Vajazzling. Bikini waxing stencils. Vaginal "rejuvenation" surgery. There are loads of products and procedures out there that exist solely to make a woman's genitals prettier or cleaner or odorless or extra tight. Some spas are even offering vulva facials! But do women really need to feel self-conscious about yet another part of their body, and what's causing this flare-up of low female genital self-esteem?
A lot of it is due to cultural pressure, and it starts with porn. In addition to surgically enhanced breasts and bleached blonde hair, porn stars are also sporting designer vulvas, leading men (and women) everywhere to believe that all genitals should look the same.
But vulvas are kind of like snowflakes (and penises, for that matter): Each one is unique. You'd never know it, though, from the media's portrayal of female genitals. Pornography in particular has created an unrealistic standard of small, perfectly symmetrical labia and bare vulvas. But that perfection can come at a price: If a porn star's genitals don't fit the mold of what's considered attractive, she may even go under the knife to make them more in line with that industry's standard of beauty. That surgery, known as labiaplasty, trims the size of the labia minora and is on the rise among non-porn stars as well. The problem? Says Emily Nagoski, PhD, author of the Good in Bed Guide to Female Orgasms, "The labia are rich with nerve endings--and surgically altering them could decrease a woman's sexual pleasure or even make intercourse painful."
And many men aren't helping, either. In addition to holding porn stars up as their erotic ideal, some men say they find "imperfect" genitalia ("imperfect" meaning that the inner lips protrude beyond the outer lips) a turn-off, as they believe it indicates a woman has been around the block a time or two. This belief is simply not based in fact and is not true. Still, even male medical professionals are pushing for women to undergo labiaplasty. In fact, a study published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine has found that male physicians are more likely than female physicians to recommend the surgery. And "... such procedures are often marketed to women in ways that make them feel bad about their natural bodies," says Debby Herbenick, sex researcher and author of Read My Lips: A Complete Guide to the Vagina & Vulva. It's no wonder so many women are feeling self-conscious, and seriously considering this intrusive procedure.
And according to the Independent in regard to labiaplasty in the UK, "Demand for female genital cosmetic surgery - so-called "designer vaginas" - has risen five-fold in a decade on the NHS yet most women do not need it, researchers have found...The first study of 33 women seeking the operation, whose average age was 23, found they all had normal-sized labia. Only three had a significant assymetry for which surgery would be appropriate. But 40 per cent of them still wanted the operation, mostly because they wanted to make their labia smaller "to improve appearance". While only 33 women were studied, "more than 2,000 operations were performed on women on the NHS last year. Thousands more are thought to have been performed privately."
Why should women think twice before considering labiaplasty or other procedures such as"labial puffs"? For one thing, labia come in all shapes and sizes. They're not typically symmetrical, and it's incredibly common for the inner labia to protrude beyond the outer labia. There are as many styles of vulva as there are ladies who walk the earth.
Not only that but, because the labia are full of nerve endings, labiaplasty may actually lessen a woman's chances of ever reaching orgasm, and could even make sex painful! Considering that it's sometimes tough enough for a woman to reach orgasm -- especially through intercourse alone -- it seems silly to lessen those odds even further. And there may even be some benefit to having longer labia minora: They can increase friction during intercourse, which can, in turn, increase pleasure for both a woman and her partner.
So the verdict on labiaplasty? Herbenick says it best: "I guess I just want more people to leave our labia alone. I get that vajazzling, vatooing, labiaplasty and vaginal rejuvenation and all sorts of other vulvar and vaginal procedures get a lot of press and pageviews for people. But there's also something very serious at stake here and that is women's sexual health, self-esteem and well-being."
Viva La Vulva!