In the News
Viva la Vulva
What the “designer vagina” craze says about our culture
“Is my vagina ugly?” a college-aged woman asks as my friend Kelsey, a medical student completing her ob-gyn rotation, examines her.
“I’d heard some odd questions in medical school, but this was a first,” says Kelsey. “It caught me off guard. I told her that her body was completely normal – that there’s so much variation in vaginas, there really isn’t any standard to aspire to. But she didn’t seem convinced. Apparently her boyfriend had made a comment that made her self-conscious. I felt really bad for her.”
This anecdote is not only upsetting, but speaks to the damaging emotional effects of our hyper-sexualized culture. While I haven’t seen a lot of vaginas up close and personal myself, I know enough to know they come in all shapes and sizes, colors and textures – and I happen to like mine a lot. So when it seems like an increasing number of women, especially younger generations, feel bad about their bodies or pressured to look a certain way, alarm bells go off in my head.
How did this happen? One culprit is Internet pornography, which grossly misshapes reality and wreaks havoc on relationships, as well as the self-images of both women and men. As Naomi Wolf wrote in a 2004 essay for New York Magazine: “Young men and women are indeed being taught what sex is, how it looks, what its etiquette and expectations are, by pornographic training – and this is having a huge effect on how they interact.” For the first time in human history, she argues, “[Porn] images’ power and allure have supplanted that of real naked women.”
First it was hairless vaginas: Porn cemented the meme that bald vulvas were the epitome of sexiness and desire. Suddenly men wanted women to look like and position themselves like the slick-vulvaed porn stars on screen. The great to-shave-or-not-to-shave debate was recently chronicled on Salon.com, when some 350 women responded to a question from a female reader who wrote to Salon’s popular advice column about her experience dating men who wanted her to shave her pubic hair. (Read the most popular responses).
Next came barely there labia, with adult film actresses popularizing labiaplasty, a medically risky surgery where the inner vaginal lips – or labia – are shortened. In a 2004 New York Times article, a yoga instructor from Boston explains her decision to go under the knife: “The only women I could compare myself to were women in pornographic movies,” she says. “[Their labias] were tiny and dainty and symmetrical. Nobody looked like me.” Suddenly, labiaplasty and vaginoplasty, which tightens the vaginal canal, are all the rage. A 2007 New York Times article describes the marketing of these procedures, which promises “an improvement in sexual satisfaction, cosmetic appearance and self-esteem.”
In 2006, “U.S. women spent $2.3 million on cosmetic vaginal procedures and the number of such surgeries grew 30 percent, to 1,030, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS),” notes a 2007 Bloomberg news report. Both the ASPS and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists oppose the surgery, which is “a bad fix for problems with body image and sexual function” and poses risks including “loss of sensitivity to the genitals, infection and pain from permanent scarring.”
Sound sexy? Clearly, in the age of ubiquitous and ever-present porn, there is a significant need for basic public health education about what is “normal” as far as vaginas go. As UCLA clinical psychologist Gail Wyatt says in the Bloomberg report, “For women dissatisfied with their appearance, doctors need to cover the basics of sex education and show women pictures of enough vaginas so they see how many different images are normal,” she said.
Go Ask Alice!, the award-winning health-education site at Columbia University, suggests asking your provider for a hand mirror at your next ob-gyn visit. “When the speculum is in place, admire the beauty that is you. Some providers are surprised by this request; others are delighted and see it as a teachable moment.”
To combat all the misinformation, maybe it’s time for a national campaign promoting the diversity of our divine lady parts. Do we need billboards in Times Square boasting: “Ladies! Your va-jay-jays are gorgeous in all their glorious variety!” Will Georgia O’Keeffe provide the graphics? Or would women benefit from a viewing of sex educator Betty Dodson’s video Viva La Vulva! Women’s Sex Organs Revealed, in which a group of 25- to 68-year-old women share images of their own vulvas?
When I was coming of age as a young woman, I worried about whether my braces would get caught in Michael Dwyer’s when we kissed under the bleachers, or if my bra was visible through my white Madonna T-shirt. Today, young girls are waxing in junior high school, and women of all ages are obsessing about the length of their labias. Here’s the reality, ladies: we are all “normal.” Just look in the hand mirror.