15 Nov 2009

Getting lippy

An interesting article on BBC News questions both the safety and ethics of 'designer vaginas', i.e. the rising trend of labiaplasty amongst western women. The gist is that senior gynaecologists and psychologists have started questioning the reasoning behind blowing £3,000 to cut perfectly normal, healthty tissue out of one's genitals in order to achieve a 'homogenised, pre-pubescent' appearance. Thank god someone is finally speaking out.

Naturally, plastic surgeons are staunchly defending the procedure, citing women's right to mutilate themselves, the influence of lads' mags, and the syndrome (?) of 'hypertrophy' where 'the tissue is dark and hangs down'. Hmm, we wouldn't be pathologising perfectly normal genitalia in order to line our pockets a bit more, now would we? It's a bit like asking a turkey farmer if they're in favour of Christmas - you're not exactly gonna get an answer that doesn't betray a vested interest, now are you? Why the BBC even bothered giving these people a voice I'm not sure - they don't interview drug dealers for 'their side of the story' when reporting on heroin problems, after all.

I've wondered for a while why no one has identified the irony in the fact we fight against and fiercely condemn women having their genitals mutilated in 3rd world countries, yet here we're happy to pay £3,000 for the privilege. The only real difference is the setting in which the mutilations take place - in Somalia you may have your labia chopped off with a piece of broken glass in the middle of a forest courtesy of a village elder, in Britain you'll have it done under sterile surgical conditions in a nice clean hospital. But the motivation is the same - namely the notion that women's genitals are wrong/grotesque, and must be changed.

The medical profession definitely need to do more to identify the madness in undertaking such procedures, as the media isn't interested in doing so. Instead, TV programme-makers sanction and compound public interest in women surgically altering their genitals, in programmes such as Designer Vaginas and Embarrassing Bodies. The latter programme (which has, tellingly, altered its title from Embarrassing Illnesses, probably because it shows a lot of conditions where there is nothing medically wrong with the person) has shown two women coming in on separate occasions, bemoaning the length of their labia. I'll step up to the plate right now and say that my labia are probably longer/more protruding than either of them, and their vaginas looked completely normal to me. Instead of reassuring the women and suggesting perhaps some counselling or confidence-building therapy about their bodies, the doctors on the show sent them both for operations to get their labia trimmed. Nice message to send out. Don't have a tuppence like a porn star? Get thee to Harley Street and spend a whack of money that'd get you a new car, part of a house or at the least a holiday on a nude beach to see what real vaginas look like, on trimming a few millimetres off your lady lips.


A poster on Feministing made me smile by defending her 'big sexy labia' before cheekily adding 'still hurts to ride a bike though!'. True, having big labia can be a bit of a pain - they get in the way during sex, rub during biking/horse-riding, and require an extra-attentive sense of personal hygiene. But, um, so frigging what? Bodies in all their glory can be a pain in 1000 different ways, and we don't rush all down to the nearest body-butcher to get bits chopped off in order to remedy that, even though that's what cosmetic surgeons would have us do in the name of 'returning our confidence to us'.

The trend towards unquestioningly encouraging people to undergo serious surgery under the flimsiest of pretexts is worrying, and it's good to see some medical professionals speaking up against it. I'd be lying if I said I hadn't worried and wondered about my labia over the years - whether they're freakish, unattractive and in need of a trim. But when I observe this sickening trend of portraying normal female flesh as requiring medical intervention, I become fiercely proud of them; and yes, it does help that my partner is very enamoured with them. No, I don't derive my self-esteem solely from male approval, but it's just nice to have the viral myths of porn and lads' mags debunked by a real live man. After all, we hear very little from the actual men in aid of whom these procedures are presumably, or at least in part, performed. As Jo Brand pointed out, labiaplasty is an operation undertaken 'for your doctor, and your partner' and no one else (because who else knows or cares, was her point). And who says that men demand a certain kind of vagina, apart from the magazines and films that purport to speak for them? I think if we asked real men, who are having sex with real, unaltered women, their answers would range from 'couldn't care less' to actually positively liking more visible genitalia on their women. But instead we let the media and cash-happy scalpel jocks tell us what's hot and what's not below the waist. We've really got to wise up and start thinking for ourselves again. When did we stop?

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