Meet Emma, who got a labiaplasty to give her the confidence to get out of an abusive relationship. This is a perfect example of someone who develops a hatred of her body as a result of being bullied and living in a misogynist culture and who got surgery rather than accepting her body.
“My name is Emma*, I’m 23 years-old and labiaplasty has changed my life.
When I was younger I lived with my father, my step-mother and two step-sisters. As we were only little, we used to have baths together. When I was seven years old I noticed that my inner labia started to stick out a little, and unfortunately my step-mother noticed too, and pointed it out in front of my step-sisters who laughed at me for it. The next time we had a bath together I tried to tuck myself in before they saw me but it didn’t work and I was once again teased for the way my labia poked out.
After that I decided to no longer have baths with my step-sisters. I vowed to never let anyone see me naked again – and I didn’t. I made sure that I always dressed myself and bathed alone.
As I grew older my labia grew longer and began to protrude even more. I was horrified and constantly thought there was something terribly wrong with me. From the age of 12 I considered surgery but I got to the point where I was so frustrated that I wasn’t normal that I almost went to cut them off myself with a pair of scissors.”
I can’t believe a mother made a negative comment about her 7-year-old’s labia! What on earth was she thinking? I don’t know why anyone would comment on a child’s genitals at all, and I especially don’t understand why anyone would want to give a child a sense of shame about her body. But shame she did. This girl was so ashamed of herself she wanted to cut herself with scissors, and all for no reason. There is nothing wrong with labia that stick out. Labia come in all different shapes and sizes and none of them are wrong. It is so, so important that women and girls learn to criticize the messages that tell us our bodies are wrong and reassure each other that despite what we may have heard, our natural bodies are acceptable and beautiful.
“I was too scared to talk to anyone about it, not even a doctor. When it came to sex education in school and all the books just showed this smooth clean vagina with nothing hanging out, I believed even more that I was abnormal. I was too scared to get changed in the high school locker rooms for fear that someone would see the bulge in my underwear, I never went swimming without wearing board shorts and there was no way I could get away with wearing yoga pants.”
I cringe when I see the words “smooth clean vagina.” She’s most likely talking about the vulva, not the vagina, and calling a vulva with no visible labia “clean” implies that labia are dirty. It’s clear that she’s learned to value a vulva with no visible labia. It’s sad that her sex education materials presented female genitals as just being a hole. Too often, sex education is just about how to prevent pregnancy, and the focus is entirely on the vagina, and the clitoris and labia are disappeared. Girls should have the opportunity to learn to value their real bodies and their capacity for sexual pleasure when they learn about sexuality. We should learn that vulvas are all unique and all beautiful. We certainly should not learn that vulvas are supposed to be hairless and flat like a Barbie doll.
There is an obvious cultural factor behind her body shame. The tendency to see women’s sexuality as being only receptive (that we exist for penetration) leads people to make sex education material that de-emphasizes those parts of women that exist for our sexual pleasure and that don’t exist for the purposes of procreation. It’s important to teach teens how to prevent pregnancy, but it’s also important to teach things like body-positivity and enthusiastic consent. Both men and women need to value and respect female sexual subjectivity and female pleasure.
The other cultural factor that contributes to women’s shame is pornography, which is not mentioned in the article, but is still the elephant in the room. Large numbers of people are getting their sex education from pornography, and it is teaching that vulvas are all hairless and have small labia.
“At 16 I got my first real boyfriend and it took me 6 months to even let him touch my vagina and when he finally did, he made an offhand comment that I was ‘weird and different’. This scarred me so deeply. He was the only person to have seen me naked since I was 7 years old (other than my regular female doctor). I ended up staying with him for 6 and a half years as I was so terrified that I wasn’t good enough for anyone else.”
Boy, do I have a rant about this asshole boyfriend! How on earth can anyone tell their romantic partner that their genitals are “weird and different?” That is so fucked.
Anyone who tells you that your labia are weird doesn’t actually like you, and should be dumped immediately. I don’t think this asshole boyfriend liked her or was even attracted to her. What’s up with “heterosexual” men who aren’t attracted to women? I actually am attracted to women, so let me explain some things.
