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Even if you’ve had them your whole life, you might not know what labia are. I’m pretty sure my mother learned their location from peering down at my genitals reflected in a gynecologist’s hand mirror.
At 13 years old, I’d long agonized about the seemingly excessive skin hanging from my vagina. Sometimes crudely referred to as “beef curtains,” these flaps of skin are actually referred to as the labia minora, contained within the (usually shorter) labia majora.
For years I ritually tucked the minora business up inside the majora to prevent distracting crotch sensitivity during gym class. As a 10-year-old with C-cup breasts but zero anatomical knowledge, I worried that these bits might be some kind of mini penis. I imagined my wedding night culminating in my husband fleeing the hotel room in horror at the sight of my freak junk.
After fretting long and hard in my denim butterfly chair one evening, I broached the subject with my mom, probably in the form of a vague note written in gel pen. I was the kind of Puritanical kid who could only change clothes in a locked, empty room, so putting my parts on display for my baffled mother, then my grandma (a retired nurse), proved traumatizing enough that I don’t remember what either of them said in response, but somehow I ended up at my first gynecologist’s appointment a good eight years before most women.
In my memory, that first visit to the Lady Doctor pulses with cold fluorescence. To ensure my humiliation, I got my period two days before. The doctor, a flat-affect sociopath with brunette Annie hair, insisted on delineating my anatomy in her hand mirror to an audience of my fascinated mother and at least one intern. (I sometimes recall a whole group of hawk-eyed med students with clipboards, but Serial taught me the fickleness of teen memory. So.)
At your first gyno visit, four is less of a crowd and more of a nightmare classroom. The ordeal had the atmosphere of an alien abduction, particularly when I melted into terrified tears and the gyno, looking directly at me, stated, “I wish she wouldn’t cry.”
As an added unwelcome lesson, she took the opportunity to teach me how to put in a tampon. Allowing a stranger to insert a tampon in the presence of your mother and another stranger is exactly as haunting as you’re imagining. Especially when that tampon is the first object to ever enter your vagina. Especially when you still prefer imaginary horses to human beings.
Through the haze of adolescent suffering, I vaguely recall the doctor noting that labia come in all shapes and sizes, and mine were like a medium at Target. (My analogy, not hers.) I could opt to make them shorter with surgery, but after watching a stranger meddle in my nethers for half an hour, I just wanted to go home, watch Digimon, and forget everything.
If I talked to my mom about my vagina again in the years that followed, I don’t remember. What stands out vividly is one night at a high school theater conference, while discussing girl stuff with some of my favorite people, I felt safe enough to mention my floppy labia. And no one screamed! No one stared! One friend mentioned her self-consciousness about discharge, and I realized that EVERYone felt weird about their junk, so no one should worry about it. If we’d just lay out all our vagina anxieties side by side, we’d feel a lot less unique and a lot more at peace with our parts.
Flash forward to my freshman year of college. At some point I again grew weary of my acute awareness of my vagina during exercise, especially after losing 30 pounds at age 18. With shamelessness earned through experience as a fat theater geek with IBS who had never been on a date but had established the school’s Harry Potter club, letting trained professionals trim up my vagina seemed like small beans.
I found a new gynecologist who didn’t refer to me in the third person, and we scheduled the outpatient procedure during winter break. Before going under anesthesia, I told as many nurses as possible, “Be careful with my clitoris — I haven’t used it yet!”
Afterward, I spent the holidays sitting on a bag of frozen peas, waiting for my stitches to dissolve while enduring my siblings’ jokes.
At the time, I thought about the procedure as a major solution to discomfort and a minor aesthetic improvement. It wasn’t until I encountered body positivity and feminism and watched Orgasm, Inc., a documentary about the market for female sexual pharmaceuticals, that I began to rethink the ethics of labiaplasty as a feminist.
The procedure is cosmetic surgery, like a nose job, and the motivation for getting snipped can be the same: Some women do it due to discomfort or pain, but a lot do it just for appearances. More and more women are choosing labiaplasty (and other surgeries like vaginoplasty and clitoral hood exposure) in pursuit of a “designer vagina.” Some speculate that the surge in the procedure’s popularity is due to exposure to porn, where vaginas tend to have a certain look. Australia might provide the clearest evidence for this theory, since the country censors labia deemed overly large in pornography. Yeah. The people who approve close-up shots of giant Ps slamming into Vs are NOT cool with THAT bit of skin.
Apparently it isn’t enough that women should change the shape and size of more externally visible body parts; some now think their vaginas should resemble Barbie's, too. There’s an actual procedure called “The Barbie” meant to make women’s crotches look like doll parts — because nothing sounds sexier than chopping off as much skin as possible and stitching your crotch back together again.
I’m troubled by the idea that vaginas “should” look any particular way. Projects like Fifty Nude Women and these awesome vagina illustrations helped me understand that my seemingly “weird” body parts were only as bizarre as everyone else’s. Saying a vagina “should” have small labia is like saying a penis “should” be exactly five inches or an eye “should” be blue. It’s stupid, unrealistic, and potentially damaging.
Labiaplasties can sometimes lead to loss of sensitivity, pain, and infection. I can’t be sure how the procedure affected my sexual sensitivity, since I had never so much as masturbated before the surgery. I have noticed that one of my vagina scars tends to itch at THE most inopportune moments, like when I’m zipped up in a calf-length parka waiting for the bus in a blizzard.
I wouldn’t say I regret my surgery. It has made all activities that involved the spreading of legs a lot less awkward so that I’m much more comfortable leaping around onstage, dancing in gay bars, and being a general goon. It’s nice to not have it all hanging out.
I guess I just wish I could tell past Brynne — and the thousands of women considering labiaplasties right now — that it's okay to dig the vagina you're born with.