My first memory of experiencing shame over my labia was in my 7th grade health class. Just to ensure the sexual health unit was as hellish as possible, the kids in my class were seated alternating boy and girl along the rickety wooden benches in the gym where our two male gym teachers had set up a projector. A diagram of what was presented as classical female anatomy was shown on the screen as my teacher informed us that the small inner lips fit nicely inside of the outer lips of the “vagina” and my face burned as I turned and looked at the floor.
My inner labia naturally protruded significantly outside my outer labia, and, at just 12 years old — thanks to that health class and hushed conversations between preteens — I was already being fed sexualized body ideals and realizing that I failed them because my own anatomy was considered fundamentally and physiologically wrong.
I grew up in a Christian home with little resources for understanding my body, much less my sexuality. As I was already the heaviest girl in my friend group, I perceived my body to be primarily a source of shame that needed to be fixed. I did what I could at the time to hide my labia, including always wearing shorts over my bathing suit, never changing in front of others and being very careful to moderate my answers when discussions about our bodies came up at sleepovers.
I stumbled into my first relationship during my senior of year of high school and was much too excited that someone found me attractive to be very aware of his lack of respect for me. After months of pressure, I disrobed. When he saw my vulva, he responded, “Oh wow, is that what they look like in real life?” My worst fears were confirmed: my body was wrong.
The shame itself was bad enough without all the physical discomfort that went along with having a vulva with lips large enough that they rubbed against my thighs. Many times a day, I would scoot out to the washroom to discreetly rearrange my labia in hopes of alleviating the endless irritation I experienced. I would come home and rub moisturizer on them, and in later years, keep a small container of it in my purse to get through the day.
I did what I could at the time to hide my labia, including always wearing shorts over my bathing suit, never changing in front of others and being very careful to moderate my answers when discussions about our bodies came up at sleepovers.
That same year, in the midst of all this turmoil, a fierce and passionate English teacher gave me the words to describe what my values had always been: I was a feminist. I learned about Maya Angelou and other amazing women and men who had fought against gender roles and boundaries. I realized that our society was trying to control women and their bodies ― and that this had been going on for as long as anyone could remember. From being considered the property of their husbands to being denied access to birth control and the right to control their own bodies, women have long been fighting for their own ownership.
This inspired me to begin pushing back against the standards society sets for women by championing causes like easy access to menstrual hygiene products and birth control, and helping women embrace their natural bodies. These issues were really important to me, but also quickly became difficult to personally embrace. I continued to be influenced by society’s pull toward a specific body type and the shame around my labia remained too overwhelming to feel like I could even begin to address it.
One night that year after finding myself going down a Google rabbit hole, I came across a site detailing an elective surgery called labiaplasty, which is essentially a cosmetic surgical procedure designed to reduce the inner labia. Most of the reviews that I encountered were from women who spoke positively of the surgery and who noted that it improved their confidence due to the change in appearance of their vulvas. I really disagreed with this approach as I believe women should be fighting against traditional beauty standards ― not going through pain and spending thousands of dollars to try to fulfill them.
But this belief didn’t stop me from spending literally hundreds of hours comparing various before and after photos of people who had undergone labiaplasty while dreaming about the confidence I might achieve — along with relief from my daily discomfort and pain. But, between my ideological beliefs and the prohibitive practical issues of financing the surgery and being a teenager, I tried to erase the idea from my mind.
After high school, I headed off to university and continued to grow and better understand myself. After months of late-night chats with someone I was unknowingly in love with, I lay beside him, fully clothed, with silent tears running down my cheeks and told him about what I thought would always be my biggest shame ― the appearance of my vulva. He was shocked I found it such a big deal and hugged me and told me he was so sorry that I felt the tremendous pain I did. I thought there must be something very wrong with him or that he had misunderstood what I had just told him. After everything I had internalized regarding my body for so many years (and despite the lessons feminism had tried to teach me), I was convinced that my body was fundamentally unacceptable to anyone.
But over time, I started to rewire myself. I learned that there was no wrong way for a vulva to look and that mine was perfectly anatomically normal. I can’t say I was ever proud of my vulva, but I was learning to accept it as a part of me, even when people I slept with did double takes or made ignorant and degrading comments. It was a part of my body.
Still, even though I was making progress in accepting my body as it was, I was still contending with functional issues. My labia continued to rub, chafe and became swollen and painful on a daily basis. I would frequently readjust or stretch in an effort to feel relief. I also tried both wearing more and less flexible clothing in the hope that it would ease my discomfort, but nothing seemed to help.
After everything I had internalized regarding my body for so many years (and despite the lessons feminism had tried to teach me), I was convinced that my body was fundamentally unacceptable to anyone.
