A new lip surgery is quickly gaining popularity in the world of cosmetic surgery, and these lips are not the kind that talk.
The labiaplasty procedure (also known as labioplasty for short, or more specifically labia reduction) involves either cutting off the edges or by snipping out a “V” shaped wedge of the inner lips of the vulva (the labia minora) followed by stitches that connect the open edges.The idea is to alter the length of the labia minora (“inside lips”) that peeks out from the labia majora (“outside lips”).
This designer vulva is often nicknamed “The Barbie” for its resemblance to the doll’s flattened genital area. An alternative laser surgery is available, but it maintains the vulva’s natural wrinkles and has an increased risk for cysts. These surgeries can costs women anywhere from $3,000 to $7,000.
After the surgery, many patients experience a loss of vulva sensation through nerve damage. Other complications may include infection or bleeding.
A surgery previously reserved for congenital defects, absent vaginal passages, intersex conditions, sexual reassignment and reparative surgery, has been reappropriated by mainstream culture for aesthetic purposes. More and more, the majority of women who undergo labiaplastic surgery do it to make their vulvas closely resemble the ultimate manifestation of the male gaze – the mainstream porn industry.
In a culture in which nudity is considered taboo, media and pornography control our image of what a vulva should look like. Many of us use mainstream porn as a reference point by which to compare our own bodies and sexual desires. This may explain why women who undergo labiaplasty for cosmetic reasons are willing to sacrifice nerve endings in their erogenous zones. Part of the body’s sexual response is the erotic engorging of the labia due to increased blood flow. Pornography does not show us how sex feels; rather it only provides us with images to live up to.
According to a study conducted by the British Medical Journal in which they examined the rise in labiaplasty procedures, “Not unlike presenting for a haircut at a salon, women often brought along images to Illustrate the desired appearance. The illustrations, usually from advertisements or pornography, are always selective and possibly digitally altered.”
Within the feminist community, labiaplasty has become a site of major disagreement.
Many women believe that the benefits of the surgery outweigh the costs. A writer for a feminist blog, xojane, sees it as an act of sexual empowerment:
This surgery which so many scorn and misunderstand, has finally brought me to a place where I like my body, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.
I, for one, am not stuffing silicone in my breasts. I don’t believe it’s a feminist act, as some have described it, to surgically alter my body. I don’t have to go Brazilian to be sexy. And I’m not changing a thing about my labia — if you don’t like them, go find another pair
In the plastic surgery community, labiaplasties are often framed as corrective surgery for a condition called labia hypertrophy in which “labia are larger than normal.” This rhetoric plays on the common embarrassment that exists for a lot of women surrounding their labium.
In reality, labia come in all shapes, colors, textures, lengths and sizes, which is perhaps why labia concerns are so common. The root of this insecurity comes from the lack of exposure to images of un-filtered, natural vulvas. Our health books barely mention the variety that lies within the realm of labium, nor are they shown peeking out between the legs of a woman’s anatomy diagram. Because vulvas are not openly talked about beyond the action of penetration and child-bearing, the labia and clitoris are often ignored.
According to the British Medical Journal:
It is the negative meanings that make it into a problem—meanings that can give rise to physical, emotional, and behavioral reactions, such as discomfort, self disgust, perhaps avoidance of some activities, and a desire for a surgical fix.
Some feminist activists, such as the New View campaign, are advocating for stronger sexual education and empowerment through knowledge. They advocate for transparent research and the exposure of “promotional methods that serve corporate profit rather than people’s pleasure and satisfaction.”
Opinions aside, there is a more frightening and less well-known aspect to labiaplasty. There is little to no regulation of genitoplastic surgeries.
On RealSelf, a website that reviews cosmetic treatments, surgery and doctors, a user complained about her surgeon’s procedure
Instead he mislead me knowing that I trusted him in doing the procedure. He took my money and completely removed my labia (lips), he performed an amputation instead of just trimming them.
The same thing happened to me. I now have only 2 instead of 4, and haven’t had an orgasm with my husband since the surgery 3 years ago, whom I had just married when I got the surgery, so we were newlyweds, newly deprived of fulfilling sex. I can do it “electronically” but not during sex, as there isn’t enough there to create feeling/friction anymore. We both gave up trying after the first year. So sex is now solely to please him. I love the looks, but miss the sensation I lost by having half my genitals removed without my consent.
The medicalization of our culture is extending into the most private of spheres. Instead of debating whether labiaplasty is empowerment or gential mutilation, the feminist community could get behind stronger medical regulations of genital surgeries. This would both provide women with better information about the surgery process but it also serves to support safer labiaplasties. Additionally, safer labiaplasties means safer medical practices for not only female-bodied individuals but also all folks undergoing sex reassignment surgery.
Regardless of individual preference, feminism stands for equality— by extension, this includes equality of safer medical practices.