From body hatred to vulva diversity

// 24 August 2011

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a green, leafy bush with lots of pink flowers

The Independent today reports that there has been a five-fold increase in NHS genital cosmetic surgery over the past decade, with more than 2000 women undergoing a procedure in the last year. In an admittedly very small study of 33 women seeking an operation, all were found to have normal sized labia, but 40% still wanted surgery to “improve” appearance. The group included teenage girls, one as young as 11.

Researchers have linked the increase to internet pornography and advertising, as well as TV programmes on cosmetic surgery (as illustrated by Bellavita’s article on Embarrassing Teenage Bodies, from 2009). I think this is a pretty fair conclusion, given that prior to the Internet and these kinds of programmes, unless you were a particularly lucky-in-love lesbian/bi/pansexual woman, you probably wouldn’t have seen that many other vulvas and may not have really thought much about what they “should” look like. Now there’s 1000s of images available at the click of a mouse – many of which conform to a particular hairless, small-labiaed ideal – and that can lead to all sorts of paranoia. I’d absolutely hate to be a teenage girl right now, knowing that whoever was first going to see me naked would probably have seen goddess knows how many other naked women already, and I’d sure as hell be worrying about what I looked like down below.

We all know that female insecurity is a money-maker’s wet dream, so it’s no wonder cosmetic surgeons have been quick to cash in (though why this is happening on the NHS is beyond me). As if our skin, body hair, wrinkles, boobs, faces, legs, bums and tums weren’t enough to worry about, we should now start attending to the length of our labia too. I find it so incredibly sad. The more we hate our bodies, the more we spend to try and “fix” them, and the less time, energy and confidence we have to enjoy our lives and change the world around us for the better.

So, for anyone worrying about their friend downstairs, here’s a website celebrating vulva diversity (NOT safe for work, obviously). Remember, “normal” is nothing more than what’s normal to each of us as individual women, and there’s certainly no such thing as “perfect”.

Do something radical: stop hating your body.

Photo of a flowering bush by 60North, shared under a Creative Commons licence.

Comments From You

Troika21 // Posted 25 August 2011 at 8:38 am

As far as I am aware, the NHS does not do cosmetic surgery, it might use cosmetic procedures, but there has to be an underlying medical condition to solve, it can’t be for cosmetic reasons only. I might be wrong about this though.

I don’t think that theres anything wrong with people wanting to change their bodies, or being encouraged to do so.

If someone does not like part of their bodies, for whatever reason, telling them to accept it is not going to make them happier. Lets look at this from something else, if this was intelligence, for example.

If I was to tell someone that how intelligent or smart or clever they are should not be changed, you’d think I was mad – it can and it should (for the better, obviously), what makes the body so different from the mind? We have artificial (and many different) measurements of intelligence (for lack of a better word) just as we do for bodies.

Much more generally, I think your falling into the trap sceptics call the ‘naturalistic

fallacy’ – just because something is natural, does not make it better, safter, or as what we’re usually arguing against, healthier.

Dan // Posted 25 August 2011 at 10:13 am

As a straight man of reasonably good looks I have to say that I’ve been lucky enough to see a few ‘Lady Gardens’ in the flesh, as it were, and personally, I’ve loved them all, no matter what they’ve looked like. Hairy, bald as a billiard ball, innies and outies, it really doesn’t matter and it’s the last thing you should be concerned about.

If you’re with some-one and they express an opinion of anything less than joy at being allowed to gaze upon her then they’re probably in a rather good position for a well deserved kick in the head!

If your partner’s a lady she should know better and if it’s a guy he’s going to be grateful just to see you in the nude so stop worrying about it! Love her for all her faults and don’t spend a moment of your time and energy trying to conform to an unrealistic ideal.

Laura // Posted 25 August 2011 at 1:33 pm

@ Troika21 – Kids/teens regularly get their ears pinned back on the NHS, so I think they will do cosmetic procedures (you might have to make up some kind of excuse though if it really is just cosmetic – I had one ear pinned back when I was 16 and said I was being bullied but actually I just didn’t like it).

I agree that just telling people to accept their bodies isn’t much help and that people shouldn’t be forced not to have procedures they really want, but I think we also need to give women the tools to challenge the often very misogynistic assumptions upon which their assessment of their body is based (hence my link to the vulva gallery). Like most women, I used to think my body hair was disgusting, but reading feminist analysis led me to start challenging this and now I do accept it and am happier as a result.

Natural isn’t necessarily better, but believing something natural is wrong, disgusting or unnaceptable because of social norms and media pressure isn’t exactly brilliant.