I graduated university and moved to a bigger city and took on more active jobs like bartending, which only furthered my daily discomfort. Now that I had a steady income, I began to seriously consider the idea of a labiaplasty. I began researching everything I could about the procedure, which involved trimming the inner labia so that it would be about equal length to the outer labia. I learned that it could be done with local sedation and about a week off of work, but it would require an entire month without sex or masturbation.
I was concerned over the lack of long-term studies on the procedure and the alarming increase in the number of people getting these surgeries each year, usually for cosmetic reasons. I hated the fact that so many people felt shame about their vulvas ― especially thanks to the widespread influence porn has had on our society’s beliefs about what labias should look like. I truly believed no one should be ashamed of their genitals and yet, at the same time, I very intimately understood why someone might be.
After months of deliberation, I found a doctor who appeared to be reputable and well-regarded and, despite my immense anxiety, I finally talked myself into making an appointment to see her, even though I kept telling myself it was just for a consultation and I wasn’t likely going to go through with the procedure.
I went to a very fancy building and entered a very fancy waiting room with a remarkably kind receptionist. The surgeon was straightforward and explained what she would do in the operating room while she held her fingers against my labia and attempted to demonstrate how it would be cut as I looked on in a hand mirror. She then answered all my questions in a direct manner that implied she had answered them thousands of times before meeting me. Her efficiency made it clear that this was nothing new for her; she made a habit of modifying labias for profit. I tried to act confident and I told her that if I decided to undergo the labiaplasty, it would be to address my physical discomfort — because I had no problem with its appearance, though I knew having a more “socially acceptable” vulva certainly wasn’t something I was dreading.
After much personal reflection, I went in for my labiaplasty on March 28. I spent a lot of time in the weeks before surgery wondering how could I ever justify spending over $4,000 on an “elective” and “cosmetic” surgery on my genitals when people around the world were getting their clitorises cut off against their consent. Was I contributing to an industry that tore down women’s self-esteem and pushed them to become models of a specific kind of sexuality featuring a stereotypical (and, for many women, unrealistic and unattainable) anatomy idealized largely by men? Would I be betraying my beliefs and going against everything I identified with as a feminist?
I came to realize that I am in charge of my body and the things that happen with it ― as I believe everyone should be — and I consider that to be a cornerstone of my feminism.
Ultimately, my decision to alter my labia was for a simple and very practical reason: I don’t think I should have to be in pain on a daily basis. What’s more, I came to realize that I am in charge of my body and the things that happen with it ― as I believe everyone should be — and I consider that to be a cornerstone of my feminism.
The procedure took about 45 minutes and my main memory from it was being scared that I would pee with my legs wide open and exposed to the cool air that was wafting over my genitals. The recovery was incredibly painful. There was constant irritation — it felt like I had a small balloon constantly rubbing between my legs. Walking was difficult, and so was trying explaining to my boss and co-workers (who I definitely did not want to know about my surgery) why I needed so much time off work. Now, I often forget the surgery was just three months ago and the daily physical pain that I suffered for so many years has vanished.
I think I’ll always have mixed feelings about the surgery. Even though I underwent the labiaplasty to address my physical pain, the insecurity I felt around my vulva’s appearance has also disappeared, which I feel a lot of guilt about. I wish I could have been a better representative for the spectrum of vulva appearances and been as comfortable and confident with its former appearance as I am now. Still, I hope by telling my story, I can, at the very least, add to a much-needed conversation about why women may feel ashamed of how their genitals look and what we need to do to change that.
I also recognize that being able to have this surgery required a lot of different kinds of privilege, including being cisgendered and economically advantaged enough to undergo it. But I hope our society is moving toward a place where this will soon no longer be the case. I want to live in a world where everyone has access to the medical help they need to live the least painful experience possible.
As far as women wanting to alter their bodies for nonfunctional reasons, I do not believe choosing to get cosmetic surgery should be seen as “un-feminist” or morally wrong. However, I do believe there is something wrong with a world designed to make people, especially women, think that they are less valuable because of the way they look or that their bodies are projects in constant need of improvement.
As it currently stands, too many women are made to feel pressure to go under the knife or radically alter their bodies in order to be accepted ― by their partners or by society in general ― and that kind of pressure and thinking can be hugely traumatic. We need to recognize and understand that there is beauty in diversity and find ways to celebrate different body types, including different shapes and sizes of genitalia.
Allison Penner holds a B.A. from the University of Guelph’s Environmental Governance program. She is passionate about addressing climate change, issues from the perspective of intersectional feminism and most of all her cat Munchi.