Feminist Ruth McGlynn muses on the power of perception of the vagina.
Pussy, fanny, foof, flower, whatever you call it, it’s a part of us that is often kept under wraps. Seeing a pair of boobs on screen (even if those pesky nipples remain censored) is now a common occurrence, but representations of actual real-life vaginas are few and far between. As a result, there has arisen a skewed and unrealistic expectation for both women and men of what to expect from lady parts, and as a sexual organ, their only consistent representation is in porn.
Now we’ve all watched it in some capacity, and I’m stating the obvious when I say that porn vaginas are super-weird and un-vagina-ey (no offence porn ladies). But as a young girl, I stupidly thought, this must be what everyone looks like apart from me. I freaked out. I sat on the toilet with a pair of scissors and thought about cutting my labia off. I imagined what a perfect and lovely sight my new vagina would be to behold, and I honestly I thought it was a really good idea for 3 whole minutes. I then realised it was actually really stupid because I would literally bleed to death clutching these tiny severed flaps of skin in my cold, dead hands. Being the logical young woman that I was (still am) I set to work, seriously looking into labiaplasties. This was the more sensible, medically sanctioned option, in which my vagina would begin to resemble more closely the only other ones I’d seen before, both on the internet and in sex ed. I settled in my head that once I got a proper job, the labiaplasty would be how I would resolve all of my issues: I would finally get a boyfriend and get married and rose petals and rainbows would follow me wherever I went. For years I had the thought looming in the back of my head, and was very self-conscious about it.
Reflecting on it now, I thought those thoughts were just the consequence of me being an insecure teenage girl and nothing more. However, then this this video cropped up on reddit (https://vimeo.com/9924049). Although it’s from 6 years ago, it spookily validates my experience in a weird way- and I’m sure loads of other women’s too. The video explains that in Australian soft porn, any vagina that is considered to be ‘non-discreet’, i.e. if the labia hang down, must be censored and airbrushed because of legislation enforced by the advertising standards agency. The idea of a ‘non-discreet’ vagina covers labia that either protrude excessively, or are overly pigmented. These qualities are deemed ‘offensive’. As a result of legislation like this, more women are pushed into thinking that their vaginas are abnormal. And aside from the graphic footage of a woman’s labia being shaved with a scalpel, (or the term ‘discreet vagina’) what I find more disturbing, is the image of some creep airbrushing and photoshopping female genitals (possibly the most gross word ever, but weirdly appropriate here) until nothing but a so called “single crease” remains.
I don’t know if anyone’s vagina actually looks like this (there isn’t anything wrong with it!), but to me this is one of the more perverse and insidious ways which women are taught to devalue and even fear their bodies. I’m not saying this is a problem experienced solely by women – simply that this overt censoring of the female body, to the point which many women feel their own vaginas to be abnormal, and that their only viable “solution” is surgery, is a disturbing consequence of our societal pursuit of “perfection”. If we’ve managed to at least begin to make in-roads into rejecting an unrealistic one-size-fits-all, Barbie-doll aesthetic when it comes to our bodies, then why are we still expected to aspire toward this when it comes to our pussies?
The media sometimes shows a variety of body shapes and types – and it has become clear that diversity is the order of the day when it comes to what many women, want to see. Do all bodies look the same? No. So it’s obvious that an uncommon, unrealistic and frankly unattainable ideal has attracted a degree of backlash. Yet this backlash hasn’t extended to below our waists. Why should it? It’s not like women sit around discussing their foofs the same way they might with other, more visible body parts.
For centuries the norm has been to ignore it – we all know we have one, so why can’t we leave it in peace? But when people start to regulate and censor, portraying a new normal which doesn’t exist (THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A “NORMAL” VAGINA!) then a dialogue needs to begin. But if mainstream images are manipulated, when do women ever get to see normal diversity?
From a more official stance rather than my wild and disturbing anecdote, according to the NHS website, a labiaplasty costs between £1,000-3,000 and cites that:
‘It’s natural and normal for a woman to have noticeable skin folds around her vaginal opening and, in most cases, this shouldn’t cause any problems.
A labiaplasty can be expensive and the operation carries a number of risks. There’s also no guarantee you’ll get the result you expected, and it won’t necessarily make you feel better about your body.’
Despite this advice- which seems discouraging whilst perhaps acknowledging the fact that many women who desire these surgeries aren’t entirely sure of their own anatomy- the number of labiaplasties performed on the NHS was cited to have risen 5 fold over the past ten years. (https://www.rcog.org.uk/en/news/rcog-release-reasons-behind-an-increase-in-female-genital-cosmetic-surgery-in-australia-and-the-united-kingdom-explored-at-the-rcog-world-congress/) And the number of these surgeries performed even significantly surpassed the butt lift in America in 2015 (http://www.surgery.org/sites/default/files/ASAPS-Stats2015.pdf). Many surgeons have cited the reasons for these surgeries being performed either as insecurity stemming from pornography, or lack of education as to what is or is not normal.
This marks another instance of inadequate education, or people being afraid to discuss natural bodily functions leading to girls feeling insecure about their bodies. And so the problem is being perpetuated by a number of institutions, and the lack of clarity surrounding these issues intensifies. Without women’s contributions, and proper education, these patterns will repeat themselves, and more women and girls will continue to turn to more drastic measures in an attempt to adhere to this societally constructed notion of beauty. Which is so stupid, because honestly vaginas are really lovely, the way they are. So please if you are reading this, don’t cut off your labia! (esp not with unsterilized scissors whilst sitting on the bog!)