Thoughtful comment on gender and politics

Let’s keep knives away from vaginas

Labiaplasty is a plastic surgery procedure for altering the labia minora (inner labia) and the labia majora (outer labia), the folds of skin surrounding the human vulva. It’s often called the ‘Barbie’ surgery because it makes your down there, look like, well Barbie’s. If you’re still confused, there are before and after pictures of operations here. This week I read a BBC news article saying that the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists have warned that labiaplasty should not be carried out on the NHS.

The popularity of these operations has exploded in recent years and according to the BBC the numbers have increased fivefold in the last decade. Sometimes there’s a real need for this surgery and you only have to read these posts on Mumsnet to see why. But in recent years there’s been a trend for ‘designer vaginas’; vaginas that fit an ideal introduced by porn. And with porn now freely available through the internet, it’s become a standard that many men and women seem to expect.

We’ve seen the same thing happen with the removal of pubic hair – women in porn are bare down there and so many of the female public has followed suit. But shaving or waxing is reversible; it grows back and without any serious long-term side effects. Labiaplasty can leave women with pain, scarring,  less sensitivity and a host of other problems, and once it’s been done, it’s irreversible. You only have to read these heart-wrenching stories to realise that for many women having a ‘designer vagina’ left them feeling butchered, scarred and violated.

Personally I’ve always felt uneasy about cosmetic surgery. While it’s obviously a personal choice, it’s always seemed a great shame to me that women (and men) feel the need to nip here and tuck there to fit a body ideal that doesn’t exist; that people feel so unhappy in their skin that they’re prepared to undergo major surgery with all the risks that come with it. For so many people to be running to the operating table to change how they look I think says more about the problems of our society, than any problems with our bodies… but that’s another blog post for another day.

What I find incredibly ironic about labiaplasty is that while some women are desperate to go under the knife to have their vagina altered, others are fighting a long hard battle against female genital mutilation (FGM). What’s FGM?

Here’s the World Health Organisation’s description:

Female genital mutilation (FGM) comprises all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.

Sound familiar? Yes, to me that sounds a hell of a lot like cosmetic labiaplasty and FGM has been illegal in the UK for 28 years (although there are yet to be any prosecutions). FGM is understood to predominantly take place in African and Asian communities, and is performed both in the UK and abroad. Some 20,000 girls living in the UK are thought to be at risk and 140 million women worldwide are living with the consequences of FGM.

You may think it’s crass to make comparisons between the two procedures. FGM is most often performed on children who have no choice. It often takes place in unsanitary conditions and carries far more health risks (including death) than labiaplasty. The point of FGM is to ensure women do not experience sexual pleasure so that they are virgins before marriage and remain faithful afterwards. I assume that women seeking a labiaplasty want to make themselves more sexually desirable, rather than remove their own feelings of pleasure. And women in a position to have a labiaplasty presumably know the risks and give their full, informed consent, which cannot be said for the frightened women and girls who suffer FGM.

Like all cosmetic surgery, to have a labiaplasty is  a women’s free choice, and I would always defend a women’s right to make her own choices about her own body above everything else. But I hope these women consider the irony of their choices in a world where so many other women are fighting to keep knives away from their vaginas.

2 Responses to “Let’s keep knives away from vaginas”

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