Afternoon Inquisition

AI: Is my Vuvulzela too big?

NOTE: this post contains a video of someone’s labia being lopped off and over-sharing by me about my vulva. You’ve been warned.

Last week I happened to see this post at one of my favorite blogs, Sociological Images.  They were discussing labioplasty, a surgical procedure that “trims” the labia so that they are smaller.  This procedure has been increasing in frequency–which somewhat boggles my mind. Keeping extremely sharp knives away from my girl goolies is something that I strive for.

The question asked by this investigative report was: “Are rules about what genitalia it’s acceptable to show in soft porn driving a perception that small labia are “normal”? You can’t show protruding labia–which swell when you’re excited, BTW–and still have it be softcore.

“The only acceptable vagina as far as the Classification Board is concerned is one that is “neat and tidy” in their eyes. They basically consider the labia minora  “too offensive” for soft core porn.”

Video: NSFW!

The thing that struck me when watching this video (well, it struck me after I was finally able to unclench my legs and come out from under my desk) was how often the word “untidy” was used to describe a normal vulva.  “Untidy”?? Really?

Apparently women are forgetting that all parts of our bodies must be dainty and restrained at all times. Even the sexual parts. When you clean your kitchen and vacuum up the carpet, don’t forget to put your crotch in order too!!

I know that now I’m single my GYN will probably be remarking on the dust bunnies up there. But I will be surprised if she criticizes the folding job I’ve done on my lady lips.

There’s a huge range of variation in body shape, and labia are no different than other parts.  But now large or asymmetrical labia are viewed as pathological. If you aren’t the right shape–which is photo-shopped or surgically altered in the first place–cut things off.

Here’s my confession: I have untidy labia. They are slightly asymmetrical, and they are largeish. I’ve worried about the size since I was a kid. Are they supposed to be like that? The color isn’t even. Is that right?

Now that I’m entering menopause, the changes in estrogen levels in my body are making my vulva change as well.  After childbirth and menopause, the labia majora shrink, and the labia minora protrude more. So now I’m even more self-conscious about my meat curtains.

I even started to worry about dating again…although Elyse wisely pointed out that anyone that actually had their face in my crotch would probably not choose that time to judge me on vulva aesthetics.

What do you think? Is this pathologizing something we shouldn’t worry about? Do you have genitalia insecurities?

Bonus: Cunts! The Movie! (actually some very interesting sculptures that show the diversity of women’s boxes)

UnBonus: PZ discusses the depressing scandal at Cornell of a doctor surgically altering girls’ clitori because they are “too big.”  You can read a detailed description of what was happening here; TRIGGER WARNING it is graphic and disturbing.

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46 Comments

  1. I don’t think that plastic surgery according to personal taste is inherently bad. There’s different tastes in faces and different tastes in genitalia, and getting one’s own altered to suit the own personal preference isn’t something that I’m prinicpally against.
    I think the main problem here is the setting of a social norm, the misrepresentation of reality, and thus the creation of pressure and insecurities by overzealous censorship.

    I find it also interesting to note that this may be the only problem that is present in softcore porn that isn’t an issue in hardcore-porn. I didn’t think that was possible.

  2. As a friend of mine said – Its not designed to be pretty – its designed to work.

    But consider this – at what point did we think that women who shaved their legs and arm pits were going too far? When did the swing happen to where it was normal and the non-shavers were making some kind of statement (or were like me and thought they could get away with it for another day).

    When will this be the norm? Will there be an age where its OK to trim up the labs?

    Its already going that route with the bush waxing. I am still holding out. (likely because no one but me and the doc see the bush – but I like to pretend its an ethical issue. )

    I hope I’m dead before its normal for a girl to go in for the lab trim.

  3. I’m with you, non-believer. I definitely feel like a dirty hippie when I go a little too long without shaving my legs, and most of me knows that’s a silly way to feel. Mostly I don’t “trim the hedges” because I’m lazy. And if I’m too lazy for trimming, I’m definitely too lazy to slice and dice. Plus, SWEET ZOMBIE JEEBUS WTF ARE YOU THINKING HACKING OFF YOUR LABIA???

    The funny thing is, until I became more involved with skepticism, I was completely unaware off all of the ways society wanted me to hate my lady bits. If it weren’t for Blag Hag, I never would have known how unsightly and drab my vajayjay was (http://www.blaghag.com/2010/01/is-your-vagina-pink-enough.html), and Rebecca was the one who taught me what a vajayjay was (http://skepchick.org/blog/2009/06/7613/) since without TV, I have no access to Oprah unless you count the magazines in the checkout line telling me her engagement is off. Or on. Or she’s marrying Gail. And now I find out that I may have floppy junk and no man will ever love me. Now excuse me, I have some vajazzling to do (http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2010/02/i_must_be_getting_old.php).