Troika21 // Posted 25 August 2011 at 3:39 pm

Your right that a lot of what we want to change about our appearance is based on how we perceive other people perceiving us, and that if that perception is biased towards impossible goals (for whatever reason), great harm can be done.

That the article you site blames the increase in numbers on pornography, however, I find this difficult to accept. Quite simply, most porn is aimed at men, not women, and as Dan above says, most will simply be happy that they get to see the ‘lady garden’ they’re not going to care about what it looks like.

I suppose that the attribution is the real issue for me, and the rest is just a matter of degree between me and you. I don’t know myself, and I’m supposed to be working at the moment so I’m damn well not googling it, but I suspect that the rise in numbers comes not from women being/feeling pressured, but simply that the technology is now available to modify the vagina cosmetically.

What this news item tells me is that most people, without experiencing pressure from advertisers or images, would like to change part of their body, and if it becomes possible to do so, they’ll seek it out.

This site has posted reports about young girls explaining if they would change their bodies, usually a high percentage. But it always strikes me when I read them that the unwritten assumption is “if it was possible and cheap/free”, and that because it’s neither, most don’t really want to.

Jennifer Drew // Posted 25 August 2011 at 8:36 pm

Would it was that easy for women and girls too, to accept their bodies the way they are – but life is never that simple -despite what first commentator claims. Missing from the argument is the fact women do not exist on a desert island because all women and girls are bombarded 24/7 with misogynistic messages and images all claiming women’s and girls’ bodies are innately faulty and dire need of ‘medical intervention.’

But perhaps mutilating the female body is acceptable because this will supposedly make the female person feel better but reality is this does not happen. Male supremacy continues to lie to women and girls by telling us we are ‘faulty,’ because the male standpoint view is commonly viewed and accepted as the default human perspective!

Instead of disengenuously claiming it is okay for women and girls to mutilate their bodies we should be asking why does male supremacy keep focusing on subjecting female bodies to such minute scrutiny. Why is the vulva now perceived as ‘ugly and in dire need of tidying up’ – meaning the adult female vulva has to look like a pre-pubertal female body because men want adult women to be infantilised children and female children to be misrepresented as adult women. By the way I’ve no doubt many women have viewed naked penises and would all categorically state no two penises are identical or even the same length – despite men’s claims.

But male sexual anatomy is not being subjected to such intense scrutiny is it? Because apart from the porn industry Josephine and Joe Public do not see penises proliferating advertising or popular culture. But men who are obsessed with viewing pornography swiftly believe women and their bodies are all identical and exist only to serve men’s sexual demands/expectations. But men’s claims female bodies must conform to a totally unrealistic appearance and shape are now becoming men’s reality because the mutilation industry – aka the cosmetic surgery industry is enriching itself by performing mutilating surgery on younger and younger females. Women are subjecting themselves to long-term medical harm because they are internalising men’s lies that the female body is a ‘one size fits all.’ This is the reality of propaganda – keep repeating it and women will swiftly accept it as truth because malestream media and pornography sends the message 24/7 to women and girls their bodies are ‘innately faulty’ and any feminist criticism of these male-centric lies are censored or dismissed as ‘man-hating feminists who envy beautiful women!’ It is a win win for male supremacy and a continuing lose lose for women and girls.

So-called ‘designer vaginas’ are female genital mutilation because men are increasingly demanding women become dehumanised men’s sexualised fantasy objects. And of course male supremacist system has always told women and girls their bodies are ‘faulty’ because cosmetic industries thrive on exploiting women; the fashion industry profits by telling women ‘your only asset is in dressing as a dehumanised sexualised commodity in order to meet male sexual approval. All men benefit because women and girls expend so much time and energy worrying ‘do I meet male approval of what is supposedly “appropriate feminine appearance and behaviour” rather than challenging male domination over their bodies and lives and male claims their lies are truths!

Feminist Avatar // Posted 26 August 2011 at 10:41 am

The NHS won’t do cosmetic ops for cosmetic reasons, but it will do ‘cosmetic’ ops if not doing so would cause you psychological harm. So, if you want to change a part of your body on the NHS, you usually have to convince your doctor that is damaging your mental health; this sometimes involves counselling in advance. However, there are some ‘cosmetic’ issues that doctors accept should be treated because they are easy to fix and are common targets for bullying or low self-esteem, such as needing your ears pinned, birth marks or moles in very visible places etc, and where the doctor will usually accept the patient’s word that it is causing them problems.

