The Large Labia Project

A purse by any other name ...

A purse by any other name ...

One of the central questions posed by Insight’s ‘Clear Cut’ last week, (and written about on Daily Life) was whether or not the west has the moral upper hand when it comes to invasive surgery performed on women’s genitals. Given we are currently experiencing rising numbers of women seeking cosmetic vaginal surgery to ‘correct’ the aesthetic of their vulvas, how can we baldly accuse other cultures of butchering their women when increasing numbers of our own are voluntarily lining up for it? Western society's unwillingness to see the comparisons is understandable, if not frustrating. When you can point the fingers at something happening 'over there', it's much easier to resort to prejudiced ideas of cultural difference so that you can avoid the uncomfortable reality of your own similarities. 

Cosmetic surgeon David Caminer, appearing on ‘Clear Cut’, argued that western cosmetic vaginal surgery differs from FGM because one is dictated by culture and the other aesthetic desire. But what governs aesthetic desire if not culture? Conforming to cultural standards of beauty isn’t an act that occurs in a vacuum - without sufficient encouragement from external sources, it’s highly doubtful that women would volunteer to have their vulvas sliced and diced for their own benefit.  

The most common reason cited for labiaplasties is embarrassment over a vagina’s appearance; women are worried that, in addition to being ‘wrong’ somehow, their partners will reject them. And because labiaplasties are now listed on the Medicare scheme, their numbers are skyrocketing - particularly among women aged 15 - 24. One Australian gynaecologist has even spoken of being approached by a 13 year old girl. The Channel 4 documentary The Perfect Vagina referred to the case of a 16 year old girl who sought out labiaplasty because she was worried her boyfriend would laugh at her. 

 Unfortunately, it comes down to a culture in which women’s bodies aren’t just digitally manipulated to cater to specific ideals but in some cases altogether erased. As this excellent report from the ABC’s (sadly axed) program Hungry Beast details, Australian censorship laws deem visible internal labia to count as ‘hardcore pornography’, and instead advocate a ‘neat and tidy’ look. (As far as I’m aware, the law even extends to tampon instruction guides - I’d say if you have to resort to fudding yourself over a tampon guide, you deserve it to be as hardcore as possible). In publishing circles, it’s known as ‘healing it to a single crease’.  

As a result, inner labia have become the fairies at the bottom of the lady garden - they might exist, but who can really be sure? 

The incredibly lucrative cosmetic surgery industry is naturally keen to cash in on all this body shaming. One of Victoria’s leading providers, The Ashley Centre, describes it as “a basic procedure designed to help women feel more confident about themselves.” They make sure to mention that some women feel ‘embarrassed during sex’ and that it’s ‘not uncommon for women to worry about the size and shape of their vaginas.’ Despite all this careand interest in women’s confidence, the vice president of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists said last year that 70% of labiaplasties carried out in Australia were done so unnecessarily. Why, given our outrage for other cultural practices involving the surgical manipulation of women's AND girls' vaginas in order to placate social standards of sexual attractiveness, do we not turn our critical lens to this but instead mouth off about 'choice' and 'consent'?  

The Large Labia Project [warning: highly NSFW] is one woman’s attempt to correct the misconceptions about women’s vulvas. Emma, a 24 year old woman living in Sydney, was inspired to start the project after watching the above linked Hungry Beast story.  

“I took [the findings of the report] personally,” Emma explains. “My own labia minora are on the larger size. They protrude from between my outer lips and are darker coloured tending to brown. They’re a bit lopsided in length with one side longer than the other, and with different textures from one lip to the other. Perfectly normal, but had I been one of the models in those magazines my bits would have been digitally cut off. And that appalled me.” 

