It’s happening. The rise of the ‘designer vagina’ is a real thing. It’s seeing young Australian women (as in, teenagers) consulting with doctors as to how to make their vaginas appear more ‘normal’ (i.e. ‘porn perfect’).
In the U.S., the age of women seeking out vaginal surgery has reduced so noticeably, that the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has issued a set of recommendations for doctors consulting with adolescent girls about labiaplasty or breast surgery.
“There has been increasing patient interest in surgical modification of breast and genital tissues during the adolescent period,” the recommendation states. “Adolescents often desire to improve physical conditions that, if left uncorrected, may affect them into adulthood or that they perceive as flawed. This age group may be under particular stress regarding these issues because of societal conceptions of the ideal female body and parental concerns for body perfection.”
In Australia, due to the recent restrictions on the type of surgeries Medicare can be used for, exact numbers around the popularity of the labiaplasty is unknown. However, between 2003 and 2013 the number of women claiming Medicare rebates for the vaginal surgery doubled, with 1,584 claims made from July 2013 to June 2014.
So why are young women so interested in the aesthetics of their genitalia?
Porn. Movies. A lack of education. A ‘shame’ around real nudity and honest discussion. An increase in the number of ways we can access, and are exposed to, unhealthy depictions of ‘perfect’, yet unrealistic, vaginas – think smart phones, online forums, porn hubs, etc.
All these play a part in creating false expectations around what vaginas really look like. Not to mention the fact that an accurate depiction of a woman’s vagina is extremely difficult to come by.
“Many women have never seen another woman’s genitals, so they don’t know what they ought to look like,” Dr Maggie Kirkman, a senior research fellow at the Jean Hailes Research Unit at Monash University told the ABC. “And they look at their own and they don’t perhaps match the images they see – the neat ‘Barbie’ appearance – and they think there’s something wrong with them.”
There are also laws around censorship in Australia, that require images of female genitalia to show minimal detail, restricted to a ‘single crease’ without the labia minora, or the inner labia. This censorship is enforced by the Australian Classification Board, and arguably contributes to a widespread misunderstanding of what real, ACTUAL ADULT vaginas look like (the labia minora tend to increase in size during puberty, and it’s only young girls who have a ‘single crease’ as depicted in Australian media).
Partner this with porn movies and magazines that use airbrushing and Photoshop to reduce the prominence of the labia minora and clitoris, and you start to see a trend that is taking the vagina’s public image far, far from it’s actual appearance.
Alongside this unrealistic image of female genitalia, we also don't like talking about vaginas. Last week, a substitute teacher in the U.S. was fired for saying the word 'vagina' in class during an art history lecture. And movements like 'cliteracy' are only recently bringing women's anatomy and pleasure into the social conversation.
What can be done about it?
Before an entire generation of Australian women rush off to have their vaginas re-designed, education is key in building a healthy and realistic idea of what vaginas actually look like. Or, more accurately, that there is no 'normal' vagina and there is no such thing as a 'single crease' – as every vagina is different, and a 'one-size'fits-all' approach is not getting anyone anywhere.
In a bid to kick-start this education, researchers at Flinders University in Adelaide have measured the effectiveness of different online resources in creating a positive body image around the vagina. The findings have been recently published in An International Journal of Research.
The study showed 136 female undergraduates one of two educational resources – one was a collection of still photographs, the other was a seven-minute long video put together by the ABC's Hungry Beast program in 2010. After viewing either of the resources, women were asked to rate six different photographs of women's genitals on a scale of 1 to 5 for 'normality'. The women who watched the video were found to have a greater understanding of what is 'normal' when it comes to female genitalia, compared to the women who viewed only the still photographs.
"I'm all about women making informed choices," researcher Gemma Sharp told the ABC. "If they have all the research, women can approach labiaplasty thinking, 'This is what the research says and I still want to have it,' or 'This is what the research says and maybe I won't'."
"It was never our intention to persuade women one way or the other about having a labiaplasty, we simply wanted to find out whether or not they had a realistic idea of what normal actually looked like, and to ensure they made informed decisions," Sharp added.
An excerpt from the Hungry Beast: The Labiaplasty Fad video, which was shown to participants in the study. Post continues below video.
There are many reasons women might seek out cosmetic surgery. They don't feel comfortable in their skin, they're tired of looking 'tired', they want their clothes to fit their bodies better, they'd like their breasts brought to proportion with their hips. All these reasons are completely justifiable, understandable and empowering. Because these reasons are to do with the woman herself.
But when cosmetic surgery is sought out to fulfil another person's ideology, match society's 'norm' or to reflect what's seen in the media, cosmetic surgery no longer is empowering. In fact, when young women (as in, teenagers) are seeking out labiaplasty to recreate the vaginas of porn clips or movie scenes, this is so far from empowering, it's dangerous.