Sex & Relationships

Vagina Anxiety: The Rise of the Labialplasty

Rich people, their plastic surgeons and the always-scrupulous mass media are foisting more body issues on women.
This is what I've now been forced to think as I peruse my Wall Street Journal, and then again as I read my New York Times Magazine, and then again as I watch a special CNN report. As if the era of the Brazilian bikini wax hadn't made me nervous enough, with its laying bare of things that used to be covered, now there's this: Labial plastic surgery and hymen reattachment are apparently all the rage in some circles. Circles with too many resources, to be sure, but also circles that end up foisting their twisted insecurities upon me via esteemed news sources, where I am supposed to be safe from such things.

I am an intelligent, well-adjusted woman with slightly above-average self-esteem (there are plenty of parts of me I don't like, but I'm unabashedly fond of my legs and abs). So upon hearing about such idiocy, I summoned the requisite outrage. What pigs plastic surgeons are, giving women another source of insecurity! What a travesty, kicking us girls, so to speak, where it counts! Not to mention the risk of losing some of the precious nerve-laden square inches that make that part of us so special to begin with. And the fact that some women in less fortunate parts of the world are forced into genital mutilation ... and here some women are paying for a form of it? Ladies, come on.

But women, throughout time, have been afraid to look at themselves too closely down there, and not just because it requires some serious flexibility or the old Our Bodies, Ourselves-era exercise with a hand mirror. Nowadays we talk a good game when it comes to sex -- and might even indulge in some graphic analysis of guys' parts -- but we're still pretty mortified to give our own much thought.

Vaginas, historically, are not beloved. Women's sexuality has been deemed evil since the days of Adam and Eve, and, hell, even recently the University of Notre Dame president, the Rev. John I. Jenkins, questioned whether his institution should sponsor an annual staging of "The Vagina Monologues" -- a play whose express purpose is to turn women's source of sexual shame into a source of power -- wondering what it said about the school's "character." At least he cleared up one thing: We still need "The Vagina Monologues."

The fact is, this labialplasty "trend," reprehensible as it may be, dredges up centuries-old insecurities in all of us. What I took away from all those recent stories about it wasn't my outrage, it was a nagging fear: Oh my god, what if I don't have a pretty punani?

At least I'm not alone (though I'm not entirely sure that's a good thing). A sexy friend can traipse around in teeny pieces of cloth and not feel a twinge of self-consciousness, but when it comes to self examination ... well, her words kinda say it all: "Eww! I don't want to look down there at all." I find this confusing. She's a consummate Brazilian waxer. "Yeah," she says, "but I never see it! Waxing is for technical reasons, but I honestly don't know what it looks like, and, frankly, I don't want to."

So, great. Even enviably beautiful women are totally freaked out by their vaginas. Maybe that means labia are the great equalizer. Or maybe it means we all need some serious help.

The problem with this variety of anxiety, though, is that it's tough to assuage. Guys have grappled with genital insecurity since penises were invented, but at least there's a yardstick by which they can measure their adequacy -- literally, a yardstick. Bigger is better, the end. Bummer if you're on the smaller end of that one, but at least you know where you stand and can make up for it by buying big cars or lifting weights or becoming a real-estate mogul or whatever. With this dilemma, I don't know where I stand: What is the ideal here?

It's tough to find a standard, realistically speaking, not only because we don't spend a lot of time staring into other women's vaginas, but also because labia vary about as much as snowflakes. "Compared to other body parts, vulvas look totally insane," says Sarah Mundy, who has compiled a staggering amount of information for her website, All About My Vagina. "They have a billion parts, they're very diverse, and semi-internal, which can seem a bit foreign."

How to remedy that is a quandary, though. I'm not dying to spend my evenings out with my girlfriends discussing the intricacies of our equipment -- or, god forbid, spreading our legs for each other to compare. Nor am I psyched about getting dirty spam for the rest of my life thanks to an evening trolling porn sites to see what's out there.

But, yes, it's true: If you want to feel better about your own labia, you need to check out others', one way or another. This is the only way you're gonna know how you compare, and most of the time, this engenders relief, not competitive anxiety. (After all, we're not guys.) "Looking at vulvas is the fastest way to understand that we aren't freaks," Mundy says. "It doesn't take years of intense study or anything -- I spent about two minutes looking at vintage porn before I had my realization."

Some XXX-free resources: All About My Vagina has some great links to photos that don't require you to sift through orgy scenes and girl-on-girl action; and there are even whole books of tasteful vulva art, like Femalia by Joani Blank and Petals by Nick Karras. ("Vulva," incidentally, is the technically correct way to refer to the visible stuff. The vagina is just the birth canal, though I'm reserving the right to use that word here to refer to the whole shebang, since everybody else does.) Put it this way: Which would you rather do, look at some vulva art or let some overpaid Beverly Hills surgeon play with knives millimeters from your clitoris?

You can also consider a makeover of the non-extreme kind. It's not for everybody, but a hair trim, (gulp) vulva jewelry, or (seriously) even a dye job (there are special kinds ... do NOT reach for the Feria here) might make you feel prettier down there. "Really, doing anything that makes us feel happy, good, and beaming with pussy pride is going to help," says LaSara Firefox, whose book Sexy Witch includes extensive, detailed activities for upping your vulva esteem. Yes, it's a little touchy-feely ... but that doesn't mean it won't work.

Most importantly, however, we need to remember that we're not 12-year-old girls. Some of the consternation seems to come from the preponderance of waxing these days -- we expect everything to look just like it did back in the days when we were naturally hairless. "The concerns that come up over and over are inner labia that are long or big or wrinkly or asymmetrical, outer labia that are plump or that make a bulge in swimsuits, what to do about hair, and darker skin around the vulva and labia," Mundy says. "In short, anything that is different between an adult woman's vulva and a little girl's vulva."

Certain segments of the male population fetishizing teen girls doesn't help matters: "The only images women get to see is in men's magazines," Karras says. "That has a lot to do with men having power over women, men wanting women to feel like little girls." But that's the subject of a whole other bitter, rant-like essay. Besides which, plenty of other guys are probably willing to help. If you have one already, tell him you're feeling a little insecure, and ask for the boost you need -- remember, men deal with genital anxiety from the first junior high gym class shower, so they understand. "Women don't talk about that part of themselves the way men do," Karras says. "Female genitalia, it's like it's suppressed."

Both of you benefit in bed if he tells you he loves your woman parts (which he most likely will ... and if he doesn't, I have some bad news for you). And, hey, even a good one-night stand with a penchant for cunnilingus can make you feel better. I'm not recommending hitting that dude with your deepest anxieties, but just think: He wouldn't spend all that time down there if he didn't love what you have going on. "Helping women with genital body image is obviously an activity that has feminist credentials, and I really love the idea that guys are often in the best position to do it," Sarah says. "Co-ed feminism feels like utopia."

And co-ed feminism that involves orgasms feels awfully good to me ... is there such a thing as "better than utopia"?
Jennifer Armstrong is the co-founder/editorial director of
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