The Large Labia Project posts photographs of women’s vulvas, submitted voluntarily by them, in order to demonstrate the incredible diversity that exists in women’s bodies. Because it operates on Tumblr, it can exist outside of Australia’s censorship laws. Some of the stories women relay to Emma are heartbreaking. One 14 year old girl spoke of trying to numb her labia with ice and cut off the protruding parts (or what The Ashley Centre refers to as ‘excess’) with scissors. Another woman, married for almost 5 years, was inspired by Emma’s project to finally allow her husband to see her naked with the lights on. Others have told her they finally feel like there’s nothing wrong with them.  

“The most common reaction [from women] is relief, tremendous relief that they are not alone, and that a huge body of women share vulva similar to them, or that they can see that there isn't the homogeneity in labia size, shape and colour that they'd been convinced existed.”

 It’s impossible to not find similarities between the practices of FGM and our own culturally sanctioned forms of genital modification. One of these things may not be precisely like the other, but there’s no doubt they stem from the same beast. If we are to criticise one as an example of culturally regressive barbarism, we must also be willing to shine the light on our own complicated relationship with the sexual packaging of women’s bodies as commodities. Yes, it is atrocious to tie a child down and mutilate them. And this must be properly targeted, preferably by those who exist within its culture of origin. It isn't our job as western crusaders to storm in and tell the natives what to do, as if their entire society is constructed out of the uncivilised village we imagine for them in our minds. 

When Ubah Abdullahi (featured on Insight’s ‘Clear Cut’) moved to Australia, she was able to find a doctor and somewhat reverse the effects of the infibulation she’d experienced as a child. But there’s an obscene irony to the idea that while this may have been occurring in one clinician’s room, a woman next door may have been undergoing similarly invasive, painful (and potentially dangerous) surgery in order to match an aesthetic ideal that better fits in with western culture’s construction of female sexual attractiveness.  

Instead of always pointing fingers at other people, we should turn our attention to the culture in which we operate. A society that has turned the unnecessary butchery of women’s perfectly fine bodies into a lucrative financial business (while hiding behind the excuse of informed consent) is equally deserving of investigation. At the very least, we should acknowledge that the moral high ground we keep clinging to is built on very precarious foundations. 

The Large Labia Project is conducting some ground breaking research into the size and shape of women's vulvas. If you would like to participate (photos aren't necessary), please find Emma's survey here.

Disclaimer: Clementine would like to acknowledge that the issue of male circumcision is also fraught. She is personally against all forms of cultural sanctioned genital surgery, including male circumcision. However, this article is not about that so she would kindly ask that comments not be derailed. There will be a time in which to discuss male circumcision, but this article is not it.

32 comments

  • Hmm. I certainly agree that there is a very real and disturbing problem in our culture that leads women to want to butcher their privates for "aesthetic" reasons, and this is something that needs to be addressed and changed. (I've always thought that it should be mandatory for anyone seeking cosmetic surgery to attend counselling sessions to determine the real motivation behind the desire to change appearance, and maybe by enforcing this, the number of women choosing to slice themselves up would decrease. Just a thought.)
    However, I think it's not right to say that people from other cultures should keep their noses out of each others business when it comes to the safety of an entire gender. Should we be ignoring the astounding number of rapes in India simply because we have rapists here too? Or should we rather be saying "Yes, there is a problem. We have it. You have it. How can we fix it?"

    Commenter
    Emma
    Date and time
    February 26, 2013, 9:55AM
    • Emma, I think collaborations are great. The problem arises when people in the west assume that people in other cultures are just stumbling around blindly, unable or unwilling to address injustices because of 'barbarism'. There are significant numbers of feminist and human rights organisations working in Africa, India and the Middle East (and staffed by people from those cultures) who are leading change. If we have a part to play, it's in supporting them not storming in and telling them that they need to be fixing the problem - as if they aren't trying to already.

      Commenter
      Clementine Ford
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      February 26, 2013, 11:16AM
    • There's a major difference between cuturaly practices and rape, I fail to see how you can possibly put the two together.

