Vulvas: A Labia of Love
Pornsites reinforce an ideal physique, breast size, shape, nipples, anticipated behaviours and, just as worryingly, vulvas. Generally speaking, porn is the first exposure many people have to the uncensored human body. Its power grabs at our concept of self, dictates how we perceive our sexuality and love our bodies.
Image Description: Photo of a woman with pale skin, standing in white underpants, holding a red love heart over her pubic area.
It seems people are more self-conscious than ever about attaining the ‘ideal vulva’. For those playing at home, the vulva is made up of several well designed and useful parts, starting with the labia minora and the labia majora. The labia majora are the outside lips, the ones seen straight away. The labia minora are the inside lips that are externally visible for some and not for others. The “ideal” vulva, most often portrayed in pornography, has a uniformly pink, small and symmetrical labia minora that does not protrude past the majora.
In recent years, that list of ideals now includes hairless too. The 70’s loved the bush but, as porn evolved to ease the exposure of genitals during sex, so society moved with it. These close-up shots of hairless vulva’s have shaped people's internalised self-esteem, and powerfully so. As such, we are left without any normalised comparison, even though, medically speaking, there are endless varieties of vulvas.
Our vulvas are almost always covered. When they aren’t, we’ve usually decided to whip them out and show them off. Even then, their design prevents us from seeing too much unless we get a mirror, and, knees to the ceiling, spread them apart for a peek. And yet, over the past decade, the rates of elective female genital surgeries (FGS) in Australia have tripled according to Medicare statistics. The types of surgeries available have also increased to include hymenoplasty, pubis liposuction, clitoral hood reduction, G-spot rejuvenation, vaginal tightening, and labiaplasty, just to name a few. Some of these are very necessary and have wonderful health benefits. But the number of women and girls, some as young as 11 years old, seeking labiaplasty is concerning. They often do so because of their fear that their vulvas are unhealthy or malformed. While there are no official statistics in Canada, the American Society of Plastic Surgeons reported a 40 percent spike in labiaplasty procedures in 2016.
Labiaplasty is a surgical procedure in which the protruding inner vaginal lips (or labia minora) are removed. While the surgery can have benefits for those experiencing discomfort, it is primarily sought by people who believe their genitals are not normal or don’t adhere to society’s ideal.
The interesting fact here is that while pornography plays a role in reinforcing this ideal, so does Australia legislation. The ethical code of Australia’s media guidelines, specifically those on soft-core pornography, restrict the ability to view vulvas with protruding labia minoras. That’s a powerful use of imagery to create shame and discomfort towards an already hidden body part. Furthermore, FSG’s are most often attributed to the dissatisfaction of appearance rather than health concerns, demonstrating a clear impact on mental health.
According to data collected from gynaecologists and GP’s, most women attend appointments thinking there is something wrong with their vulvas. This fact tells us that, while we may be allowed to sexualise the vulva in certain contexts, we do not have the space to learn about or compare them. The same research recorded a significant number of women disclosed relief when being told their vulva was completely normal. In fact, before undergoing any surgery, 75% of women are referred to sexual counselling services, given the surgery’s link to self-esteem. It is in this space that preconceived ideas can be challenged, such as outlining the positive benefits of a larger labia minora. One such advantage is the labial surfaces’ sensitivity and potential for more intense orgasms. This exploration may not occur for those who attend plastic surgeons, as they are more likely to hold the same belief system around the ‘ideal vulva’. Therefore, the psychological distress remains unexamined.
The effects of pornography on mental health and self-esteem, for all genders, is considered a public health issue. That isn’t to say porn is not a delightful little invention. Rather, we base our needs and compare ourselves to what is essentially an unattainable highlight reel. An analysis of Playboy centrefold images between 2007 and 2008 found that less than 3% depicted a protruding labia minora. Yet, in the British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Swiss researchers found there was so much variation between the 657 vulvas they studied that it was impossible to identify a norm. These two competing statistics reinforce the fact that all vulvas are vastly different, and yet only a deliberate minority are normalised.
Dissatisfaction with the vulva can affect sexual fulfilment, self-consciousness, openness to a partner and confidence to explore and experiment. Post-operation findings recorded that 93% of women who had the labiaplasty experienced improved self-esteem, 95% outlined reduced levels of discomfort and 71% identified improvements to their sex life, often related to prior body dysmorphia.
Body dysmorphia is defined as a mental health condition where a person spends a lot of time worrying about flaws in their appearance which are often unnoticeable to others. Much like breast augmentation, botox, facelifts, lip injections and tummy tucks, labiaplasty can increase confidence and help us to love ourselves just a little more. But, at the end of the day, wouldn’t it be better to normalise the variety of vulvas and dispel a standard that is only reinforced because of a lack of awareness and education?
Websites like the Labia Library (link below), an initiative of the Victorian Government, were introduced for exactly this purpose. So were the creation of several photography books (the link below ‘Why I photographed 100 vulvas’) and installations like the ‘Cunts and other conversations by Greg Taylor’ at the Hobart Museum of New and Old Art. The more we dispel the myth of an ideal vulva, the more we encourage people to consider that our vulvas are just as unique and different as our faces, bodies, and fingerprints.
By: Bridie Allan
Askern, A., Becuzzi, N., Horrocks, E., Iyer, J.,& Vangaveti, V.N. (2016) Individual male perception of female genitalia. International Urogynecology Journal, 27 (2), 307-313.
Carrotte, E.R., Davis, A., Laemmle-Ruff, I.L., Raggatt, M.,& Wright, C.J.C. (2019) Personal and reported partner pornography viewing by Australian women, and association with mental health and body image. Sexual Health (Online), 16 (1), 75-79.
Harding, T., Hayes, J., Simonis, M.,& Temple-Smith, M. (2015) Female genital cosmetic surgery: Investigating the role of the general practitioner. Australian Family Physician, 44 (11), 822-825.
Jansma, E.P., Mortimore, I., Mullender, M.G., & Ozer, M. (2018) Labiaplasty: Motivation, techniques and ethics. Nature Reviews, Urology, 15 (3), 4-16.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of the Sydney Feminists. Our Blogger and Tumblr serve as platforms for a diverse array of women to put forth their ideas and explore topics. To learn more about the philosophy behind TSF’s Blogger/ Tumblr, please read our statement here: https://www.sydneyfeminists.org/a