  4. I’m fairly tidy with my computers but with everything else, I’m fairly untidy. And I prefer for living organisms (like people) to look like living organisms and not like trimmed, designed products. It’s the little odd bits and bobs that give us character (visually, I mean) and allow me to tell one person from the other.
    I’m not really crazy about the idea of deciding upon one definite ideal of what a human being should look like and homogenizing humanity based on this idea. Aren’t we supposed to be individuals?
    My own penis probably wouldn’t win any beauty contests but it works splendidly – it does everything I need it to do when I need it to do it. Excellent!
    And, if you ask me, most girl-bits look pretty funny but I love ’em to look different. What a shame if we all looked the same – whether in our faces or our girl/boy-bits.
    So enjoy your untidy (but functional) labia and I’ll keep being quite satisfied with my possibly peculiar (but, again, fully functional) penis! Hooray for asymmetrical bits!

  5. I have a huge problem with this for a couple reasons which actually may be the same reason. You guys tell me.
    First off, I love women’s girlie parts. The fact that they are all different is part of the thrill. Why would anyone want them to all look the same by meeting some weird standard. And I can tell you from experiance that larger clitoris’ are totally fun to play with!
    The other thing that occurs to me is what would people say if there were some kind of standard placed on penises? Sorry buddy, yours is too big, nope, yours is too small, and oh dear god we have a foreskin…get out the clippers and the novacaine! (novacaine if you’re lucky)
    This whole thing is really out of ‘right’ field if you ask me.
    And by the way, as a side note here, can someone please tell me how anyone could consider piercing their sexy bits, male or female? This idea quite simply scares the crap out of me. It’s bad enough that some segments of this society are trying to pressure women into altering their parts but to do it voluntarily, for fun?? I’m thinking that’s deranged…am I wrong?

  6. Of course, we circumsize penises all the time. It’s considered the “in” thing for Jews and Christians. That, of course, doesn’t make it okay, and it certainly doesn’t excuse female genital mutilation. It is worth pointing out that screwing with peoples’ naughty bits is not a woman-only thing.

  7. What adult consenting women choose to do or not do with their labia is none of my business. I think it’s awful they think they need cosmetic surgery on their labia but they get to make the decision because it’s their body. I love tattoos and piercings which many people find to be mutilation as well (no none there, but I’ve considered it).

    The story on the little girls though is a horrible, and in my opinion criminal, abuse of children who are incapable of consent. If when they were old enough to make medical decisions they decided to have their clitoris reduced then I would also find that okay. The fact they had no choice before someone took a scalpel to their genitals is appalling and made worse by the followup “exams”.

  8. @Denver7M: There are different reasons for piercings. Some are in places that can increase sexual sensation like clitoral hood piercings that are positioned right over the clitoris and rub during activities. Some are because the person has a love of the aesthetics of body modification (many penis and labial piercing). Then there are people who do it for the pain.

  9. AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA. I shouldn’t have read this. It is in my mind. I need to take my brain out and scrub it with a brillo pad and borax.

  10. The thing which is implied, but nobody says out loud in that story, is that the Australian censorship board obviously considers that the female parts should be modestly covered by pubic hair. The problem would never have occurred in the 70s.

  11. I have no labia/vag insecurities. It is what it is. At one point when I worked in a piercing/tattoo shop I even had even had a “hood piercing” to add a little sparkle and like Noadi mentioned for fun times but it got annoying IMO so I removed it.

    As usual, I say if you want to have plastic surgery go for it but don’t do it because society or someone else told you that you should or because you think you will be socially accepted if you do. There is no such thing as perfection. Let me repeat that. There is no such thing as perfection and chasing after it will leave you empty, broke and unsatisfied.

    Some will find your lady parts beautiful and some will be confused and scared and others indifferent regardless of what they look like. Besides, there is more beauty in nature in general and in our feeble human minds than there will ever be in our collective manicured crotches. So shave or don’t, trim or don’t, fold or unfold. The most important thing is that you accept and love yourself and your girly bits. When that happens you will find others who love your bits as well.

  12. @slxpluvs: Yes indeed! My body piercing shop experience showed me that gals will stretch the curtains and boys will stretch the nads. Put some shiny silver balls on there, get a nice *clink clink* if you walk just right.
    Good times. :)

    But yes, you are the only one who wonders what they do with the leftovers.

  13. As a guy, it doesn’t feel quite right to comment in this thread, but it did bring to mind an episode of the British programme ‘Embarrassing Bodies’:

    http://www.channel4embarrassingillnesses.com/video/embarrassing-bodies/consultation-enlarged-labia/

    I was amazed that this was shown on regular TV before 10pm. I can see if things get in the way on a day to day basis then a little rearangement may be advantageous, otherwise vive la différence!