      Commenter
      didi
      Date and time
      February 26, 2013, 3:15PM
  • As a male I find more protruding labia to be feminine and sexy. Certainly though, widespread acceptance is impossible until Australia's ridiculous classification laws are changed to reflect the values and intent of erotic imagery, rather than what's in and what's out. This will be a great challenge for any politiian who'll stand up in parliament to propose what many conservatives will interpret as liberalisation of pornogrpahy laws, and an even greater challenge for the media to report on the issue responsibly and resist the temptation to take a titilating angle or encourage shaming of those with the guts to promote a practical and ethically sound classification framework. The Australian Sex Party will be doing the right thing, I'm sure.

    Commenter
    richard
    Location
    melbourne
    Date and time
    February 26, 2013, 11:00AM
    • Richard, you are passing the buck here. Why are the porn classification laws responsible for a lack of acceptance? Porn shouldn't be mediating how men view women's labia in the first place. Surely there are enough men having sex with enough flesh-and-blood women with labia of varying sizes for them to realise that this is what real women versus surgically altered and airbrushed models actually look like? Yes, the porn industry has a lot to answer for, but men are not naïve innocents being brainwashed into believing that "normal" labia are neat and enclosed. They are fully complicit in making women feel ashamed of themselves, and I would even argue that the fact so many of them turn to unrealistic porn for arousal is a manifestation of that.

      Commenter
      Cam
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      February 26, 2013, 1:06PM
    • @Cam: Porn is the defacto sex education for most adolescents these days. So, many of these people are NOT having sex yet, that is the whole problem - by the time they see a real labia they may have un unrealistic idea of what it 'should' look like. Then they continue to see men's mags where Models - the definition of model being, one that is typical, or normal, or worthy of aspiration - have their genitals articificially reduced. The media shapes the majority of people's perceptions of what is normal or worthy of aspiration, whether you're naive, brainwashed or not; only a small percentage of the population use critical thinking extensively in their life, that's just the reality of it.

      Commenter
      richard
      Location
      melbourne
      Date and time
      February 26, 2013, 1:36PM
    • Richard, if indeed adolescents are mistaking airbrushed/surgically altered labia for "normal" genitalia then surely we should be addressing this issue at a social level, through educational programs (such as the Large Labia project) rather than leaving it up to the porn industry to educate young men about what women actually look like in real life. As a woman I don't trust the media in general to accurately represent the female image, so why on earth would I trust an industry whose explicit aim is to objectify and exploit the female form in pursuit of massive profits? Or - novel idea! - maybe adolescent men/boys should just accept the labia they see on real women (once they start having sex) rather than shame these women for not looking like porn stars. Deal with it, in other words, rather than behaving like little boys who've been duped. I also think it's disingenuous to suggest that it's only adolescents who expect women to look like porn stars - I know plenty of women in their 30s and 40s upwards whose partners expect them to have Brazilians, a "fashion" spawned by the porn industry.

      Commenter
      Cam
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      February 26, 2013, 2:21PM
  • I wonder how much of this is linked to Brazilian wax jobs. It seems to me that normal is a very broad spectrum and if left alone, most of the differences in female anatomy would be covered with pubic hair

    Commenter
    Mr. Bush
    Date and time
    February 26, 2013, 11:13AM
    • Mr. Bush, I once had it confirmed to me by someone in the cosmetic surgery industry that Brazilians had definitely contributed to feelings of insecurity. You're right - once you strip back the hair, the vulva becomes a lot more visible. That's not to say anything against Brazilians, but it's unfortunate that a side effect can be even more insecurity about the vulva's appearance.

      Commenter
      Clementine Ford
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      February 26, 2013, 11:50AM
    • Spot on Mr Bush - I think Brazilians belong on the body modification spectrum - granted it's not permanent, nor surgical, but it begins the idea that what is natural is somehow unsexy or unclean, and is the first step in the pornification of womanhood.

      Side note here, but I've always found it strange that porn juxtaposes the aesthetics of a prepubescent vag against (over)enhanced breasts.

      Commenter
      RF
      Location
      Blue Mountains
      Date and time
      February 26, 2013, 12:24PM

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