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Vaginal dissatisfaction exposes a lack of diversity in sex education

By February 2, 2012 5 Comments

The Great Wall of Vagina: Real vaginas come in all shapes and sizes

I’m still trying to scoop my jaw off of my keyboard after viewing this documentary, The Perfect Vagina, in which UK-based writer Lisa Rogers delves into the world of vaginal cosmetic surgery.

Primarily following an adolescent girl and two mothers who are dissatisfied with the shape and size of their vaginas, she documents the frighteningly popular operation known as labiaplasty, a surgical procedure to reduce and/or reshape the labia minora and/or labia majora.

Although the practice of labiaplasty and other surgeries, often lumped under the umbrella of ”vaginal rejuvenation”, are gaining more media hype, they’re certainly not as pronounced as, say, breast augmentation. But this is certainly not a trend to ignore, as more and more women are seeking “designer vaginas.”

While there’s no single culprit for this fascination with vaginal aesthetics, a recent Ms. Magazine article raises the issue that sex education materials don’t show pictures of genitalia, leaving female students to rely on the distorted images of the media to see if their vaginas measure up.

A recent New York Times feature, “Teaching Good Sex,” agrees that sex education materials need to teach young people, among many things, “what real genitals look like.” The images most teens are exposed to come from the porn industry, creating a phenomenon researchers at King’s College London call the “pornification” of modern culture. These images, fully shaved and uniform in shape and size, leave no room for natural and normal variance. And, there’s nothing but trouble when the media is left to dictate what “normal” looks like.

True to form, the porn industry survives by victimizing, devaluing, and reducing women to sexual objects, whilst making them feel abnormal and unattractive — the perfect setup for a new wave of cosmetic extremism to “fix” the manufactured problem.

Sheesh. What’s left? Images of “sexy” internal organs? Surgical procedures for liver-enhancement to win back that firmly toned pre-binge-drinking shape?

It might be difficult to imagine why anyone would go to such an extreme measure as labiaplasty, but as with other forms of cosmetic surgery that don’t treat actual physical discomfort, the hope for improved self-esteem and the allure of of sex appeal seem to be the driving factors which lead some women to fork out an estimated cost of $3,500-$8,000 USD.

Even more alarming are the rates at which the procedure is increasing. Although current data isn’t readily available, in 2009, The British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology revealed that there had been an almost 70% increase in the number of women having labiaplasty from the previous year.

Thankfully, more people are beginning to speak out about this issue. A Brighton-based sculptor created the Great Wall of Vagina, an installation to visually represent the diversity in vaginal shape and size; the European Women’s Lobby hosted a “Muff March Against Labiaplasty” in the UK; and there’s a petition at SignOn.org to monitor and evaluate female genital cosmetic procedures, given that “surgeons are not required to explain real genital diversity or report actual surgical consequences.”

For some women, as noted in the film, exposure to “real” images of female genetalia is enough to remind them that the ideal is simply a false construction. But what about the women and young girls who aren’t exposed to images of diversity, who aren’t told to think for themselves and stand up against any person or industry that tells them they fall short of the beauty standard?

Let’s take this as a reminder that our work is never done — that we must remain vigilant to empower our next generation of girls to resist harmful media messages that affect their self-esteem and body image.