I was at a party a few years ago when a girlfriend dragged me into the bathroom and locked the door behind us. “I have to tell you something Annabel,” she said, eyes down, fidgeting with her belt loop.
“What is it, Bec?” I asked, worried. I could tell from her tearful and fearful expression that this was serious.
“Actually, I have to show you something,” she said, biting her lip. She undid her belt and started unzipping her jeans. I braced myself for the possible scenarios – an STD? An infected piercing? I wasn’t sure I wanted to see, either.
“Look,” she said, pointing towards her vagina and bursting into tears. “I have… an outtie.”
Apparently Bec had just been privy to a conversation in which a few of the boys at the party were discussing their aversion to protruding labia minora. One guy was, in a truly gentlemanly fashion, telling his mates about the girl he had slept with the night before. “He said she had an outtie, and that it was disgusting!” cried Bec. “He wouldn’t go down on her because he was so grossed out!” The guys had then talked favourably about “innies” they’d had the pleasure of hooking up with, while Scott described last night’s experience as being faced with a “badly packed taco”.
By now, Bec was sobbing. “Oh, honey,” I said, lost for words, and still not quite sure where to look. “We’re all different, right? I don’t think you have anything to worry about. Besides, Scott’s a f**king d*ck!"
Bec felt differently. Traumatised by what she’d overheard, within two weeks she’d booked in for a labiaplasty with a cosmetic surgeon. She spent thousands of dollars on the procedure, despite the select few people she’d told trying to talk her out of it. I felt sad at the time, and a bit angry, angry that some idiot conversation she’d overheard had led to this, but I knew that Bec wasn’t alone. Concurrent with the rise of the porn industry, of course, has been the widespread takeup of behaviours designed to make us look like porn stars, from hair removal to plastic surgery. It was reported last weekend that labiaplasties and vaginoplasties claimed on Medicare have more than doubled in Australia over the past decade. Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists vice-president Ajay Rane said labiaplasties and vulvoplasties to reduce the size of a woman's genitals were ''the modern version of FGM (female genital mutilation)''.
I know that Bec, for one, would disagree with this assessment. Once the scars had healed, and she resumed a regular sex life, she reported feeling a hundred times more sexually confident than she had previously. “Before, I’d been embarrassed to have sex, or even let guys touch or look at my vagina,” she said. “Now, I’m kind of proud of it... It’s not very girl power, I know, but it’s the truth.”
Vaginal cosmetic surgery is obviously a far more extreme reaction to cultural expectations than, say, hair removal, but I wondered if I was being hypocritical in pitying Bec for caving to societal pressures. Women do similar (albeit less radical) things every day in the name of looking good. We let strangers rip hot wax off our genitals, contorting our bodies into all manner of undignified positions in the process. If we want to remove hair down there permanently, we might opt for laser treatment, an experience akin to being tortured with an electric stapler.
Seeing how happy Bec was after the operation made me question my dismissal of most cosmetic surgery as an unnecessary evil. I was speaking to a woman recently who had suffered from thyroid disease and elephantitis as a university student. She spent $50,000 on treatment to reduce the swelling in her legs and remove the excess fatty and fibrous tissue. She said that after having her surgery, she looked at women getting breast enlargements and tummy tucks in a new light. “I used to think badly of women who got fake boobs, but now I sort of think – if you’re unhappy with your appearance, and can do something about it to make yourself feel better – why not? Who am I to judge?”
Suffering from a debilitating and painfully obvious condition like elephantitis is a far cry from having what you might deem to be small boobs or overly large labia minora, but if it’s causing you a similar amount of psychological distress, and you are able to do something about it, should you be chastised for making that decision?
Obviously, the problem is in our culture – in the perpetuation of idealised, unattainable images of beauty. In a perfect world, we’d accept that our bodies are different and embrace them for their uniqueness and for what they can do, rather than feel compelled to alter them to make amends for their perceived shortcomings. Sadly, that world is not our reality.
If I hated the shape or size of my nose, I’d probably do something about it. I’m sure that in most cases, girls requesting vaginal cosmetic surgery, like Bec, have nothing to worry about. But who gets to make that call? And if doing so makes them feel that much better (even if their reasons are misguided), is it a such a bad thing?