"The decision was not driven by vanity or sexual desirability. I had never had sex or even been kissed." Photo: Stocksy
I woke up in a bed soaked with blood. The throbbing between my legs was excruciating, more painful than anything I'd felt before or since.
As I looked beneath the sheets, the first thing I noticed was that they'd shaved me.
It felt like my vagina had been sliced at its opening and stitched back together.
It felt that way because it had been.
I was 16 and I had undergone labiaplasty, surgery to remove the external skin folds from my vulva.
The decision was not driven by vanity or anxiety about sexual desirability. I had never had sex or even been kissed.
The problem, as I saw it, was that I was ill. Gravely ill.
This paranoia began when I hit puberty. My labia began to grow but it seemed only to grow on one side. I spent countless hours examining it in the bathroom with a small hand mirror. I would pull it, stretch it and roll it between my fingers, before tucking it back into my underwear. I felt sure something was very wrong. It certainly looked nothing like the diagrams in my tame school textbook.
I trawled through the medical books in my parents' library searching impatiently for a diagnosis. The only things I could find about vaginal growth pointed to cancer and I became convinced I was dying. Every day at school I wondered when I would start to feel sick and if that would be the day I would drop dead.
I even tried to cut it more than once with scissors but didn't have the stomach to go through with it. At that point, there was no logic to my thought. I became depressed and felt ashamed of myself, often imagining multiple scenarios where my secret would be revealed and people would recoil in disgust. This, was before anyone could find answers on the internet, labiaplasty was tucked away in plastic surgery forums or graphic before-and-after shots.
When I eventually broke the news to Mum about my cancer, she took me to our family GP. She referred me to a gynecologist who told me it was easily fixed with surgery, confirming everything I thought about how disgusting and weird I was, but also filling me with a sense of relief – I could be cured!
I was scheduled an appointment with a well-known cosmetic surgeon on Sydney's lower north shore. She asked why I had waited so long and laughed loudly when I told her I'd thought it was cancer. She had performed the same procedure on an 8-year-old just last week, she said.
Two weeks after my surgery, the bruising and swelling had subsided and I was able to look at myself. My only feeling was relief; that I was not ill or disfigured and relieved that I could one day be intimate without being afraid of rejection.
When I did start having sex, with women, I soon realised no two vaginas are the same. It was a simple fact I wish I'd known sooner. And, while I have no regrets about the surgery (it helped pull me from a dark and lonely place), I do regret that I was not told more about women's bodies and that I did not have access to information that would have told me I was within the spectrum of normal.
I identify as a feminist; and maybe despite this, or because of this, I am afraid of the judgment I will receive from other women. The few people I have told about my surgery have been suspicious and negative. I am aware of the taboo nature of my surgery and the relationship labiaplasty has with the shaming of women's bodies and the power of pornography. But I was a scared, 16-year-old and it was not my burden to worry about why society was making me feel that way; or how society would make me feel for choosing to have the surgery either.
All I knew was I thought I was sick, and suddenly I was well.
*Name was withheld on request by the author
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