Laura // Posted 26 August 2011 at 1:48 pm

Some rather bizarre and rather sweeping generalisations there, Jennifer Drew!! I wasn’t aware all men claimed their penises are the same size.

Andrew // Posted 27 August 2011 at 1:29 pm

Sorry Jennifer. Go to any porn website, and watch the advertisements for 30 minutes. You will be bombarded with advertisements aimed at men for muscle development, penis lengthening, staying hard longer, how to bed the most girls with the least effort, etc.

There is practically NEVER any advertising aimed at women on these sites, even though 1.6million women in the UK watch pornography.

The advertisements are designed to emasculate men and make them feel abnormal if they’re just a regular guy with a 5 to 6″ penis, a long term girlfriend, and no desire to screw everything under the sun.

I find your comments wholly sexist and inappropriate to the discussion. This is not an issue of male supremacy. Women work at fashion magazines, advertising agencies, and write articles for health and beauty websites – which are my first suspects when I try to think who would be putting out the message that women should not be happy with their bodies.

There are cases where cosmetic surgery might be a good idea. There shouldn’t be a blanket rule that it is negative and shouldn’t be done – the naturalistic fallacy as has already been mentioned.

And check this out: Go to a porn website. One of those with loads of different categories. You’ve got hairy women, plump women, skinny women, brown, white, black, yellow, etc… these websites cater to all tastes.

There is no “hairless, small-labiaed” ideal. That is a projection in my opinion. Pornography is a very diverse and all encompassing form of media. Women and men both enjoy it in droves, and it is harmless as part of a controlled diet ;-)

Old Music // Posted 29 August 2011 at 9:51 am

Pity the website you linked to links to porn (as ‘education’ only, of course), and in the links off the main page has a section called ‘enhancing the vulva and clitoris’ which talks about genital surgery in rather wishy-washy ‘I chose my choice’ terms.

Also some interesting sponsor links at the bottom, how any woman is supposed to feel confident about her own body when confronted with the Jenna Haze ‘fleshlights’ (torches shaped like perfect pink porno genitals and anus – just wait, once the market for ‘vulva enhancement’ is saturated, we’ll be on to the anal bleaching).

I’m not saying you shouldn’t have linked to the site, just that you may have said a little more than ‘NSFW’.

Troika21, I find your comments naive, to say the least, porn may be aimed at men, but women see it too, and its imagery has permeated into the mainstream, in advertising particularly. Men put pressure on their girlfriends, and we live in a society that still says being attractive to men is the most important thing about a woman. One guy saying he loves all the genitals he sees is hardly statistically significant.

For more on this subject, see the following articles – all mention porn as a contributing factor, and I remember seeing a documentary on this a few years ago, filmed in the US, where the cosmetic surgeon had a folder of air-brushed porn in his office for potential ‘patients’ to flick through.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2011/feb/27/labiaplasty-surgery-labia-vagina-pornography

http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2009/nov/20/cosmetic-vulva-surgery

http://www.womensenews.org/story/health/041114/more-women-seek-vaginal-plastic-surgery

Old Music // Posted 31 August 2011 at 10:43 pm

Andrew, your arguments are either disingenuous or simple-minded. You don’t see adds for labiaplasty on porn sites because that is cosmetic surgery that has to be performed by a qualified, registered, surgeon, the adds for ‘penis enhancement’ pills et al are quakery, which is why they advertise on porn sites and in spam mail, you are not comparing like with like.

“This is not an issue of male supremacy”

Of course it is, we live in a patriarchy, the fashion industry is still male dominated, even if there are women working in it. You are correct that fashion magazines and advertising generally are not good for women, but they’re still a product of patriarchy, and it’s not ‘sexist’ to point that out! Crying ‘sexist’ at any comment that isn’t all about men when you are on a feminist blog isn’t big and it isn’t clever.

Re. your great claims about porn, I’m not buying it. The fact that any porn that shows a woman who doesn’t fit the sexist stereotype is classified as ‘fetish’ porn (that’s the term used by people defending porn) just reaffirms the idea that those women aren’t ‘normal’. The mainstream of porn, the ideals that feed into and overlap with mainstream imagery in advertising and fashion, are as described above, including the ‘airbrushed’ genitalia.

Great Wall of Vagina // Posted 12 March 2012 at 3:52 pm

This is exactly what this artwork, the Great Wall of Vagina, is trying to combat. Its aim is to ease anxiety felt by many women about their labia and vulva, and to combat the rising trend of labiaplasty. Please visit the facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/tgwov and take a look – join in the support for the cause!

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