When I’m attracted to a woman, she is special and magical to me. Her mere presence in the world makes the world seem like a better place. I get a smile on my face and a spring in my step just from interacting with her. Being close to her feels amazing, even if it’s just for a hug. When I see her naked, I’m in absolute heaven. The precise size and shape of her labia are irrelevent, just the fact that they’re hers makes them beautiful and sexy. I feel lucky and privileged when I get to see them and touch them. It’s completely impossible that I could feel these feelings for a woman and then call her labia “weird.” Partly because there’s no such thing as labia being weird—all of them are beautiful!—and partly because I would never want to hurt the woman I love.
This asshole boyfriend couldn’t possibly have felt romantic feelings for her, because if he did, he wouldn’t have said this. People who feel warm and happy in the presence of their beloved don’t make negative comments about their bodies. I think this dude had the idea of women that is taught to men through toxic masculinity and pornography—that women are not people to relate to and love, but are objects for men’s use, that their worth lies in how “sexy” they look according to some fucked-up standards, and that their bodies are supposed to be smooth and hairless.
Emma thought she didn’t deserve a better boyfriend, but the opposite was true—her boyfriend didn’t deserve her. Women need to learn how to love and respect themselves and require the men in their lives to respect them. We should have zero tolerance for these stupid misogynist turds. Any dude who wants a Barbie doll with no hair and no labia should be told to fuck off and die. You don’t like female genitals? Then don’t get into bed with a woman!
“I later discovered that he was a very emotionally abusive partner; he manipulated me and isolated me from all of my friends and family. When it got to the point that I realised it wasn’t a healthy relationship, I tried to leave him but I was so insecure that when he said ‘no one would want you the way you are’, I believed him.
I had spoken to him about the surgery and he had told me that he loved me exactly the way I was, but if it was something I wanted to do for myself, then go for it. I researched all about it for years but it wasn’t until I realised that the only way I was going to feel confident enough to break away from him was to go ahead with the surgery. That’s when I decided it was time to get serious and get a consultation.”
How incredibly sad that she didn’t feel like she was worth loving because of a perceived problem with her labia. There was never anything wrong with her in the first place, but because of being bullied and living in a misogynist culture she came to hate her genitals so much that the only thing she felt she could do was have them surgically altered.
“I did more research and that’s the first time I came across a website called the Labia Library where I discovered that women come in all different shapes and sizes too. I had no idea my whole life because everything I saw while growing up only showed this perfect smooth look. My mum has a bad back so I used to help her get in and out of the bath sometimes and so I had seen her naked plenty of times and she was the same as everything else I saw, just this normal looking vagina with nothing hanging out. Even though discovering this gave me a little relief, it was too late to heal me completely, the damage had been done over a number of years and I knew that deep down, I would never truly love myself the way I was.”
This is a really interesting (and sad) observation. As a young adult, she finally saw a variety of vulvas and sizes of labia, and realized that women aren’t as homogenous as she previously thought. But this still wasn’t enough to make her feel better because her years of body shame had crystallized into an intense hatred that she could not easily shake off. Shame about one’s body that originates in childhood can become very serious and difficult to recover from. However, although it may be difficult, it is possible to recover from it. I think that getting surgery to change the perceived problem is the wrong approach. Getting surgery means agreeing with the bully’s wrongful accusation that there is something wrong with a normal, healthy body part. It’s succumbing to shame instead of overcoming it. It’s letting the bully win. I believe the right approach is to name the bully as the problem and retrain the mind to see the body part as normal. Of course, identifying misogyny in the culture is important too.
Why? Because any surgery comes with possible complications, and one of the risks of labiaplasty is a loss of feeling in the remaining tissue. Because women shouldn’t have to change our bodies to accommodate other people’s misogyny. Because we should value our own sexual response enough to not want to risk losing it in order to meet someone else’s idea of what we should look like. Because being in a healthy, fully functioning body is way more important than looking the way misogynists want us to look. Because women are people, not sex objects. Arbitrarily deciding that some labia don’t look right and bullying women into believing that they should cut their labia off is woman abuse.
A small note on the topic of the agency of the individual: I am not going to start standing outside plastic surgery clinics and stopping women from getting surgeries. Feminism is not about policing individual women’s choices. What we need to do as feminists is name misogyny when we see it, name violence against women, raise consciousness about it, and collectively change the culture from a woman-hating culture to a woman-affirming one, so that fewer women will develop hatred toward themselves. Women modifying their bodies to meet ideas about how we should look is not the problem, it’s a symptom of the problem. The problem is misogyny, and we need to attack it at the root.