    Perhaps a little off topic, but I could never understand why even non Jewish/Muslim American men were circumsized more often that Europeans. Health, culture or doctors making money of insurance?

  14. Isn’t the BIG issue here that women are reducing their pleasure from sex?
    The labida are really sensitive and to surgically remove parts of them would reduce that sensitivity.

  15. I hope no one thinks that I contemplated this surgery! They may not be the appropriate size (whatever that is this week), but they’re mine.

    As for the leftovers–I know that when they do nipple reconstruction after a mastectomy, they often use labia tissue. However, I wouldn’t think it would be possible to graft that. (?)

  16. Great, now women are being told that, in addition to the fact that their thighs, butts, breasts, hair, makeup, pores, legs, calves, feet, abdomens, and noses are too big/small/short/fat/thin/different, the parts that aren’t visible to everyone (usually) are also wrong somehow. Who the hell is setting the standards? And more importantly, can I kick his ass?

  17. Hi there!

    GAH! Just … gah!

    I have it on good authority, that when women are in the bedroom, on the verge of a good sexual experience, she’s worrying about a million different things. Whether she’s pretty enough. Whether physical imperfection #642 is going to turn the guy off. Whether this guy is “the one”, or if he’s even going to stay for breakfast. I was reading the True Blood series recently, and the main character (a telepath since birth) says that the reason she can’t have sex with “normal” guys, is that she can’t bear to hear what’s going through their minds as they get into bed with her. All of the minor criticisms and doubts that she hears just totally turn her off.

    I guess I’m just -weird- then.

    I haven’t had sex with quite as many women as I would have liked. (but then 1.5 billion is perhaps an unrealistic goal) but every time I *have* had sex, I’ve only been thinking ONE thing:

    “W00 HOO!!1! I’M GONNA *GET SOME*!! OOOH BABY!! THAT’S RIGHT!! I’M A TOTAL STUD-MUFFIN, YES I AM!! LOCK UP YOUR DAUGHTERS, THE SEX GOD IS GOING DOWNTOWN!! WOOOOO!!!”

    Are there men who DON’T think this? Are there guys who think: “W00!! I’m gonna get so– oh, MAN, eww! her labia minora protrude! That’s it! I’m gonna go home and masturbate instead”.

    Or am *I* just some kind of pervert with low standards? I mean seriously!!?!

    Gah! just gah!

  18. @Amy: I agree that anyone who chooses to have this kind of surgery should be free to do so, but don’t the kind of relentless social pressures that lead a woman to want to have this kind of surgery make the issue of “choosing” kind of an iffy one? It’s like arguing that women in Pakistan “choose” to wear the veil. That isn’t a false statement, but it’s a disingenuous one. Anyone who chooses to go against social norms faces recrimination, and most people aren’t ready to be rebels. And while plastic surgery certainly isn’t “the norm,” it certainly isn’t some kind of fringe behavior. (and I know that seems a bit of a false analogy, as we are certainly talking about different kinds of recrimination. No one is getting flogged or buried alive for having floppy labia. But that doesn’t mean that even imaginary recriminations and judgments don’t seem dire to some people.)

    I guess what I’m trying to say with my run-on sentences, is that a woman may choose to have her labia tucked, but she didn’t get to choose the pathological insecurities and neuroses about what counts as “normal” or “beautiful.”

  19. You too? I thought I was the only one! I hate the shape of my pancreas. It’s just goofy and I can’t stop thinking about it. I’m saving up now, and as soon as I can afford it I’ll have it trimmed into a more pleasing shape. I’m gonna get so much action!

  20. Urrgh. I just watched the video (most of it) I was envisioning, from the post, that the women getting surgery were on the extreme end of the bell curve for dangly meat curtains. Nope.
    I’m all for personal choice, but I think that someone shouldn’t be in love with your ass (or vag, or boobs, or whatever) because it meets some arbitrary criteria of perfection, but because it’s YOUR ass, or vag, or boobs, or whatever.

  21. @GeoTraveller: No, I guess it’s possible that there are men out there on the verge of coitus who are thinking about how gorgeous and wonderful and awesome their girl is, and wondering if they themselves are good enough. But for me, if she’s naked and about to have sex with me, then in my mind we’ve both pretty much established that she’s wonderful and awesome, and I’m good enough. ;)

    (Okay, I’m exaggerating here for a laugh. But I still wouldn’t throw someone out of bed for having protrusive labia minora) :P

  22. I don’t begrudge any consenting adult’s prerogative to have any cosmetic procedure done, including–or perhaps especially–cosmetic genital surgery.

    Personally, I have something of a skin tag on my minora which I will be having removed forthwith. It’s not pathological, so why would I have any knife near my bits? Cause it bothers me dammit, and they’re my bits.

