We’re quite familiar with how women’s genitals are often depicted in porn and other media (when they’re depicted at all). Smooth. Hairless. Petite. And, more importantly: as genitals very few women have naturally.
For some, it’s a source of profound distress – which is why some women undergo non-medical labiaplasty and other types of female genital cosmetic surgery (FGCS) for reasons other than medical necessity, genital reassignment surgery or altering genitalia to reflect gender identity.
But could such procedures – including so-called “designer vaginas” – be considered a form of female genital mutilation (FGM)?
Experts say the bigger issue is how our society judges women’s bodies – and the pressure that’s put on cisgender women to look a certain way as influenced by heteronormative media.
“It’s an indirect form of FGM,” says Dr. Pani Farvid, from Auckland University of Technology. “It’s important to cast a critical eye on the choices women make with their own bodies and the pressure put on women and their bodies.”
The real issue, explains Dr. Farvid, is Western beauty ideals – and the effects of the heteronormative male gaze and heteronormative porn on women. “There is very little diversity in the genitals on display [in porn],” she explains, saying it’s unlike the diversity seen around other body parts traditionally associated with femininity, such as breasts. “There’s so much pressure to conform. It is just unbelievable the things we subject our bodies to in order to look a certain way. To be a heterosexual female is to be sexualised in a certain way.”
Dr. Virginia Braun, a professor of psychology at the University of Auckland, has been researching and authoring peer-reviewed scientific papers on this very topic for about 20 years – more than anyone else in New Zealand – says it could “technically” be a form of FGM, but that the comparison is problematic. She says that while it’s unknown exactly how many non-medical labiaplasties are performed in Aotearoa each year, the procedure first began to be mention in glossy magazines targeting female consumers in 1999. “In the last five years, there’s much more of a normalisation around it,” she says. “It’s also important to think about how we treat different groups of people differently – and how we treat different genitals differently.”
Like Dr. Farvid, Dr. Braun says the bigger issue is how women – particularly heterosexual women – are placed under increasing pressure to look a certain way that heterosexual men might find “pleasing.” She says she’s especially concerned in how many of the messages around non-medical labiaplasty appear to be impacting young women. “There seems to be increasing interest from teen girls, which is especially concerning,” she explains. “The vulva’s development can change during adolescence. Unevenness is common. The labia often becomes visible during that time. And societal ideals say the labia shouldn’t be visible. And those ideals don’t match with reality whatsoever.”
Dr. Braun says there has been a marked increase in interest in labiaplasties for cosmetic purposes in the past 20 years. One reason for that, she says, is that media has begun to tell women that labiaplasty is an option if they want the “perfect” genitals – or at least “perfect” genitals as narrowly defined by heteronormative, patriarchal beauty ideals. She says the growth in the industry performing labiaplasties for cosmetic reasons is “totally depressing” from her point of view as a scholar. “This is commercially driven. It’s a big industry.”
So – can the trend be slowed? Dr. Braun says it can – but it’ll take some work, particularly when it comes to having better sexual education. Another important thing to do, she says, is to work towards normalising vulva diversity, since everyone’s genitals are different.
Dr. Farvid agrees. “More thought needs to be given to the capacity to which cosmetic surgery is depicted and subtly promoted in our culture,” she says. “What we really need is increased awareness and education around the diversity of genitals. We also need to be promoting ethical sexual relating.”
She says it goes beyond education – there also needs to be a fundamental change in how our society views women and women’s genitals. “Cutting up your body for no reason other than aesthetics is unacceptable,” she says. “Our society, from the day we’re born, is telling you to hate your body. There needs to be a shift in mass consciousness. A woman is more than just a vagina or the way her labia looks.”Support Villainesse