless, faultless vulva.
The body positivity movement is making great stride to combat fat shaming, to embrace the diversity of shapes, sizes and colours, and to change our perceptions of beauty. I would argue that this revolution in self-image should also extend to the genitals, where the same incredible diversity exists. For so long we were denied any knowledge of our bodies. Our genitals were something shameful that we were prohibited from looking at or touching. Now we face a situation in which imposed beauty standards extend to the vulva.
We can confront this constant assault on our body image through education, information, and talking with other women. Get to know your vulva, its colours and contours, its form and folds, its tastes and smells. Self-exams are essential for looking after our sexual health but also in getting to know and accepting our bodies the way they are. Why not ask our partners how they feel about our vulvas? More often than not they will be surprisingly enthusiastic. If necessary we can talk to them about the damage that rigid beauty expectations can do to our self-esteem and sex lives. Initiatives such as the Guardian’s Wall of Vulvas and the Vulva Gallery are already helping to spread vulva love by celebrating diversity and breaking the myth that only certain types of vulvas are normal or beautiful.