Starting the Conversation, by Wrenna Robertson
Women are now more concerned than ever about the appearance of their genitals. The convergence of the trend toward shaving or otherwise removing pubic hair which leaves the vulva more visible and open to scrutiny, coupled with our society’s ubiquitous exposure to online pornography and the unrealistic ideals it creates, have led an increasing number of women to feel real anxiety about their own genitalia. Frequently this manifests as a lack of sexual self-confidence or diminished body self-image; for some women, the level of psychological distress is so severe that they undergo genital cosmetic surgery. Labiaplasty (reduction of the inner labia, most often for cosmetic purposes) is now a rapidly growing type of cosmetic surgery, with the potential to follow the same growth pattern as breast augmentation did in its early years.
Women have long felt extraordinary pressure to conform to societal ideals of beauty. Today, digital alteration of photographs is rampant, and now extends to the most sacred and private part of a women: her genitals. The labia minora (the inner lips of the vulva) are reduced, giving the vulva a “clamshell” or “Barbie Doll” appearance. As a result, viewing pornography may lead to a skewed understanding of the true diversity of the female anatomy. This is particularly insidious as most women do not regularly have the opportunity to view other women’s vulvas.
There are very few resource tools available for women to gain a true appreciation of genital diversity. This skewed understanding leads many women to feel that they are alone and abnormal, leading to embarrassment, anxiety, and reduced genital self-image and overall self-confidence. The awareness of such procedures as labiaplasty can serve to further heighten women’s belief that there is in fact a “normal”, and that surgery is a suitable remedy for “abnormal” genitalia. Further, the practice of genital cosmetic surgery serves to promote a single genital morphology as ideal, in effect pathologizing natural diversity.
Only recently have researchers begun to look at genital self-image as distinct from general self-image. Lowered genital self-image has been found to have very crucial potential health impacts. Women who are uncomfortable with the appearance of their genitals are less likely to have a regular pap smear, have sex less often, find less enjoyment in sexual experiences, and are more likely to take sexual risks.
Women must have the opportunity to view a range of diversity to gain an understanding that the societal ideal is an artificially created one, at the extreme end of the natural range of genital anatomy. However, our society does not approve of the open display and discussion of genital reality, except through the deceptive lens of pornography or, less commonly, through artistic renditions. In fact, the very language used to describe a woman’s anatomy is couched in ignorance and shame.
For many of the women reading this, the word “vulva” may sound foreign. The external female anatomy is most commonly referred to, incorrectly, as the vagina. In fact, the vagina refers to the internal canal, whereas the external anatomy, including the mons pubis, the labia majora and minora, and clitoris are collectively called the vulva. By excising the external anatomy from our language and emphasizing only the part required for heterosexual sex and reproduction, we are in effect denying female sexuality. This “psychic mutilation” wrought upon a woman’s anatomy contributes to the common experience of shame around one’s genitals.
It is up to us, as women, to recognize the artificial shaping forces that have led to so many of us feeling that there is something unpleasant or wrong with our genitals. Our bodies are beautiful and diverse. Let’s learn to celebrate that!