Following the BMJ Open journal’s recent cross-cultural study into the rise of female genital cosmetic surgery, discussions concerning what motivates many women to undergo such a drastic procedure have abounded. Labiaplasty – surgery whereby tissue from the labia is removed to give the appearance of a “neater” vagina – has become increasingly common in recent years. Indeed, in Australia, the number of women who received labiaplasty rose three-fold to 1,500 compared to the previous decade. It is also claimed that over a third of Australian GPs have seen patients under 18 requesting genital plastic surgery. The issue is not only a phenomenon Down Under, so to speak, but has wider implications for the rest of Western society.
Van Badham’s article in The Guardian, “Female genital mutilation is alive in Australia: it is just called labiaplasty” highlights just how radical the procedure is. Badham goes onto argue that behind both FGM and labiaplasty is “the pressure to conform to a constructed ideal of desirability.” However, FGM, often performed without consent, is not merely a cosmetic procedure, and Badham’s article seems to ignore the complex cultural and religious associations that simply do not apply to labiaplasty. This does not, however, mean that labiaplasty is a trivial surgery merely performed in the pursuit of vanity. Instead, as is recognised by both medical professionals and social commentators, deeper psychological and cultural issues underlie the rise in labiaplasty in recent years. We must therefore ask what driving forces are behind the decision to so drastically alter the appearance of one’s vagina.
(Photo Credit: Sexual Aesthetics)
Whilst it is important to remember that some women undergo labiaplasty for medical reasons, the recent surgery in cosmetic labiaplasty, designed only to alter the aesthetics of the vagina, is a complex phenomenon related to the culture of pornography. In what medical blogs have nicknamed “porn star surgery”, “designer vaginas” and “the Barbie”, many women are opting for a vaginal “tuck”, so that their labia is not overtly on show. Indeed, in a recent BBC3 documentary on pornography, young women discussed how porn actresses’ “perfect” bodies led to a sense of inadequacy. Whilst pressures to conform to a certain body type undoubtedly affect boys and young men too, particularly with regards to anxieties surrounding penis size, it is not until recently that the lack of porn’s diversity in showcasing different vaginas has come into the public discussion.
In today’s society, access to pornography is easy – teenagers and children with smartphones can easily search for explicit material, and do so as a result of both curiosity and peer pressure. However, often having no romantic or sexual experiences themselves, critics have long argued that pornography warps youth’s perceptions of sexual normality. Not only can pornography potentially be harmful in that some videos encourage extreme and violent behaviours (think S&M and non-consensual scenes) but also can cause bodily insecurities. Although women of all ages may feel a sense of inadequacy compared to the perfectly groomed and toned bodies that are so often broadcast in the media and pornography, for the generation of younger girls bombarded with images of perfection, this is especially problematic. Coupled with the rise of young girls choosing to shave off their pubic hair entirely, The Times reported that girls 18 and younger account for less than 2% of all cosmetic operations, but almost 5% of all labiaplasties. This is especially concerning, as these young girls are being programmed, from a very young age, to believe that their bodies are abnormal and ugly.
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Whilst it is not my intention to denounce pornography, there is, nevertheless, the argument that pornography is inherently harmful, as it encourages warped perceptions of sex and “ordinary” people’s bodies. In the words of Kali Holloway, the rise of labiaplasty and its inextricable links to pornography has given rise to the contention that “not all vaginas are equal.” Perhaps if we are to halt the rise of cosmetic labiaplasty, instead of outright condemning pornography and its associate culture, we need to embrace different women’s body types and genitalia in the media and pornography. Harry Potter actress and U.N. ambassador Emma Watson recently praised the website OMGYES.com for embracing female sexuality, and using “real-life” women and men, as opposed to pornography actors, to create a forum for showcasing more true-to-life sex. Perhaps if more alternatives to “conventional” pornography were available, both young women and men would not feel as pressured to alter their genetic makeup.
Cosmetic labiaplasty is a serious and irreversible procedure, and an operation does not tackle the underlying psychological and cultural issues driving women to so drastically alter their own bodies. Thus, while the links between vagina-related insecurities and pornography are apparent, if we are to boost young girls’ confidence and encourage them to love the bodies they are born into, we need to alter the uniform culture of pornography to embrace diversity.
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