Women, Our Vaginas Are Fine

More young women than ever are seeking to surgically-alter their labia. Here's why that matters.

In a terrifying turn of events, many young women are now under the impression that they need to surgically modify their labia.

In February of 2014, the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery reported that labiaplasty procedures had increased that year by 44 percent. “I believe the dramatic increase in both of these procedures is indicative of much larger global trends respecting body image, an ever-evolving concept of beauty, and self-confidence," Michael Edwards, who serves as President-Elect of the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, said in the report.  

And the desire for this operation continues to increase. On Monday, the New York Times reported that "400 girls 18 and younger had labiaplasty last year, an 80 percent increase from the 222 girls who had cosmetic genital surgery in 2014."

This month, The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists released official recommendations for medical professionals about how to talk to patients who inquire about the procedure, due to the frequency of inquiries. 

Much has been written in response -- on Thursday in The Guardian, Jessica Valenti argued that the need for labiaplasty stems from deep-rooted societal pressures for women to be perfect. 

"For all the feminist progress made," she wrote, "there is still a shocking amount of disdain for women’s anatomy when it is not firm, tucked, primped and waxed."

As woman, and as a body-positive feminist, I agree. And I can't help but reflect on my own experience.

My mother gave birth to me at the Naval hospital in Portsmouth, Virginia. For Navy wives like my mother, childbirth was not considered an emergency, and women were not assigned one obstetrician. I was to be delivered by whoever was working that day. Unfortunately for me and my mother, the man working that day happened to be a moron. I was his first solo birth, and, as my mother's third delivery, I was coming fast. 

As I began to crown, the young doctor asked my mother to please "STOP!" -- pro-tip: that's not how childbirth works -- and, as I was born, declared me a boy. My grandmother, who had been reeling in anticipation for this granddaughter and who made goddamn sure she was present for my birth, damn near fainted. But then he handed me to the nurse, a woman, who immediately corrected him. The moron who delivered me had, of course, gotten it wrong. My labia were swollen, that's all.

This is a story that we as a family have laughed about, one that's been repeated to me over and over on my birthday. But for years it also made me cringe, and I spent the majority of my childhood and adolescence wondering if there was something wrong me -- my labia, my vulva, my vagina.

All women face an onslaught of unrealistic body expectations basically from birth, and I was no exception. Like most of my fellow adolescents, I wasted a lot of time comparing my body -- "women's anatomy" included -- to the female figures who represented "beauty" in our culture at that moment. When I could manage to sneak a look at my parents' issues of Playboy -- a glossy magazine that featured the supposed pinnacle of female attractiveness -- what I saw were women who were hairless (save for the shiny, rippling waves on their head), oiled and bronzed. I was none of those things. I was frizzy, and hairy, and certain that I was a physical disaster. (At 13, who doesn't feel like a disaster?) But even at my worst moments, it never occurred to me to have any part of my sex organs modified.

But for many young women today, this seems to be something that is occurring to them. As Roni Caryn Rabin wrote in the The New York Times on Monday:  

For adults, the procedure is marketed as “vaginal rejuvenation,” tightening the inner and outer muscles of the vagina, as well as often shaping the labia; it is geared to older women and women who have given birth. But gynecologists who care for teenage girls say they receive requests every week from patients who want surgery to trim their labia minora, mostly for cosmetic reasons, but occasionally for functional reasons, such as to relieve discomfort.

It shouldn’t necessarily come as a surprise that young women are seeking this kind of procedure, and that the term "vaginal rejuvenation" even exists -- the second-most-searched-for porn videos on PornHub are under the keyword "Teen," and waxed and contoured women with neither a hair nor dimple out of place are raking in thousands by promoting slimming detox teas on their Instagram accounts -- accounts that literally millions of young women follow. 

Beauty ideals have officially transcended hair, skin, and body weight. We are at the point where even the outer parts of our vaginas need fixing. 

While recent campaigns like Dove's "Love Your Hair," and Aerie's unretouched ads certainly aim to diversify standards of beauty, it clearly isn't enough to make young women feel like their bodies -- and therefore, their very selves -- are adequate and deserving. 

In the face of this societal pressure to be "perfect," the seemingly simple act of self-acceptance can feel revolutionary. Arousing, even. We should all be trying it. 

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