Shame on vagina shame: a modern-day tragicomedy

By Maya Khamala

In case you’ve somehow been spared the myriad of modern-day memos designed to shame and medicalize your goddess-given vagina and vulva, the pitch is this: we live in an age where plastic surgery clinics are using vagina and vulva shame to sell risky and unnecessary cosmetic procedures.

Despite the fact that vaginas and vulvas come in all shapes and sizes, as numerous studies have demonstrated, many women seem to worry theirs is the wrong size, shape, smell, tightness, and colour, and mainstream porn is typically and I believe rightfully blamed at least in part for consistently putting hairless vulvas with itty bitty labia front and centre. But hey, is the fetishization of one specific manifestation of one particular feature really all that rare in the world of “beauty”? I think not. Does that make it ok? I think not.

Sometimes we’re too loose

Back in July, the FDA rained down on the safety and effectiveness of "vaginal rejuvenation":  “These products have serious risks… We are deeply concerned women are being harmed.” Nevertheless, vaginal rejuvenation treatments, which generally use lasers or other energy-based devices with the promise of a tighter, more lubricated vagina are still in high demand, in spite of the fact that vagina “tightness” vs “looseness” is a myth. If a woman is experiencing any kind of sexual problem, say post-pregnancy, or even just in the regular day-to-day, she might try vaginal rejuvenation if nothing else has worked, no one is around to offer support, and/or sex ed is lacking. In such a climate, services that readily offer hope, empowerment, and bodily autonomy can seem attractive.

Sometimes we’re too much

Fact: despite having no medical need for it, girls as young as 9 years old are asking to have their labia shortened because they don’t like its appearance. Labiaplasty is a surgery that involves reshaping or shortening the labia, and get this, it’s the fastest growing type of plastic surgery in the world. “Their perception is that the inner lips should be invisible, almost like a Barbie, but the reality is that there is a huge variation. It's very normal for the lips to protrude,” says Dr. Paquita de Zulueta. London-based plastic surgeon Dr Jacqueline Lewis believes that porn, Brazilian waxes and the increased affordability of cosmetic surgery have all played a part in the rising demand for such procedures but she also looks to thongs and the athleisure trend: “There’s this fashion now, to wear fitted clothes, yogawear and leggings, and so the labia are more visible.” When something is more visible, it follows that it should also take up less space, right?

Sometimes we’re not enough

But just as too much is so a thing, so too is too little. ‘Cause hey, life’s too easy for women without a little multidirectional shame, am I right? Injectable lip and facial fillers have been real popular for a while now, so it only stands to reason that the “labia plumping” trend—aka fillers for your labia—is also on the rise. Also marketed as "labial puffs" or "intimate area fillers,” the procedure involves injecting hyaluronic acid, or your own fat from another area of your body into your labia majora. Descriptors typically used to sell the procedure: a “fuller,” more “voluminous,” more “youthful” look. Um. 


Gynecologists like Janice Rymer, consultant gynecologist and vice president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (RCOG), are warning that plumping (as well as other cosmetic vaginal treatments) may be dangerous, posing a risk of infection, scarring, disfigurement, and altered/ decreased sensation in the labia. And because of the "significant lack of peer-reviewed medical research on the safety and efficacy of these procedures," doctors are unable to advise patients on the risks or long-term consequences, Rymer adds. Others have warned about the risks of having injections administered by untrained practitioners. Because these treatments are nonsurgical, they go largely unregulated. Professionals have warned about the risks of genital fillers for years and yet clinics are still offering them with markedly little rigamarole. In 2015, Dr Neetu Nirdosh warned of potential nerve paralysis, bleeding, swelling, and loss of sensation during sex.

The bottom line? It’s a shame, but shame does sell. For all our modern rambling and gambling with human capability and cleverness, it’s hard to say just how far we’ve actually come when it comes to halting the never-ending scrutiny and shaming of women’s bodies. But a heart-shaped box ain’t supposed to be square, y’all. Get my drift? 

Enjoy thy temple, enjoy thyself.


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