Female sexuality, and in turn female genitalia, have long been taboo topics discussed in hushed whispers amongst friends, or raucously weighed in upon by covetous men. This forbidden status has had many a trickle-down effect from lacklustre sexual education to everyday slut shaming. However, if the growing number of labiaplasty surgeries in Australia is anything to go by, the mystery surrounding what is considered ‘normal’ genitalia is one of the most impactful.
This surgery, which involves removing part of the inner labia, was not even used for aesthetic purposes until 1984, but recent years have seen an increasing amount of teens and adults looking to alter their genitalia.
The rising trend has been attributed to the popularity of hair removal, which leaves more genital tissue exposed, and the censored depictions of vulvas we see in the media – should we see any at all.
The Australian Classification Board’s requirement for images of vulvae to be “healed to a single crease” is a great example of such censorship. Before an image can be disseminated it must first be digitally rid of labia minora, creating a look which is known as the ‘Barbie’. So just to be clear, while your average Game of Thrones episode will show a penis approximately once every three minutes, showing anatomically correct vulvae is forbidden.
Dr Maggie Kirkman, senior research fellow at Monash University, notes that even addressing this censorship is often awkward due to the shame encircling women’s bodies and their sexuality. Most articles on the topic are littered with euphemisms ranging from ‘lady bits’ to ‘hoo ha’, sugar-coating anatomy in a way that further magnifies its mystery.
The topic is often broached with delicacy, so as to avoid sounding perverted or pornographic, but the industry’s lack of vulvar variation is only leaving vagina-owners confused as to where they sit on the spectrum of genital variation.
“Many women have never seen another woman’s genitals,” Kirkman told the ABC, “so they don’t know what they ought to look like”.
The ubiquitous portrayal of ‘discrete’, doll-like vulvae caters to the expectation of invisibility when it comes to female genitalia. This expectation is an oppressive extension of a belief system which seeks to silence female sexuality, to keep it tucked away and neat. The very act of removing tissue echoes the sentiments of a gender that should take up less space.
Thankfully, resources such as, Large Labia Project and Women’s Health Victoria’s Labia Library are popping up globally, informing people of the aesthetic diversity of anatomy, and empowering them to own theirs.
It is so important for people to be aware of what ‘normal’ actually looks like, so that those approaching their physicians, asking for a ‘Barbie’, risking ulcers and drying of the vagina, can enter the surgery fully informed about their own anatomy.
Because of course, the issue is not that the surgery is happening, but rather the reasons why. If a person with a vulva is aware of all the facts, and still chooses to undergo surgery, more power to them. The benefits of living in a comparatively empowered society is having the choice to alter your body as you see fit, but if the reason for change is to conform to the filtered view we are shown of regular bodies, a nip-tuck isn’t going to solve the problem.