  23. @Garbledina: I guess I disagree because I do think you get to decide what you think is beautiful. (On just the note of plastic surgery and not burkas or veils here.) Self esteem is a separate issue as well. If you are judging what your labia should look like based on what girls in porn have, then you have an issue. If you are deciding that what you are suppose to look like is based on a fashion magazine then you also have an issue. Women need to love themselves for who they are. We are not going to change porn and fashion magazines but we can change how we choose to see ourselves. You are assuming that every woman who alters herself has a pathological insecurity and I find that highly unlikely. The crazy ass barbie girl, yeah probably but my friend who had her nose done, I don’t think so. It’s your crotch, do what you want with it. Just don’t pierce or mess with the clit. That would be very, very bad.

  24. I personally disagree with the supposition that it’s softcore porn causing the trend for one very simple anecdotal piece of evidence: I can’t stand softcore porn! It’s a tease and a waste of my time. If I wanted to use my imagination, I wouldn’t be looking at porn.

    Now that that’s out of the way, I’m of the opinion that a person’s tastes are just that. They change, they sway, and it’s very difficult to be sure of their source. I think those who try to convince us that our tastes are a product of the media telling us what’s attractive are just as bad as the media they’re blaming it on. You can’t tell me what my motivations are for what I like as much as you can’t tell me what to like. And telling me that I’m WRONG to like something just because it may hurt the sensibilities of the people who don’t possess whatever it is I like is just plain wrong in itself.

    As for this subject, like anyone, I have preferences. But people need to remember to separate preferences from deal-breakers. I tend to have a slight preference for what’s been unfortunately described here as a “tidy” vulva (I agree that that’s an awful way to define the difference), and I don’t think I’m alone in that, which is why the so-called “standards” were set around that. But as a straight male who’s deeply fond of the body parts on discussion here, I can tell you that the moment I have access to one of them those preferences become far, far less important compared to the overwhelming sensation of “weeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!” that goes through my head. Honestly, about the only place these preferences hold ANY sway is exactly the so-called source of them, which is porn. If I have a virtually unlimited cornucopia of options to look at it’s much easier to narrow down to exactly my definition of “perfection” (whatever the hell that means) without any downside to doing so. But when I have an attractive real woman in front of me about to let me play with my subject of interest those silly, narrow views of perfection are wiped from my head.

    And this is, as far as I can tell, the reality of all people’s preferences on these matters. We all have a “type” which is the exact appearance (height, weight, hair color, eye color, skin tone, etc.) and/or personality of the kind of person who really “does it” for us, and these are the people we tend to notice or pick out of a crowd more than others. And yet I’d lay money on the bet that most people marry someone who does NOT fit these preconceived standards of their perfect mate. When reality is staring you in the face, “perfect” is suddenly irrelevant compared to what’s just right. People lose track of this and try to make everything perfect, regardless of how meaningless that really is.

    The final caveat is I fully support an informed person doing anything they wish to their bodies to be happier with themselves, whether it be body modification or plastic surgery. It’s not that much different from learning a new skill or going back to school to fit a perceived empty spot, and I’m bugged by people who look so far down on those who choose to do so on a physical level. So long as they understand all the implications and truly understand the results, they have my backing.

  25. This discussion has come up a couple times in my household since I watched a BBC documentary on labiaplasty. I find it as perplexing as ever. To be fair, a lot of indie porn skews what we consider the standard in porn (and it’s a hell of a lot better). Women are relatably hot, and the rest is, well, whatever you’re into. I consider mainstream porn a geriatric dinosaur at this point. Go, internets! ;-)

  26. I don’t think people get their preferences from porn. I also don’t think anyone is a slave to the media. (cultural standards are more insidious in getting into our heads). I do think choice matters, and personal liberty to act on choices that affect only us is one of the most important freedoms we have. I also wasn’t trying to say that anyone who would have plastic surgery must have pathological insecurities.

    I am just saying that here at Skepchick, most of us are pretty independently minded. Skeptics hone their critical thinking skills, and have grasped that “well, everyone else is doing it” is just the argument from popularity, and a basic logical fallacy. There are a great number of people who still find “everyone else is doing it” to be a strong argument, and who feel afraid of the kind of life they are going to have if they are too different and no one likes them. People aren’t idiots because they want very badly to fit in, they have just never been taught to feel empowered to go against the grain, and that being different doesn’t mean being a pariah.

    You can choose not to let insecurities rule you, and to love what you are and what you have. You can choose to accept scientific evidence over superstition as well. I don’t want choices to disappear, I just want us all to keep educating people about the fact that there really is a choice, and that being different really isn’t so dire.

  27. I am of the opinion that if people are that concerned about the shape of some lady’s lady-lips, then they should stick to Photoshopping it rather than requiring said lady to have the ‘offending’ area physically trimmed!

    And I would like to add that I have no issue with my willy, thank you, and am heartily happy that my parents left me whole in that department!

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